Language and Power in Ecuador

24-1It seemed just like any other workday as we walked into the panadería to pick up our breakfast rolls on our way to the Dirección de Educación. As we entered the familiar meeting room, a ministry engineer and two education officials greeted us with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek. MEDLIFE had agreed to work in Colta, a region of the mountainous Chimborazo province, to significantly improve access to bathrooms. We were meeting that morning to decide which schools would receive bathrooms first.

MEDLIFE had teamed up with the government’s Escuelas Promotoras de Salud program for this effort. The Promotoras is a program that teaches school children about the importance of proper nutrition and hygiene. We felt that by working with this program, the bathrooms would be constructed near schools that were prepared to teach their students about the importance of hand-washing, thus maximizing the positive effect of our efforts.

As we began discussing possible project sites, an unexpected variable came into the equation: some of these schools under the Promotoras program umbrella were run by the bilingual education ministry, and others by the Hispanic education ministry.

Ecuador is an ethnically and racially diverse country. According to the Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos, Ecuador is only 6.8% indígena, but in the Sierra region MEDLIFE works, the percentage is significantly greater. Colta, where we will be building the bathrooms, is actually 85% indigenous. The indigenous people have strong ties to their culture and their language, Quechua. The “bilingual” schools referred to in our meeting were those schools that teach both Spanish and Quechua.

As we continued our discussion, it became clear that the room was split regarding how we would proceed. One of the officials present cited a document which could have potentially disallowed us from working with the bilingual education ministry on this project. Martha, the head of MEDLIFE’s operations in Ecuador, felt that it was most important that we provide bathrooms to those schools with the greatest demonstrated need, regardless of language or ethnicity.

We worked to reach a solution for about an hour, after which we agreed to call an official from the bilingual education ministry. Once this official arrived, her staunch verbal commitment to our efforts led to a simple resolution: MEDLIFE will work with the schools in the Promotoras program that need the bathrooms the most.

I entered the ministry that morning thinking about the importance of working in conjunction with governmental efforts. I left with a much more complex and complete picture of collaboration. Not all governments may be seeking out the help that we provide, and each group — governmental or not — has its own interests. Additionally, it’s important to remember that each bathroom we construct or school we build represents a value judgment. Which nationality, gender or age group is worth helping? In the beginning of the summer, I would have thought a meeting to decide where to construct bathrooms would be a thirty-minute endeavor. Pick the schools with the greatest need and you’re done. Now I realize that aid decisions are complicated and sometimes political in nature. Often, all you have to guide you is your understanding of what is just.


JP Gorham is a MEDLIFE Summer Intern in Ecuador.


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