In a Sápara school, balancing tradition and change

By Giovanni Ortiz


Ipiak Montaguano, an 11-year-old Sápara girl, stood in the back of the classroom. She was smiling, teeth showing, as she sang the Ecuadorean national anthem in her native tongue, now endangered. Her long black hair, flung over one shoulder, exposed the design her mother had painted on her face that morning.

She held the white paper with the words spread out in front of her, but she did not look. With her eyes on a guest, she quietly sang.

Ipiak is one of 20 children in the two-room Sápara school. Performances of the national anthem are something new for the community. But there have been other changes in Sápara children’s lives, including the increasing exposure to digital technologies, soccer games and less family time.

Their elders, however, say changes are necessary, that the children must be able to compete in the world they will inherit.

“It would bring back a lot to the community, that intellectual addition,” Marco Montaguano, Ipiak’s father and the school administrator, said. “Because it’s a new generation, they need to be more prepared.”

With oil companies, scientists and other external forces wanting to use the rainforest, indigenous communities inhabiting the Ecuadorean rainforest need to be smarter and stronger to fight for their homes. The fight is also a way to preserve their culture.

Better education could prepare better leaders and teachers in the community, the Montaguanos believe. But education in an indigenous culture can be a tricky balance.

“I think indigenous people have the right to have a language teacher that is from the same community and speaks the same language,” Carlos Larrea Maldonado, a political science professor at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, said. “[Anything else is] a way to destroy indigenous culture.”

Indigenous teachers are a scarce commodity. Most educators in communities such as Llanchamacocha –where the Sápara live– are outsiders working as volunteers, Maldonado said.

In May 2017, the Sápara welcomed two volunteer teachers from Spain. They have hosted 10 since they signed an agreement with the Centro Mundial De La Felicidad.

“Because there are not people here in the community with a license or a college degree,” Rosario Ushigua, Ipiak’s mother, said, “it would be nice to have someone with a degree or speciality because it could help the community as well.”

This is why both of her parents want Ipiak to go to high school and eventually college in Puyo, a town on the edge of the rainforest, two days’ walk from Llanchamacocha, where the Montaguanos live.

But Ipiak, outgoing and full of life, has her own ideas.

“I don’t want to go to school in Puyo,” Ipiak said. “I want to stay here and be close to my family.”

In Puyo, she would stay with her grandmother in a city that she does not like and where she has no friends.

Preparation for the outside world includes training in the use of new technologies. Despite having limited access to electricity and no Wi-Fi, the Sápara schoolchildren are starting to use cellphones and computers in class to avoid culture shock when they go to the city for school or holidays. 

“We want to prepare them for the world outside,” Montaguano said. “For instance, if we don’t tell them about computers, when they go outside and see a computer, they’ll be in shock.”  

This generation and future ones depend on what they learn today to fight against those who want to exploit their land.

It almost impossible for the Sapara to benefit from oil extraction on their territory, Larrea said.

“It is very difficult to find a way in which [a benefit] would happen, at least now,” Larrea said. “We have to change the technology, create a systematic way in which the government can supervise the negative environment.”

Plans such as sending Ipiak and other kids to Puyo for school and exposing them to modern technology are part of a larger goal: helping future generations make better decisions and plans that will benefit the Sápara and other indigenous cultures.

“In the long run, we would like a high school or even a college in the community,” Rosario Ushigua, who is taking correspondence classes to get her teaching license, said

The emphasis on education is not the only major change in the lives of Sápara children.

Between the two one-room schoolhouses in Llanchamacocha–one for the youngest children, the other for the older kids–there is a soccer field. Soccer is new to the Sápara.  

“They play ball; we didn’t have a ball,” Manari Ushigua, the Sápara’s leader and spokesman, said about his own childhood.

“The fun thing for us was to go uphill and hang from the vines,” he remembered. He also recalled climbing so far up the trees that he would get stuck.

Today’s children even play with newcomers. But Manari Ushigua says hiding deep in the mountains when the rare outsider came to visit was common practice when he was a child.

It was only when Manari Ushigua’s father, the previous chief, wished that he could open the Sápara doors to visitors, why Manari started the Naku Experience, a program designed to save the Sápara by bringing guests to their community.

The new flow of visitors has made learning how to communicate and be more open to outsiders a big part of the children’s education. During one such visit, Ipiak not only sang for the visitors, but she also let one braid her hair, another teach her martial-arts moves and a third show her how to do a backbend and a handstand. She chattered unselfconsciously and joined in group activities.

Despite the more welcoming environment, some children, like 13-year-old Enrique and 5-year-old Javier, are reserved. The two boys sat alone and watched the rest interact with the outsiders.

When newcomers arrive for the Naku Experience, parents dedicate their time to hosting. They cook and clean and guide their guests, disrupting traditional routines in which mothers gather food, care for the children and cook while the men hunt, fish and build.

This means that the children spend less time with their parents and less time in traditional domestic education, learning which fruits to gather and how to hunt and fish.

The sacrifice is worth it, the adults say,  because it is what is necessary to protect their culture.  

Ipiak’s small shoulders are heavy with the weight of her culture’s future. Despite having to save the Amazon basin from being used and ultimately destroyed by oil companies supported by her national government, she sings her country’s anthem proudly in her native Sápara tongue.                

Editor’s note: All interviews were conducted through a translator.