Where have all the flowers gone?

Wednesday’s journey was long. It started with a private bus from our hostel in the Quito’s center to the city’s bus terminal an hour outside the capital. Once there, we transitioned quickly with everyone running to the bathroom while PLs counted heads and packs incessantly. We loaded ourselves in a coach bus that took us through the breathtaking sierras to the less-than-stunning city of Santa Domingo. Then everyone jumped into the back of a truck— packs and people piled high— to journey thirty minutes outside the city into a rural community of the Tsa’chila nation.

As we bounced along the dirt road leading out of the city and into the Tsa’chila territory, I surveyed the land, noticing a factory and several construction projects that were not underway just six months before when I visited last.

Rounding the final stretch of our trip, we entered my favorite part of the ride where the road weaves under a canopy of trees that line the path to the cultural center. It is the only aspect of the drive that hints at what this territory once was: a flourishing rain forest.

Our students headed down the road from Shinope Cultural Center, photo credit: Josh Monthei

Enjoying the fresh air and delectable aroma of fruit hanging from the draping trees, I remembered the words of the founder of our partner during orientation:

“What does it mean to rescue their culture? They [the Tsa’chila] are a people of the rain forest and the rain forest is gone… How do they learn to be a people of a globalized world and remain Tsa’chila?”

This question haunts me as we adjust to life in Bua, the Tsa’chila community we’ll call home for the next month…

It follows me when we are planting trees, begging for a why of the reforestation project that often feels futile while we plant to the tune of a chainsaw down the road.

It tugs at my shirt while I learn Tsafiki in the kitchen with our hosts, demanding that I turn around and face reality. A reality that says an endangered language is one spoken by less than 5,000 and that the Tsa’chila are a nation of 2,200, with the new generation all enrolled in Spanish-speaking schools.

It underlies every cultural exchange and trip to town as I grapple with a growing sense that the culture has been collapsed to one of showcase. What does it mean when the vehicle through which to preserve a culture is to make it a commodity? How does one engender cultural pride and self-esteem? We do all this to what end?

The Tsa’chila are asking these questions too— and many more— as they navigate a cultural identity and political future in peril.

One of our homestay fathers is a community pioneer and leader in the movement to save the Tsa’chila. Speaking with Don Alfonso on Friday, he shared that he fears his culture will soon disappear. He explained that he once did not know what culture was, but in the process of assimilation, he felt many losses for which he now has a name.

Originally, he lost his traditional dress from the shame of walking city streets shirtless in bottoms now deemed appropriate only for women. He lost the spiritual power of painted hair— pushed forward and colored with the seed of the ichota— to the norm of the mestizo style.

Don Alfonso teaching us a traditional Tsa’chila game

While Don Alfonso reclaimed these aspects, younger generations are reticent to follow suit. Even when they do, there are greater aspects of Tsa’chila life already vanished. Their livelihood, once found in the forest’s trees and wild brush is depleted. Their lifestyle as hunter-gatherers, stolen by a winding road connecting markets and an encroaching mestizo community claiming land. The abundancia of life before replaced by a monocrop culture of which they have little knowledge nor skill. Their healing tradition, fading with a lapse in generational training and the exploitation of an art in exchange for capital gain.

As a participant in the existing strategies to recuperate Tsa’chila culture— community-based tourism, cultural exchange, ecological education, and reforestation, I wonder at what we are working toward. Alfonso reports that, with these efforts, his community is gaining an understanding and pride in what it means to be Tsa’chila. He describes a healing of sorts that is happening through exchanges like ours. Yet, I fear the implications of even this growing sense of cultural esteem when at every turn it is undermined by the demands of modern life.

I sit and ponder all of this in Shinope, the cultural center Don Alfonso mobilized his community to construct. While sounds of the remaining forest echo all around, the roar of cars passing and blaring music from the next town over competes with the serene natural symphony. This cacophony is a symbol of the clash I find myself amidst.

While globalization boasts of connectivity, today I wonder at the cost of such a networked world. I have a growing vision of what we are creating: a world lacking the beauty and diversity of native peoples. One divorced from right relationship with our ecological systems. One bereft of any other way than the rule of the Market. I fear, one without the Tsa’chila.


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