Two years later

A final letter to my donors, which should be arriving by mail this week (if you don’t get one, please let me know!):

After two years in Ecuador with Manna Project International, I’ve hung up my cleats. I have landed safely in Shreveport, had my first (and tenth) Southern Maid Donut, my first encounter with an old Magnet High schoolmate in Barnes and Noble, and begun slowly to relearn the rules of the American road. I leave my work in Ecuador in the capable hands of Bibi, a former Peace Corps Volunteer and Tulane public health graduate who replaced me as Ecuador Country Director last month.

At the close of this two-year journey, I want to thank you and your family for your gracious support of a project you may have understood only in vague terms when it began. Admittedly, when I first asked for your help in the summer of 2007, I had only a rough outline of how I would spend the next two years of my life. Your confidence inspired and challenged me to make these two years count and pushed me along in more difficult moments.

I would like to take the opportunity to describe how your donations and my time in Ecuador were spent. Upon first landing, MPI-E’s founding team inherited a skeletal mission: to create a community of young volunteers who would live in service to a “community in need” in the developing world. We were invited to work in a valley southeast of Ecuador’s capital, Quito. We began slowly, with an after-school program and English courses.

Very quickly, we had to discard many of the assumptions we brought with us to Ecuador. This was a lower-class community, to be sure, but children were not starving. The neighborhoods of San Francisco, Rumiloma and Tena were full of people already working to better their own communities. What constructive role could a handful of young, eager, Spanish-learning Americans play here?

Our answer was simple: we could build up, connect and support those Ecuadorian institutions, networks and people already in action. We set to work connecting a locally owned cooperative to microfinance training; we began talks with a school/foster home to open a health clinic; we helped a teacher and entrepreneur develop his English curriculum. The shift from talking about communities in terms of ‘need’ to talking about them in terms of assets and resources allowed us to see people as actors rather than clients.

Missing in our grand new scheme, however, was a sensitivity to the valley’s edifices of trust and power. After a year and half, we were still an unknown quantity: the nice gringos who taught kids’ classes in the community center, but little more. In communities where traditional ideas of trust (confianza) and authority run deep, the library and teen-center which we launched in March of 2009 granted us the presence necessary to approach larger institutions, provided a platform for building personal relationships, and created spaces in which to experiment with educational programming.

The library and teen center have met enormous success, even as Bibi’s new crop of volunteers determines their role in the valley’s development. For my part, I leave Ecuador having learned how to be a plumber, mediator, volunteer coordinator, librarian, US embassy warden, disciplinarian, and entrepreneur. My own path remains an open question. I’ll be traveling in the US for two months to visit old friends and am looking toward graduate school in 2011. The last two years have prepared me for just about anything, an opportunity for which I thank you all dearly!

Un abrazo (A warm embrace),

Mark Hand

 

To stay in touch with MPI-Ecuador, head to openhandsdirtyfeet.blogspot.com.

 

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