Walter first showed up at the Manna centro in Rumiloma in September to register for English classes. It was his first venture into the English language and the first time teaching for us 2010-2011 Program Directors. As the basic adult English teacher that quarter, I was Walter’s teacher from September-December 2010.
Walter struggled a lot. He was shy to speak English, and when he did his pronunciation was garbled nonsense. But he came faithfully to every class, and he did his homework consistently, turning in nearly illegible and often incorrect but always complete pages each week. He came early and stayed late to talk to us PDs. about soccer and his work and Ecuadorian slang. He joked with me during class, laying down Spanish puns that I didn’t understand but that always got a laugh from the rest of the class. I frequently felt that I was learning more from him than he from me.
One day I was pushing Walter to answer a question in English. “My head hurts,” he evaded in Spanish. “It hurts your head to think of the answer?” I responded. “Yes,” he said; “I was shot in the head in July, and sometimes when I think too hard my head hurts.” I was stunned. Walter had been assaulted on the coast over the summer in an act of random violence. Incredibly, he’d recovered enough by September to sign up for English with us and not give a hair’s breadth of indication that anything so traumatic could’ve happened so recently.
Walter finished basic English in December and came back in January to register again. Having not progressed enough to enter intermediate, he happily re-registered for basic English. Walter began trying out English pronunciation both during and outside of class. He’d been the slowest member of my basic class, but now in Brock’s basic class he was pushing the speed past his fellow students’ pace.
By April, Walter was ready to enter Sam’s intermediate level for our final quarter. By this time all the PDs were fond of him. He was no longer afraid to speak in class and persisted in his commitment to attendance and homework. He told me that he used to go out drinking and dancing on Friday nights until the wee hours, but now he went to bed early so he could be rested and mentally prepared for English Saturday morning.
Walter’s 26th birthday was July 25. The Saturday preceding we all walked a few blocks from thecentro to his Rumiloma home, where we met his mother and his sister, whom Walter had invited from the coast expressly to cook us traditional Ecuadorian coastal food. Through the afternoon and into the evening we played Ecua-volley (a version of volleyball nearly as popular as fútbol in Ecuador) and talked and greeted Walter’s friends. In the early evening we lay into the coastal fish tamales and stuffed crab and fried plantains so exuberantly as to render even more incredible the entire day that Walter’s mother and sister had spent making it. With the sun down and the outside lights on, we salsa danced on the patio. Before we gave hugs goodbye and good luck all around and left for the evening, we sang Happy Birthday, once in Spanish and once in English, and Walter blew out his candles.
Walter came for us to symbolize our year with Manna. He, like we, arrived nervous and skeptical but eager to learn. He, like we, tried to finish each task to the best of his ability, knowing that he was making mistakes along the way. He, like we, kept coming back to the task at hand in an effort to improve no matter what the obstacles. And he, like we, found at the end of the year that the most valuable things he’d gained were not an improved grasp of another language or even firsthand knowledge of a foreign culture, but new relationships that now enriched his life. To spend an afternoon and evening in his home celebrating his birthday as dear friends was absolutely the perfect way to close out the year. We have all learned so much about community development and running an international non-profit on the ground, but we have also learned about forming and sustaining relationships across barriers of language and culture and experience.
With these lessons and Walter’s friendship in hand and heart, we now disperse along different paths, forever changed by the unlikely intersection of our lives this year. We hope and trust that MPI Ecuador PDs of 2011-2012 are now embarking on a year that will be equally – though idiosyncratically – full of stories and relationships like ours with Walter.