Carol Severino

Learning Kichwa Family Style

I couldn’t pass up the chance to live with a family and learn Kichwa, language of the ancient Incas and their Ecuadorian descendants.  I didn’t want to learn in a classroom with teachers who speak too slowly and translate too much, and students who bumble and stumble their way through a thought.  Give me the hands-on reality of mom, dad, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins all speaking native, fluent Kichwa to one another and to me at the same time.

My son Nick, a Peace Corps volunteer in agriculture, found for me in the small city nearest his rain forest village the perfect family: Graciela, a potter, Carlos, a teacher, and their three children.    Graciela’s younger brother Jorge, a bilingual school director, himself the father of five, would come to his sister’s house to give me lessons.  When I learned enough Kichwa, I would go help my son and the people in his village. He didn’t want his mamita to interfere with his work, but I knew he would appreciate a hand now and then.

My family’s home setting was perfect, too—half jungle, half suburb. Our large living room-kitchen was used for greeting visitors, watching TV, meals, and kichwa lessons when it was raining. We had a bathroom, a (cold) shower, and four bedrooms, but you had to walk through one or two to get to another.  The grated windows of my room looked out on their lush garden of banana, yucca, pineapple,  guayaba, and the medicinal plants like churiyuyu they used to cure everything from indigestion and cramps to cuts and bruises. To store my pens and pencils, Graciela placed on my desk a pot she had fashioned for chicha, the popular beverage women make with fermented yucca and serve to men when they work or visit. And her ten-year-old-daughter Carmen made for me a tiny clay dish to hold the necklace she strung with dried seeds from the garden.   Mysterious snake-like symbols adorned both vessels.  “These petroglyphs will give you energy for learning Kichwa,” said Graciela. Little did I know how much I would need it.

For my first few lessons, I even had family members as classmates—Carmen and her cousin Ana, second generation kids who understood but didn’t speak Kichwa.  Instantly affectionate, as is the delightful way with Ecuadorian girls, they took me by the hand and led me outside to Graciela’s pot-firing patio under an expansive grass roof choza hut next to her artesania or studio.  Jorge had brought his wife Olga along as a language consultant, but from her grumpy look, she was not happy about her role. Pens poised over our notebooks, even though Jorge said we couldn’t write until we could speak, we were ready to begin.

Jorge opened our first lesson with a long speech in Spanish thanking the absent Nick for introducing us and emphasizing how urgent it was for Carmen to learn to speak Kichwa; unlike his daughter Ana, she did not attend a bilingual school, and her father Carlos was not Kichwa like him but Shwar, another indigenous group with its own language. After explaining the importance of repetition in language learning, Jorge said we would first learn commands the way native Kichwa-speaking youngsters do from their parents and the way children in the bilingual school do from their teachers.  Right away I recognized his approach as the much maligned method called Total Physical Response or TPR, but vowed to keep an open mind.

Jorge ordered the girls and me to Shayari (get up), Tiari (sit down), Shami (come) and Tigrai (go away).   In the jungle heat of mid-day, we drilled giving and enacting these commands for hours, relieved only by Graciela’s iced wayusa tea which we learned first-hand was chiri (cold and refreshing).   I was grateful that Carmen and Ana were sharing with me this kinetic learning experience--the sweaty work of getting up, sitting down, coming, and going.  I didn’t like being bossy, but I liked less being bossed by Jorge, many years my junior. As a teacher myself, I am used to giving, not taking directions, and when I give them, I do so politely.

“What if we recognize and thank each other for following each other’s commands?” I asked. Jorge was surprisingly open to my suggestions.   He taught us to say “Yupaychani,” thank you, as opposed to the more common Spanish-influenced “Pagaracho” which he disparaged as corrupted and colonized.  Dressed in a sleeveless undershirt and shorts and only giving rather than receiving orders, Jorge had not yet broken a sweat.   Despite having Totally Physically Responded over and over again, the girls became restless and fidgety and escaped to the yard to climb trees and pick mangoes.    With long, loud, exasperated sighs, Jorge’s wife Olga stretched out in the patio hammock and fell asleep.  Totally Physically Racked with exhaustion and boredom, I envied them their freedom and comfort.   But Graciela rewarded us with a delicious lunch of beef soup with cilantro, mashed yucca, and fried bananas accompanied by more chiri wayusa.

The following day, after a mind-numbing review of the commands, Jorge introduced one by one all the parts of the body. And I mean all of them--from eyelashes (ñauhi illma) to asshole (siki urktu), which I learned was not an insult in Kichwa as it is in English. However, various words for vaginawere used to insult women, which, to my embarrassment, Jorge demonstrated by pretending to put Olga down.   I again appreciated Carmen and Ana’s participation, as the day’s commands were “Grab her by the ears,” “Grab her by the head,” and “Grab her by the nose,” and I was mercifully excused from being the grabbee.

Our lessons faced some obstacles though--economic, social, and political.  First, because the teachers hadn’t received their salaries, Carlos hadn’t paid the light bill, and the company had turned off the electricity.    Studying Kichwa at night by the light of Jorge’s cell phone, I could barely see which parts of his body he was pointing to in order to identify them. When Carlos arrived with candles, Carlos Jr. and Carmen melted wax on rocks to use as candle holders, which kept tipping over, threatening to ignite the table cloth and burn down the house.

“Where are your flashlights?” I asked.   With candles collapsing all around me, I found it hard to concentrate on the different fingers Jorge was teaching: thumb (mama riru), pinkie (wawa riru), and tallman (jatun riru, not an insult either).  Carmen excused herself from the lesson because she was running for vice president of her elementary school and had to practice her speech and make election badges.  I wanted to help her with her campaign instead of learning the fingers, which I don’t even know in Spanish and hardly use in English.   She and Ana never again returned to our lessons.  I couldn’t say I blamed them.

More family demands conflicted with our lessons; Maria, the college-age daughter, needed me to translate an ecotourism proposal for an equipment rental business to serve gringo jungle campers.  Carlos Jr. wanted help with his high school English homework; he had to come up with six tips for a hypothetical friend sick with flu and fever. After we completed these deberes and blew out the candles, all three kids got into one narrow bed and begged me to sing to them in English.   In total darkness, I sang all the family car trip songs I could remember—“I’ve been working on the Railroad,” “You are My Sunshine,”  “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain,” “Home on the Range,” and honored their special request for repeated renditions of “Old MacDonald.”  “Such beautiful songs in English,” they murmured, drifting off to sleep.

The next Kichwa lessons were numbers (from one to a million), months of the year, and days of the week. Jorge would give me long lists of words to memorize and then head off to the garden to consult with his many siblings and cousins about a recent political problem; a rival faction of the community organization wanted to oust him from his post as bilingual educational director. When he returned, he tested me, rousing Olga awake to judge my answers and calculate my exam grade.

I was impressed that every month was named for the jungle’s weather or food.  That month of January was Puyu-killa, and sure enough, clouds covered the sky most days, especially during the constant heavy downpours. But I couldn’t complain; after all, I was living in a rain forest, and when there were no puyukuna (clouds), the alternative was rupak  indi, the searing tropical sun.   April was Chonta (palm) month, May was ala (mushroom) month.   October (Ukuy-killa) was the family’s favorite because that was when they hunted and trapped in flames the delicious ukuy (ants) for a big crispy insect feast.  These ukuy, they testified, licking their lips, were even tastier than the palm worms (Chontakuru) I had forced myself to eat so as not to offend either the Kichwas or Nick, a Kichwa wanna-be who ate and drank whatever they did.  How sad that I would have to leave Amazonia before October and miss Ant Fest!

Days went by without electricity.  The meat and fish, which Graciela had bought with the rent money I gave her, spoiled and stank in the refrigerator; our dirty clothes piled up in and around the inert washing machine.  Finding the toilet in the middle of the night was a challenge.  The only advantage of no electricity was the peace and quiet of no  telenovelas and no reggaeton, which the kids and their cousins liked to blast away at the same time. Finally, a wealthy mestizo politico friend of the family paid enough of the bill to get the electricity turned back on.  We kept the candles handy because of frequent blackouts from construction projects or heavy rainstorms. We discovered that Graciela’s small clay pots were safer and more effective than rocks as candleholders, and I bought a flashlight for the house at the open air market.

Jorge seemed reluctant to teach me the verbs that I needed in order to actually converse and express myself, insisting that besides more review, I needed more nouns: names of family members, plants, and animals. And even before I learned these nouns, I would have to correctly pronounce double l, which I had the habit of pronouncing as a “y.”  We spent hours drilling “ll,” yet despite my attempts to rearrange my tongue and palate, I rarely produced a sound that satisfied Jorge.  

I set about learning the verbs on my own, making flash cards and testing myself in conjugations of the many tenses.   I couldn’t wait to try out my Kichwa with the people in Nick’s village. Ironically, I was speaking little Kichwa with my family.  For one thing, there wasn’t much I could say by stringing together commands and nouns.   And besides Jorge, only Graciela could and would speak to me in Kichwa. She and Carlos, with different native languages, Kichwa and Shwar, spoke to one another and to the children in Spanish.  The kids and I also spoke Spanish and I continued helping them with their homework.  Graciela would sometimes try to reinforce what her brother was teaching me, but because she and I were more interested in learning about one another than we were in my learning Kichwa, we always wound up speaking Spanish.

She told me about her lonely schooldays--how her mother had sent her away from their jungle home to study with the Josephine nuns at the missionary school in the city, the only way she could become educated.  How her grandfathers and great uncles were forced to carry the heavy European missionaries (“Even bigger than you, Carolina!”) on their backs to Quito, which took days; how the women prayed for their safe return, and how some of the men died during the long journey. I told her the many ways in which the indigenous peoples of the U.S. also suffered, losing their land and their animals, even their language and their culture.  

I often heard Graciela and Jorge discussing community politics and family affairs in Kichwa, but these conversations were purposely not directed toward me. It seemed polite not to try to understand the many details of yet another community problem that was brewing: their huge extended family had operated an ecotourism river resort, but recently they had argued bitterly and split over how the cabañas should be run.

Short on opportunities for Kichwa practice, I welcomed the invitation from Nick to visit his village.  “Here’s what you can do, Mom, to help us out.  You can buy some of the food for the minga and take pictures of us working.   No one has a camera here, and the Kichwas love to see pictures of themselves.”   This particular minga, or communal work project, would build Nick another house because his first house had burned down when during a windstorm his neighbor’s cooking fire spread out of control. (The Kichwas cook on open fires inside rather than outside their houses.).  I packed my backpack with disposable cameras, relishing the chance to be useful.  

After picking up the meat, rice, and noodles, paid for with a small donation from the city, I took a bus two hours into the jungle and then a canoe perilously polled by a child of ten across the Napo River, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon.  So preoccupied with finding Nick and the minga that I forgot to pay the canoe child, I struggled up a cliff to the village with my backpack and the heavy food packages. When I located the work site, I proudly handed over the food to a large group of women wearing their babies in hamacas or slings around their necks.  Because the average jungle Kichwa family has at least eight children, the baby-wearing women also had toddlers clinging to their legs. I couldn’t wait to speak with them about their food and their children. I looked around for Nick to introduce me, but a man called down from the roof rafters that he was off in the forest fetching the tablas or planks for his house.

As the women searched through the food bags, examining the contents, they seemed annoyed, but I couldn’t figure out why.   The only words I could decipher were mana (no, not), ñukanchik (we, us), and numbers, which, to my surprise, they said in Spanish. Here’s how they sounded to me:   “Blah, mana, diez, blah; blah, mana, blah; ñukanchik, blah, blah, seisenta.”  Perhaps they didn’t like the meat.

Achika tullu?  Too many bones? I asked, proud to use one of the body parts I had learned.  I tried to explain that Icouldn’t buy a better cut of meat with the city’s small donation.  Finally, I realized they were complaining that the small amount of food would not feed the 60 people who came to the minga.   

I tried to make it up to them by offering to cut up vegetables for the soup.  Pimientata, cebollata pitini?  I cut peppers and onions? The woman in charge handed me a dull knife and a plastic bucket lid as a cutting board.  When I cut too slowly and the pieces were too big, she grabbed the knife out of my hand and demonstrated how to score and dice the onions, but I couldn’t imitate her rapid motions and tiny pieces.  “When I cut onions, I cry,” I said, trying to start a conversation, but no one gave me a sign of understanding or encouragement.   Instead, they laughed and talked loudly (about me?) with one another.  Either they didn’t have the faintest idea what I said, or Kichwa women never cry when they cut onions. Probably because they do it so fast, there’s no time to cry.  I was linguistically and physically incompetent.

When the soup was set to boil, they assigned me to serve the men chicha, pointing to a large kettle, which I was surprised to find, contained, not chicha, but cold, dirty water.       “What do I do here?” I asked this time in Spanish, reasoning that my Kichwa wasn’t working and these women had all gone to bilingual schools.  

“You wash your hands,” they said, their tone implying that it should have been obvious.   I figured that this concession to hygiene was because before they serve it, they put their hands in the chicha to squeeze the juice out of the yucca.  They never boil the water, which in a village with no plumbing or sanitation often caused diarrhea.  Whenever they offered me chicha, I said “No, gracias, Irki iksata charini” (I have a weak stomach). There is no polite way--in any language—to say, “If I drink that, I’ll get the runs.”

After I washed, or rather, wet, my hands, they pointed to another large metal kettle that did contain chicha and to a small steel bowl. They warned me not to give out too much to each man. A woman demonstrated by pouring just the right amount of the liquid into the bowl and slugging it down.  Everyone laughed—apparently that chicha was the more fermented batch.

I went around to each of the many minga men working on ladders or rafters, including the bemused Nick returned from the forest.   I dipped the bowl into the kettle, handed the chicha to them, and as instructed, said “Upi” or “Drink.”  Each man stopped hammering the walls or weaving the roof for a few seconds to gulp it down and hand back the bowl, accompanied by the Spanish-influenced “Pagaracho,” not the “Yupaychani” Jorge taught me.  As I was serving, Don Augusto, obviously inebriated from too much chicha and kachiwa (cane alcohol), was talking my ear off in Kichwa, something about how Nick was now the son of the entire community.  But not only could I not understand him, I couldn’t hear him because of the deafening chainsaw the men were using to trim the planks for the walls.  When they saw him talking to me rather than working with them, they scolded him, ordering him to hold the planks in place for the man operating the motosierra.  Since only the village drunk had been friendly to me, I, too, felt scolded.

I took pictures of Nick’s straw paja toquilla roof getting larger and the men weaving it getting smaller, their torsos disappearing until only their heads poked out from the peak.  I captured the second trip of workers returning from the forest carrying the heavy, dirty tablas on their backs.  Some of the plank carriers were those same chicha women, half my size and weight and wearing flip flops!  When he was crossing a stream, Nick had tripped in the mud, fallen with his planks, and cut his legs, even through the knee-high yellow rubber boots the rain forest men wear.  When I offered to wash his cuts so they wouldn’t get infected, he pretended he didn’t hear me. Poor Nick.  I could tell he was feeling a lot of pressure to be a macho sachamanta runa, man of the jungle.

When it was time to eat, Nick went to fetch me my own bowl so I wouldn’t have to eat the soup from the communal pot and risk getting sick from unfamiliar bacteria.    I sat down with the women and their children to watch the men finish building Nick’s walls.  To my relief, we could communicate with the help of Patricia, the town’s more bilingual and more outgoing Sunday school teacher.  I asked about their children, their ages, their grades in school, and their personalities. I held a beatific baby they told me was Nick’s godchild until he was ready to go back to his teenage mother to nurse. (It is prestigious to have a gringo godfather and Nick has three godchildren so far.) Through Patricia, the women asked me what religion I was, Evangelica or Catolica, the two main choices in the jungle, and I struggled to explain my Lutheran background. As Evangelicas, they were impressed that Luther was the first to fight against the Catholics.  They asked how long I would stay in the village (until Sunday) and in Ecuador (5 more weeks, until the end of February).  When I said “Sunday,” “February,” and “five” in Kichwa, they laughed at me, explaining that they usually use Spanish for days, months, and numbers.  Why had I, with great time and effort, memorized these Kichwa words if no one uses them, not even people in an isolated community out in the jungle?  Not only was I learning unused (and laughable) word-forms, I felt frustrated that the only Kichwa-speaking person in the village I could understand was Nick.   I would have to talk to Jorge about more realistic and helpful Kichwa lessons when I returned to the city.

That conversation with Jorge was postponed, as we faced a catastrophe.  One of the community feuds had come to a head.  The rival family faction had Carlos, the dad, put in jail and filed “boletas de captura” (arrest warrants) against Graciela, Jorge, Olga, even against the children of both sets of parents, accusing them all of stealing from and destroying the resort business. Carlos was arrested as he exited the school gates with Carmen, so traumatized she couldn’t return to school. Kind and gentle, Carlos seemed the least likely to commit a crime, spending all his non-teaching time distributing chickens and corn seed so the Kichwa could work their land and increase their meager incomes.   

I learned that in Ecuador it is easy to file a denuncia and get someone arrested because the police and the courts never bother to check whether the charges are true.  But the police prefer to make these arrests in public; they would rather not come to your home to take you away.  Graciela and Jorge were probably safe as long as they stayed at home or went unseen in public. They spent most days hiding in the offices of their mestizo lawyers, godparents of one of Jorge’s sons, sneaking home after dark.  Graciela apologized to the kids and me for not fixing meals. With Graciela gone most of the day and evening, Carmen and I spent more and more time together.  We bathed in the river, we shopped at the market, we watched telenovelas, we fried bananas, we boiled yucca, we did more homework.  We became best buddies.

Even when Carlos was released from jail, Jorge was distracted and nervous. I suggested postponing or canceling our lessons, but he would hear nothing of it, even though he faced not only dismissal from his job, but two boletas de captura.   Every time he heard a sound, he bolted out of his seat at the kitchen table to peer out the window (it was usually only the family’s dogs or their chickens making noise), or he hid in the bedroom, fearing it was the police come to arrest him or an angry family member to beat him up.   At his own home, he had already fought off an enraged cousin who had punched Olga, now in the process of filing her own charges.  He would interrupt our lessons to discuss political and legal strategies with me or with whoever was with us in the living room—his brother Paco, his cousin-in-law Victor, his niece Maria.   Or he would turn up the volume on the local TV news to see if rival factions were gaining ground.  When he heard the croaking of a frog that the Kichwa believe to be a bad omen, he searched under all the beds. He had to kill it to eliminate the curse. Nick and I heard rumors that Jorge was self-proclaimed shaman with a magical stone and that shamans with stones often incur the community’s wrath.  In other words, Jorge had it coming to him.

I didn’t know whether to feel angry with or sorry for him when he closed his eyes and yawned during our lessons, especially when I was struggling to speak.   Because he was tired and hungry, I made him instant coffee (real coffee in Ecuador is for export not for consumption) and prepared him a snack of bananas and bread, or soup leftover from lunch.   Although I sometimes find teaching English tedious, I told him, I find my English students themselves interesting, hoping he would find me so, too.   I handed him the flash cards of all the verbs I had memorized and asked him to ask me questions in order to start a conversation. When he couldn’t or wouldn’t come up with questions, I made up my own for him.  “What are you afraid of?  What do you think of the President of Ecuador? What should the Kichwa people do to escape poverty?”

For his sake and for mine, I wanted to stop these so-called lessons.  Accustomed to teaching Kichwa children who already know the language and use it at home, he couldn’t explain language rules, he refused to converse, and I was learning more on my own.  But he needed me as a student-foil to hold up to Kichwa kids and mestizo teachers he thought were not trying hard enough to learn Kichwa. Besides, he was broke; his daughter was being dismissed from college for not paying her fees.  According to Nick and his Kichwa and Peace Corps friends, Jorge was charging me way too much, especially for random lessons without organization, sequence, or material.

I continued meeting with Jorge because I was becoming as superstitious and paranoid as everyone around me.  I wanted to stay on the good side of a shaman.  In default mode now, our lessons consisted of approximate translations of animal stories from a book for Kichwa children:  “The Ant Climbs,” “The Cat Eats,” “The Chickens Sing.”   Feeling helpless about my speaking and listening, I resorted to writing—a paragraph about my family (ñuka ayllu), a travel essay about going the Sierras with Nick (Tamiapi ñukanchik pasiarkanchik—We Traveled in the Rain).   

Some of Jorge’s tensions eased when an agreement was reached at a community meeting and his job was secured.  He could continue in his post if he returned to the classroom to teach and helped lead a workshop on the recent changes made to unify the jungle and sierra dialects.  To our dismay, the Kichwa months of the year based on the weather and foods had been changed to names recognizable neither by jungle nor sierra students and teachers. And the days of the week were changed and rearranged.  For example, Chaska, the old term for Sunday, was the new term for Friday. We would have to start over again.

For our last lessons, Jorge and I worked with the curriculum from the workshop. For once, our lessons had some focus, content, and energy. He taught me how to convene a meeting, tell a folktale, and write a solicitud or application. He was excited that if more teachers wrote in Kichwa to mestizo authorities, they would have to employ Kichwa translators, thus increasing job opportunities. For the test, I couldn’t sing the Ecuadorian national anthem, but I could answer some of the other questions: “What holidays does your community celebrate?  What grows on your plot of land?  What do you want your students to learn?”

Nick invited me back to his village, this time to help him teach English in the school and colegio.   Whenever I had to leave home for the village or the Sierras, Carmen wept, accusing me of abandoning her and leaving her all alone, but how could she be alone in the company of a hoard of siblings, aunts and uncles, and cousins her own age?  She said she wanted to come to the U.S. some day to study and live with my husband and me, but I wondered if she would be happy without all the excitement, for better or worse, of her large, extended family.

Nick announced that the English lesson would be parts of the body. “How about if we  teach the kids to sing the song you taught us when we were little, ‘Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes’?”    Because the students were Kichwa-dominant, we would have to use Kichwa as well as Spanish, Nick said, to identify and translate into English the body parts.

  No problem! After all of Jorge’s body part drills, I couldn’t have been more prepared to help deliver this trilingual lesson, which we did with the help of a huge male figure Nick drew on the board.   What fun it was to use Nick himself as a visual aid to teach “butt,” “beard,” and “mustache”!   In their newly learned English, Nick had the students tell me their names, and the names of their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins, assuming I would be able to puzzle out their large, complicated family networks.  In exchange, the students could ask me questions in Kichwa, which, sadly, I had to ask them to repeat.  When I still couldn’t understand, Nick asked me the question.   And if that didn’t work either, he and the children asked in Spanish.  Obviously, his students weren’t the only ones struggling to learn another language.

More imaginative and curious than their moms or Jorge, they wanted to reach out.  They asked about my work, my husband, his work, my children, my dog, and my car. They asked me to list all the objects in my house. They asked if I had a daughter. When I told them no, they jokingly offered me one—Achira—a smart and lively girl who after class offered to teach Nick and me the Kichwa equivalent of “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes”—“Head and Heart, Thigh and Foot” or “Uma, Shunku, Chanka, Chaki.”  After she taught us the song, singing it first alone and then several times with us, she asked us to sing it in English to make sure we understood it. Achira had the same dark skin and hair and the same school-issued white blouse and blue skirt as her female classmates, but not their shy, giggly demeanor in the presence of gringos.  She was focused, determined to reach and teach us, determined to make a connection with Nick and with me.

As you sing the words, you point in turn to your head, heart, thigh, and foot.  Then you sing Kalpay (run) and quickly turn yourself around in a circle.   Last, you sing Tukuy Kushi, “Everyone Happy.”