Play in a marginalized community - with Carlos Viera

Play in a marginalized community - with Carlos Viera

We sat down with Carlos Viera from Onzole River, Ecuador to talk about play. To see a bit more about the Onzole River Project, you can watch the video here.
    1. What does play look like in Onzole?

Children at play in Onzole is one of the most beautiful and purest manifestations of joy you’ll ever see! These are agricultural communities who have learned to use the rich and lush environment around them to grow a plethora of tropical crops. Their marginalization and subsequent poverty doesn’t look like malnourished and hungry children (although there are instances of this) but rather individuals and communities who are opportunity and materially poor. That dual level of marginalization I mentioned earlier has made it difficult for the Onzole communities to access fair markets for the sale of their goods and so the great potential value of their farms has never been fully realised. This reality has greatly affected the way kids play in the communities. Houses are small and practical, built with the material people can afford and not designed with recreational space in mind. This means that everyone plays outside, even in the rain from the frequent tropical downpours, in fact, especially in the rain! Kids love to play in the mud and get dirty and although it’s impossible not to smile when I see them, my heart always goes out to their poor mothers who have to wash their clothes afterwards by hand in the river.

There’s never much extra money for parents to buy toys so kids always get creative and use their limitless imagination to make their own. They use long bamboo sticks that they tie a string to on one end and put it between their legs to pretend they’re riding a horse, or they’ll take empty motor oil bottles, cut them into the shape of a car and use discarded lollipop sticks as chassis and bottle caps as wheels and pull them along on strings and race them. Games made up generations ago have been passed down and kids still play those same games today.

Kids soak up so much of their environment and want to be grown up so much that their play often reflects this. Because they live on a river, canoes are such an integral part of their daily lives. They’re wooden canoes, hand carved out of tree trunks, or even some carbon fiber ones now, and most people have motors instead of stand-up paddling like they used to not even that long ago. Young boys will often find big pieces of drift wood and will sit in beached canoes and pretend the drift wood is the motor! Other kids will hop in the canoe as the boy handling the motor (‘driving’) makes all of the necessary sounds a real motor would make. For their part, girls will often recreate the cooking experience they grow up seeing their mothers do daily by collecting hollowed out coconuts to use as pots to cook imaginary food (mud and plants they’ve collected) over imaginary fires. Even at a very young age kids’ play entrenches the traditional gender roles of their communities.

But play also strengthens the bonds of community, something that is necessary for the survival of these small enclaves of life. Everyone plays with everyone, everyone fights with everyone, and everyone makes up with everyone (most of the time). The bonds of friendship and community, of family and extended family, are forged at play. Children roam wild throughout the community but mothers know that they can count on other mothers to keep an eye on things. There are no helicopter parents here. Children learn, through free play, the art of imagination and witty banter, they cultivate the physical strength necessary to survive in the harsh environment of the tropical jungle, and learn to be independent. They learn which bugs bite and which ones don’t as they hunt them, how to climb trees and gather their fruit as they mischievously steel fruit from other people’s farms,  how to walk off a scrape or a bruise, what parts of the river are safe to swim in and which ones aren’t. In short, they learn the lessons they need to learn to be able to survive in their environment. Community elders, guiding and leading their communities, hurled themselves into the currents of the river together as kids. The kids who hurl themselves into the very same currents today will one day be the elders with the same backdrop of play forming their collective love and understanding of the place they call home.

And soccer… Lots and lots of soccer!


      1.  Can you describe your wildest memory of something you just wouldn’t see in a more developed area of the world?

Although there are many stories I could use to answer, any time anyone asks me I always tell the same story because it’s still so surreal to me! It’s definitely something I’ll never forget.

It was back in my very first year in the community and my Spanish was getting decent but far from great. One of my favorite things to do upriver has always been to visit people’s farms. Some are close to the community, others are over an hour walk through the jungle to get to. It’s always been a great way to connect with people; the conversation along the way, working on their land together, them teaching me how things are done… me often failing miserably at being able to do it! On this particular day the eldest son of the farmer whose farm has always been one of my favorites to go to had invited me to go with them. They always leave early so I got up and walked over to their house, ready to go. When I got there they told me that their father had had to go to a friend’s farm to help him with some cows, but “don’t worry, Carlos, we’ll take you!” they said.  

The eldest son, Tony, who at the time must have been around 13, came out of the house in an old, super tight onesie that must have belonged to one of his younger brothers from year ago. The legs only reached his shins and the sleeves only just passed his elbows! I have no idea why he chose this as his farm day attire but it made everything even more surreal. He had on big rubber boots to walk through the mud, and a rifle slung over his shoulder. His younger brothers and his cousin each had a machete to cut through the bush and all of a sudden off they went, into the jungle, expecting me to follow. I so vividly remember coming up to a stream, about 20 minutes into the and hour and a half walk, taking a rest and looking at this wild group of young boys who were leading me through the jungle. I remember thinking to myself that this is a scene that I would never see back home! My wellbeing, I thought to myself, is in the hands of a boy in a onesie carrying a rifle and his little brothers carrying machetes and I can’t even fully communicate with them!

We got to the farm and had a great time all together. They got to be the leaders that day and teach me and show me around and to see how capable they were, at such a young age, of navigating their environment, and the trust their parents had in them to do so on their own, was a sort of light bulb moment for me.

We even played soccer with a coconut we knocked down on the farm! It’s a memory we all share and still often think back on together six years later. It was a rich lesson for me about the interconnectedness of play and responsibility and relationship building.