Travelling the Length of the Amazon Expedition-
The Children of the River
by Jacki Hill-Murphy
You notice the children first: round faced, doe-eyed with healthy glowing brown skin, looking up from a simple task that they work at fervently – a task that must be completed efficiently because life in the village is a group effort and even they play their part. Their hands are in muddy river water soaping clothes, carrying a younger sibling in a cotton sling on their backs or peeling cassava in a plastic bowl, or they are sitting barefoot in the hot sun flicking at the sand flies. These are the children of the Amazon River, beautiful, lively and totally adept at living in a harsh environment.
As our slim-line canoe bobbed its way towards the wet black sand of the bank of a small village the children would always be watching us – wary and distant at first. Silently looking down at the ‘gringos’ descending upon their world, closed and secretive to outsiders. Who were we and what did we want? Their faces questioned. Often they ran away, leaving small puffs of dust from their naked feet and we would see a head pop over the parapet of a glassless window or from behind the wooden stilts their house was built on. One, two and then more, laughing and spying on us as we approached; we smiled and waved and if we were invited to sit down with their village elders to share a beer they would slowly creep closer – before laughing and running away.
Deep in the dark and impenetrable forest surrounding the Bobonaza and the Pastaza we would see children alone, little ones, maybe four or five years old, sitting in a broken dug-out canoe or splashing about in the river in a group. These are the ones that would stare at my fair hair or the red beard of my team mate; we would have been an extraordinary sight to them. They never waved or smiled, we could see no wisp of smoke curling up through the forest canopy to indicate a thatched hut nearby.
I shuddered at the dangers they were in with no adult close by keeping an eye on them, the river was chock full of piranha, anacondas glide through the water and pick up a meal at the water’s edge, there were cayman and syrupy mud that sucked you in, it was health and safety gone bonkers….
I cannot judge them though, these are the people of the jungle and the children look happy and healthy – so I looked for clues as to how these little ones adapted and survived to this hostile environment. I didn’t have to look far; one night we camped late at a friendly tribal village, we had been in the canoe all day and the respite was badly needed. “These are good people,” our guide reassured us, but he had seen the warning signs too late that the village had an ominous feel and was partly abandoned. Palm roofs were caving in and rustic gates swung open neglected; there were no chickens pecking at the dirt. The village had been populated by a hostile tribe, the Achuar, who had chased out the friendly Quechua whose home it was since our guide had last visited. We reluctantly set up our tents in a tin-roofed school house, the concrete floor was thick with dust and the tiny school desks and chairs were heaped drunkenly at one end. Then the rain began to fall, in Biblical proportions, hammering onto the hard roof like the fast beat of a jungle drum and making the four badly fitting doors swing and bang while the lightening flashes cast dark shadows around our tents, leaving us disconcerted and worried. I flashed my torch into the darkness and found a teacher’s cursive writing on a curling sugar-paper poster stuck to the wall; some past and forgotten lessons, a crude timetable and the alphabet. ‘Personal-Social’ read another one in Spanish – learn the dangers of the river – alligator, electric eel, boa and anaconda; do your chores; keep yourself clean; take care of each other and each point was illustrated with a little line drawing.
As we made our slow journey along the river I thought about that lesson on the wall and how the children stayed safe, teaching had an effect and they grew up with the knowledge – the knowledge that seemed so alien to us. And they liked to learn; how often had we seen them immaculately turned out in their grey and white uniforms in the larger towns.
Our boatmen steered us safely into the Maranon and from then on we had we had better opportunities to meet and interact with them when we stopped in the larger communities. Whenever we had the chance we talked to them, taught them, fished with them, played and laughed with these beautiful children, the children of the river. I hope we made an impression on them too – that the gringos came, and were friendly and we shared cultures, for a short while.