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Intent and Collaboration:
How a School Was Built in the High Andes of Peru

Carla Woody

It was July 2008, a beautiful time to be in Peru. We had been sitting in circle for a few hours there at Killarumi, a temple to the moon where few go, near the base of mountains outside Cusco. It had been another beautiful despacho* ceremony with Q'ero friends. Most of them were from Ccochamocco, a small village perched at 17,000 feet, two days' travel away largely by foot. With chakaruna* Don Américo Yábar being the conduit who brought us together, we'd been meeting like this to share blessings, prayers and friendship for many years.

The ritual completed, the despachos were fed to the fire a short distance away. People were moving around quietly, tamales and fruit shared. Inka Cola, the distinctly Peruvian drink with its bubblegum flavor, was offered by helpers.

Through Don Américo I had asked to have a separate meeting with some of the Q'ero spiritual leaders after the ceremony and we gathered to talk, away from the other travelers. The previous year Kenosis Spirit Keepers had been founded, as the nonprofit arm of Kenosis, with the vision that it would hold ways to give back and help support the Native traditions I had come to find so meaningful in my own life. Board members Oakley Gordon, Darlene Dunning and Ruth Harrison were present, as well as Oscar Panizo, who had acted as translator on these journeys for some years.

In the Andes it's a custom to practice what the Quechua people call ayni, the closest translation meaning, in its highest sense, a flow of giving and receiving. If one person has knowledge or a resource that another one doesn't, then it's incumbent on that person to offer it. In this way the level of function and quality of life for the entire community is elevated. Ayni has to do with the betterment of the whole. At the same time it also affects the individual, but that consideration is secondary to the community, a very different orientation from Western worldview.

"Waikis*, you've been sharing your teachings for many years and it's had a strong effect on so many of us," I said. "Is there something we can now offer in ayni? In a larger way?

Over the years, Kenosis had given smaller amounts of funds toward community welfare. And travelers I brought had purchased weavings directly, which was a beautiful exchange and helped the weavers' families. Now that Kenosis Spirit Keepers was formed, we had the nonprofit framework to do something more, if the Q'ero people wanted.

There was a very pregnant pause as the Q'ero leaders looked at each other and said a few words amongst themselves. Finally, they said, "Help us build a school."

Students in front of school

Students in front of school
Photo credit: Lizbeth Escudero Lopez

It was our turn to look at each other. In shock, shades of "Three Cups of Tea" flashed across my mind, an overwhelming sense of being in over my head took hold. We'd had the idea that perhaps they would want some alpacas or something simple for which we could fundraise.

But a school was definitely what they wanted. The leaders talked excitedly how there was no school in their village and just how far the nearest one was. Consequently, their children didn't go to school. They told us emphatically that they received no help from the government and no one seemed to care.

After we conferred a bit further I managed to get out, "Yes. We would be glad to help you with a school." All the while, I was already beseeching the unseen powers to put means in front of us that would allow fulfilling this complex promise full of tricky considerations.

School lunch program

School lunch program
Photo credit: Katherine Majzoub

The Q'ero people consider themselves descended from the first Inka, and are thought of as keepers of those traditions in their purest form. I had always been aware of the hazards to their traditions when I brought Westerners to meet with them. Just by virtue of our presence we inserted change. Up until this request, I had stringently sought to keep any cultural footprint made by our work together as insubstantial, and certainly harmless, as possible. Now, it was unavoidable.

But the issue was this. The world would soon be coming to the high altitude villages of the Q'ero Nation. After centuries of pretty much being cut off from the lower elevations, a road was being built. Already, a number of younger people were leaving the villages for the city, a place often unkind to them. While some made the trek to do business and return, most were ill equipped to deal with a modern world. Outside influences also introduced the less savory aspects of Western culture. Their wisdom traditions had been increasingly threatened as never before.

How could the Q'ero of Ccochamocco maintain their traditions and also have access to the basic skills required to operate well in the larger society? What ways would offer the best of both worlds? With those questions framing the school project, we moved forward.

We were quite comfortable with the project when it also contained a component that would seek to preserve their culture. The leaders themselves were adamant that part of the curriculum would include learning how to incorporate their own ancient knowledge — and potentially one of their own would teach it. Over the next year, we began to raise funds. A number of generous donors from around the globe began to support this project, some likely reading these words.

I have always been a strong believer in collaborative practices for purposes of sharing resources and lessons learned. Particularly since we were venturing into unknown territory, albeit having beautiful potential, there was no reason to blaze a new trail. As an organization we began to look for those who had experience with such a project undertaken in a similar geographical location. We found the Heart Walk Foundation based in St. George, Utah who work with the Hapu Q'eros, a different sect at the lower elevations, and built a heartfelt relationship with Penelope and Tim Eicher. Creating an alliance, we based our project on their experiences and used their in-country contacts to ease the logistical difficulties in communicating and fielding materials to such a remote locale.

With this groundwork in place and some funds in hand, we returned to Cusco in the summer of 2009 to engage with the Q'ero leaders again and begin providing the needed support in the way of materials unavailable to them from the land. Over the next few months, they carried the supplies up to their village. The only transport available once taken to the last road many miles from their final destination was by animal and mostly their own backs, a situation unimaginable to most of us. The building process ensued — a community focus. The exterior finished, desks, chairs, all that was needed to furnish the school made its way up the mountain trail.

Milton wants to be a teacher when he grows up

Milton wants to be a teacher when he grows up
Photo credit: Lizbeth Escudero Lopez

The Ccochamocco leaders had such strong intent for the future of their children. They continued to ask for help and see who would listen and follow through. So many had promised but not delivered, something they were well used to in their lives. In the course of our work with them, we discovered other organizations, and indeed individuals having no affiliations, had heard them and stepped forward.

Katherine Majzoub of Andean Education Alliance, through their Peruvian-based fiscal agent Pachamama's Path, was a major on-the-ground contributor to ensure the project came together. The Alliance began to take on the primary role and was able to obtain a much needed grant. Kenosis Spirit Keepers worked through them, consolidating efforts and funds being the logical choice.

A captivating story is that of Xavier Saer, a Peruvian musician living in South Africa, who, having heard of the need for funds, flew to Lima. There he gave a benefit concert and then undertook an odyssey to find Ccochamocca, with no knowledge of how to get there, to put the funds directly into the hands of Fredy Flores Machacca whom he'd never met. Fredy is now the director of the school.

Kusi Quyllur meaning "Happy Morningstar" as the Ccochamocco community named their school, has been in operation since March 2010. The Q'ero leaders have now formed supportive relationships in-country with NGOs like Kusi Kawsay in Pisac, Willka T'ika in Urubamba, Asociación Andes and Qespina in Cusco, as well as the local office of Peruvian Ministry.

Ccochamocco community leaders

Ccochamocco community leaders
Photo credit: Fredy Flores Machacca

It seems that the unrealized dream of the Ccochamocco people, backed by strong intent, became a global collaboration beyond what any of us originally envisioned. Separate threads were woven together each offering support where they could. Through the Andean Education Alliance the work now continues. Another school building is being constructed for the younger children coming along. Additional teachers will be brought. A greenhouse has been built to provide fresh vegetables.

Somewhere along the way, my initial concerns of "how in the world will we do this" and challenges of cultural differences melted. In their place, gratitude played — for the opportunity to be a part of such abject realization of will and illustration of what happens when people with heart, from divergent backgrounds and cultures, band together to get something done that shapes a future.

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*Quechua terms defined below.

Despachos are blessing bundles containing sacred items created during ceremony and ritually offered typically to the Apus (mountains), Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Nustas (feminine spirit of the mountains.

Chakaruna is someone taking on the sacred role of emissary of the ancient and living traditions, acting as a bridge, straddling both worlds, uniting cultures.

Waiki is a term of endearment meaning cherished friend.

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To read more about the involvement of Kenosis Spirit Keepers and to view additional photos see the Community-Building Projects and Project Updates pages.

To read the full account of Xavier Saer's story, download his e-book Finding Fredy (3.3 MB) archived here with permission.

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Last updated 15 October 2010   |  © 2010 Carla Woody