A Library Built on Fault Lines

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Don Juan village in Ecuador is almost still. Fishing boats sit patiently, waiting to slip into the Pacific at 3am. There are two things you don’t expect to find in this sedate paradise. One is a bamboo kingdom of books – a children’s library. The other, is an underlying current of domestic violence. I’m here to try and understand this world for a week.

Words and Photography by Megan Brownrigg

My base, is A Mano Manaba. Aside from the ocean, this library is Don Juan’s heartbeat. Its gates tick open and closed like clock’s hands. When shut, murmuring children hang off them like earrings, keen to come back inside. The bamboo house itself is spangly and spirited. It sprouts from the ground like a wizard has put it there.

Inside, the library is all books, maps and inklings of faraway worlds. I learn that the children have little concept of a world outside the village. To discover they are part of a country, on a continent, on a planet, in a galaxy within a universe, is beautifully mind-blowing. I look at the room’s globes with renewed wonder, thinking of the eyes they’ve seen bulge. A Mano Manaba is a lighthouse on land, providing an intimate link between Don Juan and its beyond.

But this library wasn’t always here. Mountains quite literally moved for it to happen in a 2016 earthquake. Measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, the quake took 650 lives and made 650,000 people homeless along the Pacific coast in 2016. Don Juan village was destroyed.

Amongst the homeless, were two literature professors from Quito. Rut and Esteban had moved here just a month beforehand. But they were here to stay. Lacking running water, electricity or medicine, they picked stories for sustenance. They set a pannier stuffed with children’s books astride their donkey, Domingo. He charmed curious youngsters along the coast, and amidst disaster a beach library was born. Once the village was back on its feet, the library was firmly established in its foundations.

By 2017, the library had shelves, walls and a roof. The bamboo house was built, and these days volunteers like me sleep in its attic. From bingo nights to cookery classes and cultural evenings, it’s a community sanctuary. But for the kids specifically, it’s a space where they can read, get help with homework and discover their own questions. Children of all ages are welcomed with open arms, but girls are particularly encouraged to knock on the library’s door.

“By machismo standards, men can’t even say thank you, it’s perceived as weak.”

I’d vaguely heard about the ‘machismo’ culture which is common in South America, but I’d always thought of it in shallow terms – of guys trying to impress girls, of guys trying to impress guys. I hadn’t realised how dangerous, or ingrained it is. One definition I found names it as ‘strong and aggressive masculine pride’, another mentioned the word ‘forceful’.

On my first night, Rut explained that femicide rates are scarily high in Ecuador. Official records reflect an average of one gender killing every three days. Rut pushes the point that in rural Ecuador especially, women are ruled by their husbands. And in poor fishing villages, those husbands are often drunks. The inequality of this is barely a discovery, and by no means a discussion. In fact, any discussion at all between man and wife seems limited. By machismo standards, men can’t even say thank you, it’s perceived as weak.

Rut’s solution to this problem is to show girls incredibly young that they have alternative fates than as wives and mothers. And I mean, really young. Teenage pregnancies aren’t a thing here, those are just pregnancies. It’s not unusual for a woman to have eight children by her late twenties in Don Juan. Realistically, altering the cultural narrative requires conversations with girls younger than ten years old.

I notice early on that Rut isn’t shy to prioritise focus on girls. I ask about the boys. “There’s no time”, she explains. On face value, I might not agree with Rut’s ethos. In practice, it can involve refusing boys places on the library’s photography workshop, even if they arrive earlier than the girls. But Rut’s statement hasn’t come from a want of trying, nor a lack of love for the boys. It comes from a sense of urgency for female identity here. Identity which has been bullied out of existence for so long, that it’s still mythical to those who should be owning it. So much so, that the one ‘girls get priority’ photography workshop I ran, was filled with boys.

“Sometimes they’re just late, sometimes they don’t come at all,” was Rut’s way of explaining that the girls are kept away by household chores. First dibs on the library’s camera is perhaps the only female prerogative in Don Juan, but one familial duty often denies them access to.

I started to figure that by prioritising girls, Rut is counterbalancing a much greater neglect. One which cements itself in adulthood when education falls by the wayside to meet the demands of others. Away from the library, a woman’s best option for education is night school. But classes happen sometime between 6pm and 10pm. Dinner time. A time wives struggle to be absent from their husbands.

Magali is 44. She enrolled regardless. Go Magali. But even she has stopped attending classes for another reason. “I have two daughters. They’re señoritas now…I can’t leave them alone…” In protecting her daughters from growing up, Magali had to mute her own childhood curiosities. “The problem left behind is my studies”.

From this exchange, it’s obvious that attending classes a walking distance from a woman’s home, is hard enough. Any more than that, and it’s almost impossible for her. Don Juan used to be a town without a night school. The local government demanded 120 names needed to sign up to create one. That’s an almost unimaginable number of bold women in a traditional village. Rut and Esteban successfully campaigned for this number to be reduced to 40, and the village was equipped with evening classes.

Carmen is a local mother who now enjoys these classes. She’s focusing on languages at the moment and her dream is to study gastronomy. It’s fitting that I catch her for a chat in her kitchen, splashed with blurs of children coming and going. Rebellious curls pop through her pink baseball cap, as she smiles her mantra to me; “We always have time to do the things we love”.

Carmen personifies a big glow of hope here. Her children visit the library and she’s pursuing her own passions after becoming a mother. But sadly, having local evening classes available isn’t the solution for everyone. For some women, it’s the start of the fight.

“Told as a regular anecdote rather than a shocking fable of twisted morals, it’s what made me understand why Rut is so fiercely protective of the girls here.”

One evening before my arrival, the evening class was physical education. The ladies played a football match on the school field. Little did some of them know they’d return home to be beaten by their husbands. Men who assumed their wives’ muddied knees meant brazen infidelity, not a sliding tackle. This story confirmed it for me. Told as a regular anecdote rather than a shocking fable of twisted morals, it’s what made me understand why Rut is so fiercely protective of the girls here.

Of course, not all men in Don Juan are made of this mettle. José is a civil engineer in the village. He has a cheeky sense of humour and unbounding generosity with his time. He mentors maths in the library and celebrates the project’s affects. “The girls are less shy, they feel more powerful” But sadly, his hope of the library changing machismo mentality is small.

“I think the men in this village are intimidated by a library which offers them help. Using it would make them lose face”

“Biology here was no abstract and boring concept. It was real, hot, green and bitey.”

While the library attempts to soften an unyielding culture, it tackles something universal and gender-blind. Rut and Esteban want to make education engaging again in Ecuador. They are torn up over a school system which has teachers feed students exam answers, but never questions or reasons. Learning is a government ego exercise, and rarely if ever a curiosity project.

My very first session at the library was the perfect counter to this. It didn’t take place in the library, but the local dry forest. Instead of staring at pictures of wildlife in a textbook, the children were sketching spiders and butterflies inches from their noses. Biology here was no abstract and boring concept. It was real, hot, green and bitey. Which meant that when biologists visited the library for a lecture a week later, the children had a reason to listen.

Rut and Esteban populate their library with fascinating people and activities. Before my time, a conceptual artist from Taiwan helped the kids paint a Don Juan mural. A Chilean sex expert came to speak to the girls about ownership of their bodies. Meanwhile, shadow puppetry was the order of the day from a Belgian literature specialist. And the library’s Vice President herself, Alexandra, is a champion of oral tradition, and will often come and paint worlds with her spoken words. As Rut says, the Manabita people have storytelling in their blood. The library should feel like a natural extension of the community. To me as an outsider, it does.

Whilst volunteers are carefully selected, other people arrive completely by chance. While I was there, a round-the-world cyclist pedalled by on a whim. Invited to use the library for shelter, he gave a talk on his travels to the kids. This bamboo castle in the middle of nowhere has a habit of attracting compelling characters. Characters who personify possibility.

And it is the possible, rather than the inevitable, which thrives in A Mano Manaba. It’s a place of choice. Rut and Esteban never pressure a child to visit the library. They’ll never quiz truant kids about where they’ve been. Sometimes, the children will come up with outlandish excuses about why they haven’t visited for a while. “I’ve been travelling, in Spain”, one might announce. “I’ve been studying in America”, rings the tall tale of another. As comically cute as these impromptu speeches are, they’re an example of children having to lie to justify themselves. Rut and Esteban want to offer more freedom than that.

So instead of being negative when children don’t come, the couple embrace it when they do. One young girl turns up every now and then, always in a football kit. She wants to play professionally, but she already works helping fishermen in the middle of the night. Her loyalties to the library could easily wane, and soon. Rut makes a point of telling this girl that the library sees her football kit. The implication of course being that if our young footballer keeps reading, goes to school, and maybe even attends university, she could be seen by far more scouts than she’d ever meet on the seaside, working in darkness.

With this in mind, I’m surprised to find that the library’s general reception in the village is mixed. Cynicism and apathy characterise opinion from some corners. I’m guilty of thinking these corners are probably shaped by males. Not always. Rut tells me that one mother doesn’t allow her daughter to attend the dry forest visits because she never had those opportunities herself.

Another problem belief is that books have no use. I want to scoff this off as ridiculous. Before doing so, I ask myself why I love books so much. For their stories, for the opportunities they offer, the universes they create. But I’m ignoring something: we’re not born readers. Whether a right or a luxury, reading is something we learn. I realise if you haven’t had the chance to learn to read, a book is simply hunk of glued paper. Its charm is quickly lost. It’s senseless.

But some apathy about helping youngsters cuts deeper, and is beyond the realms of relatability. There was one instance of a teacher refusing to report a rape of one of her students, because she felt the experience was part of becoming a woman, and shouldn’t be treated as wrong or extraordinary. In Don Juan, I learn that there’s a sinister solidarity in female depression. Defectors from it, even daughters and victims of abuse, can be viewed with contempt. Behind closed doors, I get the impression that hope is punished as delusion. Not always, but enough to be dangerous in teaching young women what to expect.

I decide to visit some of the mothers one day. I want to see how the library’s messages travel within individual homes. The answer, I discover, is exactly what I’ve been told. Mixed.

I speak to the mother of a young girl who regularly visits the library. It’s during lunch, so the girl herself is home too. The mother isn’t forthcoming, but she isn’t negative either. She says the library was good for education. But it’s body language I am so vividly informed by. Her daughter, the bubbly girl from the library who would bound up to me on any other day, is withdrawn and distracted. She is reluctant to look at me, never mind smile. I put a lot of this down to my phone clumsily waving in the air between us; I’d asked to record her voice. But it couldn’t account for all of the awkwardness, I could tell there was a discomfort with singing the library’s praises or being sparky in general. And when I look at her mother, I understand why.

Her mum is tired, sad and still. We are sat in a small whitewashed room which is essentially their whole house, a hotbox clone of all the others it sat at close quarters with. Pop-up accommodation built after the earthquake, devoid of any character and barely managing practicality. It would have been jarring for anyone to be animated in here, and talk about the great morning we’d had playing games in the library. Rude and inconsiderate, even. I have to remind myself that her mum is likely younger than me, with three children. I suddenly feel less critical of mums who can’t be happy for their daughters’ discovery of this magical space across the road. A space which hadn’t existed for them growing up.

But when I ask this lady how she finds life in Don Juan, she simply says “tranquila”. Peaceful, calm, quiet. I’ll hear the same answer from many women this morning. Only one will respond immediately with “dura”. Hard. During my rounds, other mums confess the relief the library brings them; “There are lots of things round here we don’t know. I send {my children} to the library so they have the possibility to teach me something. It’s really nice”

“People stop being invisible here. What’s more, girls and boys can be friends.”

Back inside the library, there’s one brother and sister who embody the importance of the whole project for me. Diego would often lead Alicia through the maze of readers, to the pile of games at the back. They’d pick one. He’d sit quietly with her while she felt the form of its pieces.

Alicia is blind, as a result of the earthquake. A geyser opened up in front of her in 2016, and its boiling spray burned her eyes. Then she disappeared. Because for years, bewildered by how to protect her, her parents kept her inside in the dark. But today, she visits the library and plays with other children who don’t give her disability a second thought. I see her story as one of the strongest the library has given space to. People stop being invisible here. What’s more, girls and boys can be friends.

Rut and Esteban have high hopes for the library, but they don’t want it to expand. It’s the perfect size for the community it serves, and they’re wary of too much outside interest or investment. Instead, they want to share its template with other communities through training programmes. And even better, invest in a Jeep to reach more inaccessible ones. With a Library of Congress Literacy Award from the US under their wing, I don’t doubt they’ll manage it.

I have a huge amount of faith in this project’s butterfly effect, which is infectious from the founders. In my short time there, I felt the library’s spell. It’s an alchemy of escapism from real life, and an immersion in its possibilities.

Rut will often talk about the ‘aha!’ moment, when these possibilities click into a child’s consciousness. ‘Ahas’ of books mattering, of galaxies existing, of girls getting to choose. It’s a sound I think Don Juan will be hearing more and more.

You can read more about A Mano Manaba, donate to their foundation or volunteer to help with one of their community projects in Don Juan here

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Megan Brownrigg

Megan Brownrigg is a British writer. As a freelance journalist, Megan has worked as a BBC radio producer and her writing has appeared in The Telegraph. She loves talking to people in their various places in the world, and believes it’s the best way to sustainably travel. Her blog The Ink Tapes describes her encounters in short stories.