5-year-old Samantha, a Cofán child of Zábalo, hopped up onto a 50 foot structure resembling a water tower, and began to climb up the ladder connected to it. “Mira mira.” She asked me to watch her, but as she surpassed 20 feet I nervously called over to one of our leaders, Jane, and pointed out what was going on, asking if it was okay for the kids to be up there. She responded calmly and said she wasn’t sure but the kids always do it, so just let them go. I looked over again and saw other children climbing up and following her lead. I looked up at Samantha who had made it safely to the top, smiling confidently at 50 feet in the air before proceeding to come down. I smiled back at her and became more relaxed.
I pondered what it meant for me to be so concerned and paranoid about these kids’ safety. Sure, it might not have been considered safe or “normal” in my own culture for children to be climbing substantially high and wandering on their own, but this was not my culture. It was not my place to judge, say anything, or step in. From visiting each other’s homes as they please to everyday mud fights and bathing in the Amazon, they wander their homeland proudly and freely. I spent the remainder of our time in Zábalo simply admiring these incredible aspects of their culture. Many families in western culture spend so much time taking drastic measures to see that their kids are safe, however I never got the sense that the Cofán children felt unsafe. They were learning how to care for themselves and make decisions. They were brave and fearless, learning independence by being given the freedom to explore, with a constant smile their face.
By Emily Stoltzfus