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A veteran homeschool mom, Marcia Washburn has traveled to Ecuador multiple times to encourage new homeschoolers.


By Marcia Washburn

How important is homeschooling to you? What would you do to get training as a parent-educator? What sacrifice would you make? In October I met some heroes of the homeschooling movement, and they’re just getting started.

My husband has been involved in upgrading a small hydroelectric plant for the Shuar community in Makuma, Ecuador. The Shuar Church Council there asked that I accompany him on his next trip to explain how home education might work for them. I knew from the start that the project would stretch everyone involved, especially me.

From Denver, the flights to Quito take all day via Miami. After an overnight at the mission guesthouse, a hospitable missionary drove us down the sometimes treacherous road to Shell. The narrow road winds through the Andes Mountains and is known for sudden landslides, unpredictable volcanic eruptions, flooding downpours, and sheer dropoffs. The views were breathtaking, as was the 14,000 ft. elevation.

From Shell we had two choices: take a bus to the stop nearest to Makuma and then hike in 4-7 hours over jungle trails and through two rivers, or fly in on a Missionary Aviation Fellowship plane for 27 minutes. In view of the twelve suitcases of electrical parts and school supplies we were hauling in, we chose the plane. I suspect the trails weren’t designed for wheeled baggage or short-legged retired homeschool moms.

Day 1 of the conference was rainy—a carwash spray of water poured over our umbrellas as we hiked to the conference facility in our skirts and chic knee-high rubber boots. There are no cars in Makuma because there are no roads into Makuma. The building, modern by Shuar standards, is constructed from termite-proof (almost) hardwood planks. The screened window openings require no glass in this seasonless climate. Simple benches line the room; the lectern is exactly my size—the Shuar are short, too.

Soon the rookie homeschoolers began arriving, some carrying babies and still in trail boots. A young father of five hiked and bussed in for two days, spending about a month’s income on the trip. One mother hiked in six hours with her relatives and juggled her eighteen-month-old throughout the entire conference. Another mother and daughter could only stay for one session before repeating their 5 1/2 hour walk home.

Three schoolteachers arranged for substitutes so they could come They are unsure if participating in home education will impact their jobs, but they were among the most vocal in wanting the conference. As in the States, they say that textbooks are being re-written to include falsehoods in history. High school students are taught as many as twenty subjects, but still haven’t mastered the basics. Frequently teachers don’t show up to teach classes, but aren’t fired because they were hired by relatives.

As a speaker, it was challenging to speak through double interpreters. I spent 85% of the time listening to the interpreters and the discussion following. It really helped to use scripted notes instead of just an outline so I could keep track of what I’d said up to fifteen minutes before. Norma, a senior missionary here, had read through all fifty pages in advance and had coached me on which illustrations would be difficult for them to understand.

I’ve never seen a group so eager to learn. They sat for hours on narrow benches, attentive to every word I spoke, even though they didn’t understand a word of English. After translating my words into Spanish, Norma would pass along a local story or comment. They would begin to understand through the Spanish, their second language. Then Daniel, a Shuar Bible teacher, translated into Shuar, their heart language; that’s when a look of true comprehension lit up their faces. Daniel, not understanding English, had no copy of my notes; but, led by the Holy Spirit, he often spoke at length on what I had just said and then moved ahead to my next point as though he could read my teaching notes—truly amazing!

The Shuar language is very difficult to learn, taking fifteen or more years of daily effort. It uses an eighteen letter alphabet and many of the words are multiple syllables, even as long as twenty-two letters! Norma’s husband, Jim, made booklets for each attendee with all of the scriptures referenced in my presentations written out, to save the time of looking them up in their own Shuar Bibles.

Unlike most presentations in which a speaker lectures and everyone else takes notes, this was a true workshop. If anyone had a question or comment, he or she was quick to speak up and lengthy discussions often erupted. The Shuar were quick to see the connection between homeschooling and parenting as a whole, not isolating it to just the children's academic training. They discussed everything from textbooks to television, birth control to daycare centers. They spent free time copying every poster we hung on the walls.

The hours were long—eight hours of class on Thursday and 10 1/2 hours on Friday. They had considered continuing into Saturday morning, but national elections were Sunday and every citizen is required to vote in his hometown (sounds like Mary and Joseph, huh?). There is a $50 fine for not voting—about a month’s income for the average family. Even at that, there were those who were willing to pay the fine if we ran into Saturday and they couldn’t get to the polls in time.

Conference attendees were charged $5 to offset the cost of the five meals they ate here. Those who live nearby contributed food, also. Two teenagers spent the days preparing huge pots of rice, noodles, and a local variety of potatoes. A small can of tuna or sardines might be added. These kettles are about eighteen inches tall and maybe twenty-two inches across; when the girls were ready to move them off the fire in their outdoor kitchen, each one grabbed the end of a stick stuck through the pot’s handle. Draining the noodles wasn’t an easy task either as these girls are the size of the average twelve-year-old American girl.

Attendees brought their own glasses, bowls, and spoons; the Shuar don’t use forks. Six-foot-long banana leaves were laid on the narrow picnic tables in the shelter as tablecloths. Each person went through the serving line to receive a bowl of rice with a side of the noodle soup on top. Boiled plantains, a cooking variety of bananas, were served on the banana leaves with a hot chili pepper dipping salt.

This meal is typical of the Shuar daily diet, varied at home only by the occasional addition of meat or whatever fruit they grow or buy from neighbors. As their population has increased, meat from hunting in the jungle is no longer plentiful. An attempt is being made to discourage the use of poison when fishing, as it kills all the fish, even the minnows.

During lunch on Thursday, I watched one eleven-year-old boy do the family’s laundry on a wood chopping block next to the water faucet near our outdoor kitchen. I cringed as he applied bar soap to his toddler sister’s green velvet dress with white collar and lace-trimmed hem. Then he beat the dress against the block, repeatedly rinsing and beating it before wringing it out and draping the clean clothes on the bushes to dry. If I had to guess, I would think the care label stated “Delicate wash in cool water; do not wring.” But Friday morning at the conference his little sister looked pretty as a Christmas picture in her clean dress which was none the worse for the brother’s washing techniques. Amazing!

We tried to keep everything we did duplicatable, not using anything that wouldn’t be readily available to the people. Instead of buttons, we used dried papaya seeds for math manipulatives. We recommended simple teaching methods that don’t require expensive textbooks, since each family already owns a Bible and hymnbook.

It really touched the conference attendees to know that Christians in America were praying for them and had sent them books and school supplies to help them get started. They were surprised to learn that many of their concerns about homeschooling were the same as those of beginners in the United States: Am I qualified to teach my children? What will my friends and family think? Is it legal? Where will I get materials? and, of course, What about socialization?

They were also encouraged to learn that there are growing homeschool movements in Mexico, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic. Hearing stories about homeschoolers such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Alva Edison, and George Washington Carver who overcame the obstacles of poverty, learning disabilities, and race, gave them confidence that they could teach their own children, too.

While praying before our noon meal, one of the teachers prayed, “Lord, I now understand that I have parented badly. Please help me to walk in your ways as a father.” Another said, “It is for us to work out now. We must pray and talk about this and each family will decide.”

These brand-new teaching parents specifically asked homeschoolers in America to pray for them. They will probably not have the advantage of support groups anytime soon. Distance is a huge factor; getting together for an event such as this is considered a no more than once-a-year option. There is no telephone service in these communities, so communication with each other would be by mail or messenger. And they can expect Satan to disrupt their efforts in every way possible.

I was humbled by these dear people who, like parents all over the world, want the best for their children. They are concerned about how things will change when the road comes all the way to Makuma. How should they prepare their children for a changing future when their relative isolation vanishes?

On days when we question the decision to homeschool, when things seem to bog down (or blow up!), we can remember those brand-new homeschoolers in Makuma. Mothers will be teaching while keeping the toddler from falling into the fire on the hard-packed earth floor. Fathers will be teaching while fishing for the day’s protein. Families will be sharing God’s Word as they eat their bowl of rice and noodles. Deuteronomy 6:5-9 points us to the home education model. It served as our conference theme.

There is a oneness among believers, whether they live in a chonta wood hut or a suburban mini-mansion, isn’t there? And our Heavenly Father teaches us, each in our own tongue, to trust Him: “His mercies are new every morning and great is His faithfulness.”

©2006 by Marcia K. Washburn. The author and her husband homeschooled their five sons for nineteen years in northeastern Colorado. You may contact her at or