What’s the best way to bring a gift to a child of the Amazon?
That seems like a simple question, but it’s not.
Children everywhere love much of the same things, ranging from toys to attention. However, when visiting isolated villages in faraway places, sometimes we have to take care not to create more problems when we come as visitors, even when we have the best of intentions.
This is a problem that Dolly Beaver experiences. Dolly is the founder of Angels of the Amazon, a not for profit dedicated to the social, economic, health and educational development of the Tahuayo River communities. These villages are about twelve hours upriver from Iquitos, Peru deep in the Amazon forest. Dolly’s husband, Paul, established the world-famous Tahuayo Lodge which draws an international clientele, and his research center provides both tourist and research opportunities for study and nature observations. Those same visitors also have plenty of opportunities to get involved with Dolly’s Angels of the Amazon, which for several decades has been working hard to bring gentle, positive change to these river villages without fundamentally changing their Amazonian way of life.
At times, tourists can bring inappropriate gifts to the children of these villages, without realizing the problems this causes. Candy and sweets cause cavities in an area where dental care is hard to obtain. Giving money out to kids when nothing has been obtained in return is teaching a lesson in begging, which Dolly frowns upon. Other gifts may seem like a great idea at the time but cause other problems entirely when the presenter doesn’t consider the environment or the economic conditions of the village.
In fact, Dolly even had this problem with a visiting anthropologist on her board.
“She would bring gifts to the kids,” Dolly said. “For example, battery-operated toys, which later needed more batteries that these children had no money to replace. These toxic batteries ended up in the ground under the house. Then it became a quid pro quo, with the expectation that the kids had to give her something in return. She did it all the time and I asked her not to. She would do it behind my back, and argue that the kids loved her. Of course they did. But I am trying to teach them they have to work for something. You give them candy, in the other hand you give them a toothbrush and toothpaste. She got very angry at me, “ Dolly remembers. “Part of this was because she saw me giving gifts to the kids.
“And I was- but each gift had a price and a history. High grades, or from a sponsor, based on improved school work, or a birthday gift. The anthropologist didn’t understand this.”
The “sponsors” that Dolly was referring to are the people involved in Angels of the Amazon who provide support for education, various projects and programs to help the community with Dolly’s guidance.
The anthropologist in question was at the time deeply involved with Angels of the Amazon. She shadowed Dolly in her work throughout the Tahuayo area, but wasn’t perhaps as concerned about learning as she was about imposing her own notions about culture, which as Dolly sees it, can sometimes be part of the challenge for the locals.
“It works best when people come here to learn. Kids here flourish with gifts of love and attention,” Dolly explains. “Expensive toys don’t last. Education does. The sponsors who visit here and get involved really love it. The kids remember them and absolutely love getting their photos.”
In fact, when sponsors send small packages later to the kids who receive Angels of the Amazon support, the photos get the most attention. Money is largely ignored, when it’s sometimes sent for scholastic achievement or a birthday. What is far more meaningful is the personal connection. The kids remember the people and the relationship- that’s what lasts, and that’s what inspires them to keep working hard on their studies.
Eventually the anthropologist moved on, and Dolly heaved a sigh of relief. El Chino-and any Third World village like it- needs volunteers who are dedicated to helping the locals improve their conditions step by step.
Dolly is determined to teach self-determination and responsibility to these communities and not have them become dependent upon the largesse of NGOs or any other source. It’s the essence of the notion that you teach people to fish. In Dolly’s case, she has taught the women to weave, as fishing isn’t as sustainable as it used to be, and the crafts bring in money for the women and supports education for the kids as well as better nutrition for the whole family.
“They don’t need handouts. They need to learn to have pride in their work. To earn what they get,” says Dolly. “That’s what makes a strong community.”
Angels of the Amazon welcomes volunteers and supporters who are interested in getting involved with Angels of the Amazon. The not for profit thrives with help from people all over the world who are willing to get involved either through donations or by visiting and donating their time and services. The gratitude they receive is more than enough payment.