Editor’s note: Kayla Johnson is a Gallia County native and a 2008 graduate of River Valley High School. The following is a first-person account of her mission to to establish an education center with members of an indigenous (Quechua) community in the high Andes Mountains in Peru.
When I first came to Peru in December with my partner Joe, I was immediately struck by the kindness, humility and hard-working nature of the Quechua-speaking people.
The Quechua, or indigenous, communities in the Sacred Valley of the Incas live a farming lifestyle and are family-oriented. Everyone says, “Hola, como estas?” when you pass them in the street. One family even fed me when I fell sick from the altitude.
It was like being in Gallipolis again.
Joe and I have been in Peru since August working to provide more educational opportunities for the parents and children of Pallata, a rural mountain community high in the Andes. The people of Pallata, much like the rest of the Sacred Valley, wear colorful clothing made of alpaca wool, speak two languages — Quechua and Spanish — and only recently obtained electricity.
The people live in adobe brick houses, and most of the later generations were only able to complete primary school because there is still no secondary school in the community.
Since I graduated from River Valley High School in 2008, I have been away from Gallia County studying education. I triple majored in English, French and secondary education at Marshall University and received my master’s degree in higher education from the University of Kentucky. I am currently a dual-title doctoral student of higher education and comparative and international education at Penn State University.
I never dreamed that I, a small-town girl from the heart of Appalachia, would be living and working in another country. I studied French throughout high school and college, which makes me coming to Peru and speaking only Spanish all the more ironic.
My partner, Joe, also a doctorate student in education at Penn State, has been working in education development in the Sacred Valley for the past six years, co-founding and directing an education non-profit that provides access to secondary (high) school for Quechua young women. His organization, The Sacred Valley Project, is based in Ollantaytambo, a small town in the Sacred Valley that serves as a central hub of sorts for dozens of indigenous Andean mountain communities, like Pallata.
Many of the surrounding communities only have primary schools. After sixth grade, students either leave school to help their families farm corn or potatoes, or make the two to six hour walk to Ollantaytambo everyday to attend secondary school.
Pallata, a community of around 500 people, is one of the closer communities to Ollantaytambo, but is still about a two-hour walk up the mountain. The community has only one dirt road and just received electricity about six years ago. As Pallata only has a primary school, most people in the town have only a sixth grade education, but like many other communities in the Sacred Valley, the people from Pallata want more opportunities for their children to learn.
Knowing of Joe’s work with the Sacred Valley Project and our backgrounds in international education and leadership, the community members of Pallata approached us about starting a new education center in their community. Joe and I both finished our doctorate coursework in the spring, so we made the exciting decision to move to Peru for the fall semester to begin this wonderful new project.
The community donated an abandoned two-story adobe brick building in the center of town. Joe, myself, and our friend Beto, who is Quechua, assembled a team of local leaders, including Elmer, the community president. Together, we developed the Centro Educativo Pallata Ayllu, or Pallata Community Education Center. CEPA supports community-identified educational needs and provides culturally responsive educational opportunities for the community members of Pallata. Designed for adults and children alike, CEPA houses culturally grounded courses in English and Spanish literacy, computer skills, and community development. Our teacher, Yubitza, is Quechua herself and teaches the courses in a way that celebrates Quechua culture and respond to the unique needs of the community. Through CEPA, the community also wants to give back, holding courses for tourists travelling through to Machu Picchu who want to learn Quechua skills such as textile weaving and the uses of medicinal herbs.
After four weeks of planning, gathering materials, and putting it all together, we held the inauguration for CEPA on Saturday, Oct. 8. The community spent their morning pulling weeds, moving rocks, and cooking chuleta (pork) in preparation for the traditional Quechua inauguration ceremony. Then, Joe, myself, Beto, and Elmer stood in front of the community as they took turns expressing their gratitude for the education center, passionately noting how much it means to them and their children. As we gave children and parents a tour of the center and computer lab, my eyes filled with tears at the excited look on their faces. The entire ceremony was incredibly moving, and one that I will not soon forget.
The center was made possible by a donation from Joe’s late grandfather, William Smearman, who dedicated his life to the education and training of others. However, in order to keep CEPA open year-round we need more support are seeking more donations. The center’s monthly expenses average approximately 1000 Peruvian soles, or $300, which includes the teacher’s salary, electricity, water, and maintenance. We also hope to purchase additional computers and classroom supplies and provide Internet access. We are affiliated with the Sacred Valley Project (Joe’s other NGO), which is a registered 501c3 organization. Your donations are 100 percent tax deductible.
If you would like to donate to the Centro Educativo Pallata Ayllu, you can send checks payable to the Sacred Valley Project to: Kayla Johnson, 924 Neighborhood Rd., Gallipolis, OH 45631.
In the memo line, please note that the donation is for CEPA.
Joe and I will remain in Peru though mid-November, overseeing the center and teaching English classes. As Joe and I finish our doctoral work this spring and become professors, we plan to spend our summers in Peru, continuing to work with the Quechua people.
When I left Gallia County for college, I never thought that I would end up in a place like Peru. In fact, being so far away from home seemed incredibly scary.
But, even on another continent, the kindness of the Quechua people and the beauty of the Andes Mountains make home seem a little less far away.