The Casa Japa Project: Helping to raise an Ecuadorian family out of extreme poverty
Text and photos by Brian Buckner
The taxi driver gassed the screaming little four cylinder engine, putting us into another power slide around the rutted and muddy corner.
It had been that way for the last five miles as pigs and cows seemed to fly to get out of the path of the barreling yellow bullet of a cab. My camera laden backpack had been thrown to the floor as Rocio and I were jostled along in the backseat, sliding into each other repeatedly. We were headed for the small rural Barrio of El Bosque in the Andean highlands south of Cuenca, Ecuador. Our ultimate destination was a dilapidated hut, meagerly sheltering the Japa family of five, on the steep side of a mountain in the most rural reaches of the barrio.
Rocio Illescas is a Cuencana who directs the CETAP Lucy center in Barrio Chilcapamba. The children of the Japa family attend CETAP. I’m a photographer and artist who, along with other volunteers, teaches children at that facility. One role I had today was to provide manual labor with pick and shovel in the preparation of trenches that would hold the footings for the Japa’s new home. The other role was my acceptance of an invitation to photograph the beginnings of this project and also show the current living conditions of the family.
Thanks to the funding from Hearts of Gold, as a team, we were going to begin lifting this family from the danger and squalor that frames their everyday lives.
After the grueling taxi ride through the Andean highlands, Rocio and I disembarked the cab when the driver threw up his hands and loudly announced that his taxi would have no more of the muddy and steep conditions.
As we arrived on foot to the project site, there were shouts of “Hola!” and other greetings between the two of us and the workers who were already present. Gustavo, the project contractor, was there along with Nellie and Salvador Japa and their three sons, Juan Diego, John and Junior. Rounding out the expat side of the participants were Franny Lochow, Robert Lochow, Rick Ruzicka and Tom Larsen.
My co-workers had arrived several hours prior and had been using a rented jack-hammer to break through solid rock in the initial preparation of the needed trenches. I know all the expat members of our team and they’re not afraid to break a sweat or a stride to help another person. Fact is, they jump at the chance! They were all in true form and working hard. Cheerful, singing and covered in mud and dirt from their toils; on they worked toward the common goal of providing a better life for this seemingly forgotten family in the far away reaches of the Ecuadorian countryside.
I rolled up my sleeves, re-tied my bandana, and waded in. I can operate a sledge hammer and a pick too with a full arc beginning behind me, then over my head and down, but this environment wasn’t having any of that. Robert, Ric and I took our turns on the jackhammer dislodging the broken stone and casting it down the mountainside. Our tools were mostly meager and a plastic salad bowl scooped rubble from the deepening holes. Tom had assigned himself the job of finishing one of the large footing holes. I could hear the thump of his pick striking again and again. Rocio was in on the act too and Gustavo lent his labor and advice to all of us. Franny kept the water coming along with cheers of support, while minding the younger boys.
Shortly, it was break time. People were reaching for water and snacks as I got my camera gear ready to go. The top of the slope where we were working was very steep. Further below, it dropped off even more and was choked with jungle-like vegetation. The roof of the Japa’s current abode was barely discernible. Assessing the conditions, I began the slow climb down. Roots, limbs and vines were my ladder as I slipped and slid through the dirt and rocks. After a short distance, I intersected the vestige of a trail. Switchbacks wound sharply before arriving at a juncture with the dilapidated walls that supported the little roofline peering back at me. I was about to fulfill my second role of the day.
Seeing where they lived, I wished I could swing two picks at a time. My heart screamed in anguish at the realization that this was all they had in the world. The Japa family’s living conditions are worse than any other I’ve encountered and appear “sub-poverty” even by Ecuadorian standards. I’ve seen nothing else here that looked like what was barely standing before me. The immediacy of need was made clear by the scene my eyes took in.
My heart filled with emotion as I pushed back a filthy piece of torn black tarpaulin that served as an entry door on that side of the structure. I didn’t want to know what I already knew. I was entering the home of three boys we volunteers teach at CETAP Lucy. I didn’t want them to live here because living in a place like this isn’t living here, it’s dying here.
Everything that can whittle away a person’s spirit and will to go forward lay before me. The sight can make you think that you’re too late; but that’s the easy way out, shirking the responsibility we have to those less fortunate than ourselves. How the Japa’s have continued to meet their basic needs on a daily basis is life for them and a mystery for me. The spark of life and drive to succeed is revealed in their step. It isn’t things that are important, it’s people! That’s my adage and I do hope to wear it thin as a razor.
Regaining a semblance of my composure, the camera comes up and starts to fire, recording the scenes that you see here today. I never have to think about what or how I’m shooting in an environment like this. I just get connected to the people and their situation and it seems like someone else prepares the compositions and operates the camera. I think you’ll understand, that someone is far bigger than me.
We need your help at the Casa Japa Project. Following this phase of construction, we are going to need more donations for roofing material and wall fabrication. Your dollars can help the Japas have a safe home in the mountains and it’ll also get you a pretty big spot in their hearts. We volunteers work for free, except, not really. You see, the pay is quite high for this type of work, quite high. We get paid in the satisfaction of knowing we’ve helped another family find a better quality of life in a world that’s filled with unanswered needs.
If you’d like to help:
Brian Buckner makes his home with his wife, Edie, in Cuenca. He is a photojournalist and writer currently producing photo essays and stories of life in Ecuador. He and his wife enjoy hiking, writing and giving their time to those in need.