Author Archives: Nikki


The Onzole River Project has an intern! Carlos Vieira, a recent grad in Journalism and Political Science from Ottawa’s Carleton University, will be here for 6 months working in the communities along the Onzole River, following God’s call and seeing where He leads. This story was originally published on his blog‚ earlier this month.


The air in the room is thick and heavy. Despite the open windows and the dark night sky there is no reprieve from the unrelenting humidity. But the sweat glistening on the brows and soaking the clothes of those gathered could never dampen their mood. As the last of the expected enters the small open room everyone takes their place, standing at the ready.

The frontman taps his foot on the ground, his body swaying to the imaginary beat as he raises his clarinet to his mouth. He signals the rest and all at once the beat jumps to life, overflowing from within the four concrete walls into the streets beyond.

The beat of the percussion is loud and frantic, keeping a seemingly unsustainable rhythm. The frontman’s clarinet pierces through, laying down the flowing melody for the voices to follow. There’s the old man on the bass, his experienced fingers sliding over the strings and the sweet sound of the bamboo marimba, holding everything together.

As the beautiful music fills my ears and my own feet start to trace the beat, my eyes are transfixed, unable to turn away from the dancers before me. Their quick feet move in perfect unison, every rapid step timed perfectly to the beat of the drums, leading their hips through motions so fluid most could only dream of keeping up. Their long skirts filled with vibrant colors sway back and forth, opening up like a flower in bloom then quickly closing up as the dancer takes another step. The colors hang from their hips like a tapestry, making each dancer a mesmerizing moving piece of beautiful art.

This is Marimba, the cultural heart and soul of Ecuador’s Afro community, and if tonight’s practice reveals anything it’s that the heartbeat remains strong.

A cultural inheritance from their African ancestors, Marimba has been a hallmark of Afro-Ecuadorian communities for centuries, keeping the bonds of community tight during the days of slavery and the difficult days of isolation in the country’s dense jungles. As the Afro-Ecuadorian community has slowly migrated into Ecuador’s towns and cities, Marimba remains an important way for them to engage and celebrate their African heritage with their distinct Latin flair.

Groups like the one practicing this night are common, especially in the predominantly Afro city of Esmeraldas, located along the Pacific on Ecuador’s North-West coast. As they gather and the intensity of the song and dance begins to grow the smiles on the faces grow as well. Songs about picking cocoa and making delicious chocolate black as their skin celebrate the very trait that many have said is what makes them inferior. There is no sense of that here tonight, though. There is only pride. Pride in their art-form, pride in their ancestors and most importantly pride in themselves.

With every beat of the drum and shuffle of the feet there is a connection made, between the individuals in the room, yes, but it runs deeper than that. The connection is with a collective history that has come before. As the sweat glistens over the bodies of the drummers, the dancers and the other musicians, there is a knowledge and understanding of those who have come before and whose sweat glistened, just as it does now, as a similar beat played. It’s a glimpse into the beauty of shared experiences and their uncanny ability to bridge gaps, both of time and place.

And this is what Marimba, as with any art, is all about: Generations teaching generations the traditions of a shared culture, passing down not only the swivel of the hips and rhythmic beating of the percussion but of the pride and joy that comes with it. That when a girl in today’s Esmeraldas dons her flowing skirt and takes the first choreographed steps, she knows she is not alone, she is part of a deep and wondrous collective that will continue on, singing and dancing long into the night.


photo (1) - Copy

Voice of the Community

Pictor Quiñonez was born and raised in Santo Domingo de Onzole. He is the proud father of three teenagers and husband to Laysi. Pictor is the principal of the elementary school as well as a teacher to Year 10 students. He is also a farmer, local veterinarian and politician. Pictor remembers being a young boy when the elementary school was first built in his community; it was a novel concept at the time to take education into such rural areas of the country. Now he stands proud administrating and teaching in the very same school he had graduated from many years ago. He is passionate about mentoring teenagers through hard-work and skill training on the farm. Pictor’s unsung efforts have played key roles in the development of not only his community, but other communities along the river. Over the years Pictor has taken the lead in advocating for electricity, running water and government subsidized education. Below are some of his thoughts regarding his community:
Santo Domingo de Onzole is a community of African decedents. It is located in the northern province of Esmeraldas in the region of Eloy Alfaro. Our community has experienced and suffered through many hardships; social problems like our school being closed for more then a decade, health issues, discrimination and lack of basic services like electricity and running water. Thanks to God and some committed people, we have fought for the development of this African corner in the world. Thank you to all the willing men and women who have invested in our community with servant hearts. There are so many names running through my head of people I would like to thank that it would be impossible to list them all. However, it is through all of this collective support that our community has changed for the better. We now have electricity, ten school classrooms, a sewing and carpentry workshop, a computer lab and library for our kids and adults. We are currently working on building a water system that will give people access to running water right in their homes.
Even through these problems, we the people of Santo Domingo de Onzole remain happy. We are grateful to have been born in this corner of the world from descendants of Africa. We are proud to work the land producing rich cocoa pods, plantain and tagua nut while raising our herds of cattle. Though we are not big competitors on the economic market due to the remoteness of where we live, we continue forward. We delight in what God has blessed us with so far and we believe we will eventually live in a country where we will all enjoy the same basic human rights regardless of colour, wealth, social class or accomplishments. Please keep us in your prayers.

Scarves on Display in Ottawa, ON

The Onzole Scarf Project is coming back to Carleton University!
Because of all the excitement and great time we had at Carleton last week we’ve decided to set up again this coming Friday October 25 from 11:30-4:30 in the Carleton Atrium! We hope to see you there! Come learn more about the Onzole River Story and how you can be apart of helping us tell it!


Update: Long Overdue!

Hello friends!

It certainly has been a while since we’ve posted an update, but let me assure you MANY exciting things have been happening along the Onzole River! The following is both an update and a reflection on how far we have come as a group of people, across borders, cultures, and language, convinced that together we can make a difference.

In February 2008, the school in Santo Domingo de Onzole serving well over one hundred elementary school children, was on the edge of closure as a result of a lack of government attention and persistent under-funding. This would result in many youths losing access to basic education. The Santo Domingo community, having faced decades of neglect from its national government, were losing hope and had few remaining, if any avenues, for appeal. It was just prior to this time that a few Canadians, responding to an invitation to help, had begun to take regular trips to visit the community. Hearing about all the obstacles the school was facing, we somewhat spontaneously determined that this was a matter of justice that needed a compassionate, and immediate response. None of us, from Onzole or Ontario, knew what we were embarking on but we all knew it had to be done together.

Santo Domingo de Onzole is a community that works together!
Santo Domingo de Onzole is a community that works together!

A partnership began to form between Ontario and Onzole; Ontario would carry the financial responsibility of the school and help bring in volunteer construction groups, while the community would assume local leadership of building projects and advocate to the government for funding. We gave hope to each other, that the possibility for change existed in the efforts of each one of us. It took a year, but finally the Onzole community was able to secure a promise that the school would receive 50% of the required funding to pay teacher salaries. Ontario responded with a commitment to make up the difference. This enabled the community to prepare the school for the quickly approaching term and to initiate a year of classes and full curriculum. That was 2008-2009. At the same time teams from Ontario were invited by the Onzole community to help them restore their school building. The school leaders renewed their efforts to advocate for their students with an aim to secure 100% government teacher funding. The partnership between Canada and Ecuador grew and become stronger. Relationships grew, trust developed and dreams became reality. The Canadians provided modest financial help and encouragement to various projects within the community but HOPE was fueled by the Onzole community and all their efforts. Small, humble beginnings remind us that we all must start somewhere, we mustn’t wait, because change happens when ordinary people work together to accomplish extraordinary things.

As If I Never Left

After a short visit to Canada I am now back in Guayaquil. It’s like I was never gone. Everything is familiar and feels like home. My phone started to ring right away. “Ñana” (a short form for sister) said a weary voice “you are home”. Maxima is a new friend who I was privileged to meet a couple months ago. She has sickle cell anaemia. Maxima is from Onzole but made the arduous trek to a Guayaquil hospital and she was hoping I could come see her.

When I first met her, I heard of her family’s history plagued by death due to this rare blood disease. Her parents had sold all their cows and plots of their land to pay for Maxima’s treatments. Treatments which her other sisters had received but hadn’t helped; they had all passed away. I sat on her bedside in the dark wooden house, trying to focus my eyes on the skeletal figure that lay motionless in front of me. Death loomed in the shadows, I could feel it coming, pressing down on us.

Maxima needs blood to continue living, blood to replace the cells in her body that were twisted and damaged, blood to flow through her thirsty veins and bring life back to her emaciated body. The doctors told Maxima she needs a pint of blood every four months or she will die. The family had used all their money, with nothing left Maxima looked death in the face and accepted this would be her fate. Another life in peril because they couldn’t afford basic healthcare.

Before leaving Ecuador, I paid off Maxima’s debts. I bought her new blood and tomorrow I will buy more. This is how money can shine. It’s not my money, when you live in community, you carry one another’s hardships. Maxima will live. Why do we hold onto our things so tightly when letting go of our things could mean life for somebody else? Life through medical intervention, life through getting to go to school, life through literacy, life through relationships. The colossal divide between those who have and those who have not is growing at an alarming rate. I choose to stand in the in between and offer my hands as part of the bridge.

The Learning Center – July 2011

Inside the Learning Center Although the Learning Center is still technically under construction I couldn’t deny entrance to the dozen or so tiny black faces that watched me curiously through the windows. In they came with a cloud of dust, arms flailing, feet jumping in the air. “This is cool” one little guy said to me through a toothy grin, “and this is where the adults will come?” he asked. “No” I responded emphatically, “this is where you and your friends will come to play, learn, and have fun with me!” He pumped his fist in the air and threw his head back giggling and returned to the others. Not wanting to send the kids home covered in the same cement dust that covered the rest of the building, I ushered them into the only completed room thus far, the Computer lab. The kids were amazed at so many new and shiny machines. They swept their fingers across the keyboards feeling every groove and watched their reflections in the monitors. “These are for us too?” they asked, “yes” I said “this is a gift to all the people in the community”.

Hanging out at the Learning Center
In the middle of the computer room sat an opened bin of children’s books that I had brought upriver with me; I watched them inspecting the colourful title pages, intrigued by the pictures but hesitant to touch. “Go ahead” I said encouragingly “they are books, they are for you too”. There is something so precious to me about watching a child pick up a book, cradle it in their arms, find a quiet spot on the floor and peel back the front cover. Eyes that dart back and forth soaking in all the colours and words that the pages hold. It is like entering into a new world where you never know what the turn of a page could bring, a dragon, a princess, or a boat sailing off to a faraway land in search of treasure. A book has the ability to captivate us, inspires us, provoke dreams and creativity.

The kids in Onzole are loud, they love to yell, they can’t help but always wiggle because they are full of pent up energy. It is a rare thing to ever be among the kids and not have them all trying to talk to you at once, The Learning Center (June 2010) braid your hair, climb onto your back or get you to kick a ball with them, but that afternoon, however, was an exception. It was the exception that calmed my fear of failure, my need to control and organize and plan, it showed me that the books will speak for themselves and that I just need to create the environment and be present. Splayed out before me on the cool tile floor of the computer lab were a dozen kids with books in hand, not a word spoken between them, just the occasional whisper of a word being sounded out or muffled giggles over a funny illustration. Quiet. Peaceful. They were reading.

The Learning Center is looking different with each passing day. The walls are all blocked now and the tile is currently being laid on the floor to be followed by the parging of the walls. I will be travelling back up river for two weeks end of July to paint the inside and outside of the building, design the library furniture and shelves that the Carpentry Workshop will make in August. I will also begin some preliminary computer, reading and craft workshops as well. I anticipate the official, grand opening of the Learning Center will be sometime late September. Exciting!

Onzole Community Center

The Community Center - Week 1 (Feb.11.11)

The community center build was kicked off with lots of enthusiasm by the Onzole community, as well as our Canadian work teams.  It is beautiful. It is unique, it is spacious and it was built by the willing hands of many. Our hearts are full of thankfulness to God for protecting us in all our travels and on the work site, not one accident despite the elements. The community of Onzole worked hard and they are excited to watch this building take shape in the heart of their town. We are awestruck by how talented, patient and hardworking the groups of Canadians were that came down. Thank you!!