The Rare Colombian Hippo, by Sheila Armstrong

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“You see the field there, to our side? When I was a girl, a drug lord live there. He had fields and fields and fields. And he had a hippo. A hippo! He buy a hippo and bring it to his land, so much money.”

I gasped in polite and appropriate surprise. My murky geography lessons are so long ago it took a few seconds to realise hippos were not, in fact, native to rural Colombia. That it really wasn’t normal for a sub-Saharan animal to be wandering around through Los Llanos.

When you descend from the mountains surrounding Bogota, through winding valleys that seem to have been cut out by a fat-greased carving knife, you come to a sudden and almost frightening halt as the countryside levels out onto Los Llanos, the Green Sea. From here, you can almost see all the way northeast to Venezuela, some 800 kilometres away. It was a Saturday in May and we were driving through the district of Meta on our way to visit a waterfall. Our co-teacher wanted to show us the best her part of the world had to offer.

By the time I had done the necessary mental rearrangement, it was too late to bring the topic up again. Why had the drug lord had a hippo? Did no one in charge notice? Was there anyone in charge? Did he let the local children take rides on its back, or was it held in case its severed hippo head was ever needed to slip under a bedsheet?

So I never found out about the hippo. And I never will. These stories never really creep out from between the clutched fingers of small communities. These little facts and anecdotes must, possibly of necessity, stay rooted to the fields they were born in, the time they lived in, and the people who brought them about.

The wandering hippo reminded me of Macondo, the bizarre and morose town found in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude by. I only made it two-thirds of the way through that novel. My drastic need to improve my Spanish meant that I had to switch over to El Harry Potter, in an attempt to pick up some useful vocabulary (it worked – I once managed to figure out a Colombian teenager was referring to leprechauns by his use of duende, or elf). I have a Spanish version of One Hundred Years of Solitude – a parting gift exchanged for a copy of Oscar Wilde’s collected works – sitting on my bookshelf. I will come back to it, cuando puedo entender pocito mas. Because I feel I need to read it in Spanish to understand it properly.

I knew a handful of Spanish words before I went to Colombia to teach English in a public school for six months. My boyfriend’s dire grasp of comparative linguistics meant I needed to learn a lot more, and fast. We were unceremoniously dumped in the town of Acacias, about fifty miles from nowhere, in rural Meta. We spoke no Spanish. The locals certainly spoke no English. We were faced with six months of only having each other to talk to, and to say we were worried was an understatement.

The town smelled bad – not the earthy, rural smell that seems to waft out of poverty-porn photos on the Internet, but the stale and gagging stench of concrete cooked in the hot sun. Miles and miles of square-grid buildings bloated the town. There was nothing to do. Oil had been discovered in Acacias about ten years previously, so the descent of corporations, engineers and workers had been rapid. Designer clothing stores had elderly women cooking fried arepas on upturned trashcans outside. The concrete was still wet in many places.

Our school told a similar story. We were shown around by a bashful principal who seemed not to realise that his modern, technological and brightly-painted establishment was a far, far cry from the crumbling and damp Catholic schools of our teenage years. We met our students. They took selfie after selfie, and we were left feeling a bit bemused. Why were we here? These students had more resources than we ever had. They had smartphones and smartboards and other equipment that I assumed was also smart. Why were a bunch of gringos being sent over to work alongside Colombian English teachers in public schools around the country when they had all this money to spend?

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We soon found out our students were the lucky ones. Other English teachers in different areas reported cardboard boxes instead of seats. Trips in to the nearest city led us through tightly packed slums where, trying to catch the attention of a thirsty driver, children swung sliced pineapples in little plastic bags. In Pineapple Town the road was lined with stand after stand of fresh pineapples, and the swingers all had the same uniform and slightly mesmerising rhythm to their movements; something in the flicking of their wrists made the mouth water automatically. But the corrugated iron roofs and walls that swelled upwards away from the road did not. You can’t build a house out of pineapples.

We found that the greener areas told a different story again. Fincas were farms, large swathes of land outside the town that most families travelled to at the weekends. We were invited along to a number and fed belly-swelling sancocho – boiled fowl cooked with plantain, yucca and potatoes in a pot over an open fire – and were told to rest in brightly coloured hammocks. Once, after asking for an orange from the lush trees growing in the front garden, I was presented with a shopping bag filled to the brim with greenish-yellow oranges. I ate every single one.

I think it was here on the fincas that we found a great love for the Colombian people. Generous, desperately helpful and almost pathologically cheerful, they were a shock to our stoic-melancholic Irish systems. We made tentative acquaintances, and through a combination of broken Spanish and emphatic hand gestures, some of them became our friends. We learnt to dance from Christian, who had the hips of a snake. Jorge taught us how to drink aguardiente and which football teams to follow. We drank coffee by the tanker-full and ate nether-parts of unfamiliar animals.

And every week in school there was a festival. A football match? Time to celebrate! A holy day? Let’s go! Last Thursday of the month? Break out the arepas! We danced and had our faces painted and cheered. We began to develop a slight tan from our students’ reflected glow.

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But we missed class after class, to the point where we would go a month without seeing our students again. There were upwards of forty students in a class. Schoolbooks weren’t compulsory or even used. Students had to pay for photocopies. Teachers often worked from 6 in the morning until 6 in the evening, along with weekends, because their families couldn’t be supported on a pathetic teacher’s salary.
During our time in Colombia, there was a nationwide strike. Teachers marched for two whole weeks for better pay, health insurance, and a myriad of other basic allowances. In the end, the union voted to accept a raise of just 12%, less than half of their original demand. Our co-workers were devastated. Bribery, treachery and political pressure were all thrown into the air as possible influences.

I certainly cannot speak with authority about the problems in the Colombian educational system, as six months working in a public school is in no way enough time to learn the nuances necessary to fully understand the situation. I’m not even sure that I can speak with authority about the Irish educational system, even after fourteen years in its grasp. But there was one thing that scraped across my nerves. Funds desperately needed to reduce class sizes, provide schoolbooks and pay teachers were being diverted. Some schools had smartboards; others had cardboard boxes. Instead, students were getting young Western co-teachers that would look good in a photo opportunity with whatever politician happened to be passing.

We shook hands with the Minister for Education. She greeted us personally and told us we were making a difference. By the end, though, I couldn’t help feel that we were like the hippo – lost in a landscape that didn’t need us and purchased with money that would have done better elsewhere.

The peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government are at a fragile point. Kidnappings and murders still happen, and the drug trade still pollutes the country’s rural communities. Politicians, policemen and officials are still known to accept the odd brown envelope. But compared to ten years ago, the country is almost unrecognisable.

This is a new, modern Colombia. And I can’t help but feel that this country’s greatest asset is their people. Sort out the schooling system. Give the young people an education, let them loose on the world – and the happiness will spread faster than cocaine on a nightclub toilet cistern.

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Bio: Sheila Armstrong is a writer and editor.

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