Disney Magic has Come to Ermera

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By Will Jongeward
Feb. 27, 2024

When I first came to my village, I came with a pair of footballs, cleats, and a dream of teaching English through sports, amongst other essentials. How great would it be to effectively accomplish the first two goals of the Peace Corps while doing what I love, tossing the ol’ pigskin. Early in living in my site, I would spend most afternoons on the courtyard of my middle school playing with the neighborhood kids. I showed them a few classic American games (kickball was an instant favorite) and we collaborated to make some new ones (two teams playing keep away/ hot potato was a chaotic joy). Wonderful memories have been made and much joy has been had by the kids, but unfortunately not much English was learned between the grunts and shouts of the games. There had to be a better way to help them with English while having fun.

One cloudy morning on the mountain I turned 26 and my friends and co-volunteers Ruby and Paul showed up at my house to surprise me. After showing them the best trails my community has to offer, we found ourselves sitting on a rock far ‘upstream’ in a seasonally dried out riverbed with the foliage of the coffee shading Samtuku overhead providing a mesmerizing, latticed canopy for us to enjoy as we talked out whatever Peace Corps Volunteers usually talk about, like ORS and all the books we’re totally going to start reading. Amongst this someone brings up movies they’ve watched at site and I realize while I brought stuff to play football for the first and second goals, I didn’t bring any movies. How many countless people have I met who’ve grown up outside of an English-speaking country, yet learned the language from media they loved, especially movies? And what easier way for me to help my community learn English than putting on a movie? It would be perfect, all I needed was the actual movies.

After frolicking back down the trails to my host family’s house, I found out that Ruby and Paul not only happened to have DVDs in their backpacks but were also in generous moods. They lent me some classics not only for me to enjoy, but importantly movies the kids would love. Love might undersell the magnitude what my host siblings felt watching Shrek for the first time. I always let them pick the movie they want to watch, and I think they made a great first choice. The big green ogre was only the first of their obsessions. After two weeks of watching Shrek every night, it then became UP, and after that Jurassic Park. That last one personally struck me deeply as I remember the countless nights I’d spend as a kid rewatching Jurassic Park and sitting perfectly still every time a T-Rex was near, following Dr. Grant’s firm commands to “not,,, move,,, a muscle”. The magic was especially alive in my younger sister Ester as she not only wanted to watch it every night but would drag everyone she could find in the community to share what she loved.

Eventually we made our way to the Disney. Coco and Encanto are two newer ones I never watched as a kid so had never seen before. Usually, I put on the movie and did my own thing while coming back to check on them and translate a few words. Not being much of a movie guy, I’d rather go read instead, not knowing what I was missing. It was with Ester that the infectious songs caught on the strongest. I couldn’t go a minute in the house without hearing her sing about ‘Mama Coco’ or ‘Family Madrigal’. Within a few weeks, she had memorized every single song and let the world know it.

All of my adult siblings live in the capital Dili for school and work. Santiago is the one with the best English and a job lined up in nearby Australia. He is also the one who comes up to visit us and who I speak with the most. He is always looking for ways to improve his English, so one night I suggested watching a movie because he could likely actually understand most of the words. He asked Ester which one we should watch and she naturally picked ‘Mama Coco’. So, I sat down and watched it with them, mostly so I could help Santi with any phrases he couldn’t pick up. Growing up in SoCal in a Mexican American majority town, it felt very comforting to re-experience Mexican culture in the movie. It made me long for home and reminded me of the love for other cultures that inspired me to join the Peace Corps. The most profound feeling during the night was getting to the end and hearing Ester’s favorite song, “Remember me, though I have to say goodbye. Remember meeeeee…” and I was reminded that one day I would have to say goodbye to this family I have grown to love so dearly, my siblings and my mom who calls me her Oan-Mane (son). While a soul crushingly beautiful moment, the end of the movie shows, there isn’t a final goodbye.

In addition to forcing me to contemplate and appreciate my impermanence, the movies have given all the kids (and some adults) the chance to learn English while experiencing wonder. It has been such a success I can even tell my siblings “Mirabel (from Encanto) likes to eat ______” whenever they’re being picky eaters. While the footballs were fun, I learned what my community really wanted was Shrek. It hasn’t been all positive though. Without a doubt the largest constraint on me working has been Ester coming to me during the day asking timidly and politely in English if she can watch a movie. Without fail, I am always the stern older brother who tells her that she can’t because I have work, I need to be doing on the laptop. Then a few minutes later I find myself setting everything up for her to watch a movie. I fold every time. To fix this, I hope to put through a grant proposal with my schools to purchase a projector to share the movie magic (and other learning) with all the students of Ermera. For now, it's my community huddled around the laptop keeping each other quiet so they don’t miss a word Miguel says to Mama Coco.

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