November 23, 2001 - San Francisco Chronicle: Peace Corps volunteer home from Ecuador starts mural project

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2001: 11 November 2001 Peace Corps Headlines: November 23, 2001 - San Francisco Chronicle: Peace Corps volunteer home from Ecuador starts mural project

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Read the story from the San Francisco Chronicle about a returned volunteer who is working on a mural project at:

Peace Corps volunteer home from Ecuador starts mural project

PROFILE / Brandon Bannister / A bit of local color in Ecuador / Peace Corps volunteer starts mural project

Nov 23, 2001 - San Francisco Chronicle Author(s): Jim Doyle

On the rocky, dirt roads of eastern Ecuador, they call him "Brando, the gringo painter." The young American lugs his art supplies and camping gear from one rain forest village to the next, working with children to create big, colorful murals.

Mostly painted on the sides of school buildings, or in the waiting rooms of health centers, the images and words of Brandon Bannister's evocative murals revolve around basic issues and themes that continue to haunt the Ecuadoran people: health care, alcoholism, domestic violence and subsistence living.

In the Sonoma County hamlet of Monte Rio, a depressed outback on the Russian River, Bannister is an example of a college graduate who took a detour from the hordes of youngsters eager to break into the job market. He joined the Peace Corps, and created his own niche to help children and others in need.

Bannister, 26, is well acquainted with simplicity. He grew up in an 1890-circa building that served, until the 1930s, as Monte Rio's one-room schoolhouse. But nothing could quite prepare him for Ecuador's poverty.

"To see children who go all day without eating, to see people who never travel because they don't have 50 cents for the bus fare to get to town," said Bannister, who returned recently to Monte Rio for a monthlong vacation. "No (Peace Corps) volunteer can understand what it means to be that poor because we are not that poor.

"The volunteers who come from the bigger U.S. cities to the rural villages have a bigger problem adjusting. Being from a lower-income family actually helped me. . . . That has been an advantage I've had over other volunteers," he said. "Almost all of them have had more higher education, more travel and have come from affluent families - and thus have more culture shock when they come to live in an impoverished country."

As a boy, Bannister explored the Russian River and old logging trails in the redwoods. His father, a contractor, and his mother, then a private investigator, had moved to Monte Rio in the early 1970s, looking for an alternative lifestyle and affordable refuge.

Perhaps because of its flood-prone real estate, Monte Rio has long been a magnet for low-income and welfare families, and its residents make for an interesting mix: hippies, gays, out-of-work loggers looking for a home in the redwoods. But in the Bannister home, there was always food on the table, clean clothes and other basic necessities.

Bannister attended El Molino High School in nearby Forestville, and despite his limited means, continued his studies at Santa Rosa Junior College and the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in nutrition and a minor in biochemistry.

"I wanted to travel. I wanted to live very simply. I -didn't want a career yet," he said of his decision to join the Peace Corps four years ago. "I wanted to develop my personal social skills that were very lacking at the time. I just -wasn't very socialized. I spent most of my time by myself, pursuing my music and philosophy and - wasn't comfortable in social situations. I realized that I wanted to help people. I wanted to force myself to interact and learn from people."


Bannister arrived in Ecuador's capital city of Quito in August 1997 and underwent three months of intensive Peace Corps training in local culture, customs and Spanish.

He became part of the Peace Corps' health program. Its goals in Ecuador include lowering the incidences of vitamin deficiency, AIDS and anemia (especially among pregnant women). It also promotes use of alternative and less costly natural medicines and seeks to help families begin small, "income-generation" projects, such as opening a roadside stand to sell vegetables.

During his first year in Ecuador, Bannister taught English, played harmonica and flute for children and worked with groups of women as part of the health program. He also studied Spanish grammar every night. Eventually, he became an effective public speaker in the language.

Bannister began the children's mural project almost by accident.

"I was supposed to work in a local health center, but they had no project for me," he said. "I was making a map of the world, and the children painted over it. I painted over their marks. Together, we made the first mural."

He began traveling to other villages of 100 to 400 people, hiking two or three hours on muddy trails. There, he encountered many families without fathers: the men having taken menial jobs overseas to earn money to send home to support their families.

Typically, he forms a partnership with a village school and camps out in that community for one to two weeks. Villagers give him food from their farms, such as plantain (large cooking bananas) and yucca (a potatolike root). He brings rice, cooking oil and salt. Sometimes he is able to borrow a village's propane stove.

He often works in a one-room schoolhouse with children in grades one through six. In class, he speaks about health-related issues, then asks the students to make drawings of the ideas he has spoken of. He designs a mural that incorporates their pictures. He uses oil- based house paint, which he buys in the nearby town of Tena.

At first, Bannister paid for the paint himself. In February, the Peace Corps gave him a $150 project grant to pay for some of his supplies. Sometimes, he has help toting his supplies to remote villages. Other times, he carries one-liter cans of paint in his backpack.

Some of the murals have landscapes, planets, dancing fruit or abstract images in the background. All include inscriptions in Spanish, such as "Bathe every day with soap and water," "Drinking makes you weak," and "The world is more beautiful when you understand it."

"These are murals which have specific health themes related to the individual community where I'm painting," he said. "For example, there's a large problem with alcoholism in some of these communities, which leads to domestic problems, including violence."

Other themes highlighted by the murals include nutrition, family planning and protection of the water (some Ecuadorans fish the rivers with dynamite and poison). The murals have also encouraged villagers to use public libraries and children to continue their studies after grade school.

Often, teens and other youngsters help him paint. The finished mural includes the handprints and signatures of his collaborators. Thirty-five murals have been created, ranging in size from 6-by-10 feet to 6-by-40 feet.

"I didn't really have painting experience before," said Bannister, explaining that his goal as an artist is "not to become the most technically proficient artist, but to make my artwork affect as many people as possible."

In the past two years, Bannister has had a part-time assistant - his Ecuadoran girlfriend, Monica Gallo, who teaches 14 students in a one-room schoolhouse near Tena. They met two years ago at a teachers conference. He painted a mural at her school, and she volunteered to help. A Tena foundation plans to pay her to work with him on other murals.

The two want to help children make arts and crafts, such as oil paintings and necklaces made with seeds and other natural materials, to sell to tourists.

The murals are "educational in terms of preventative medicine," Bannister said. "It's very low cost. It can be repeated in the country by locals without the aid of international organizations. Each mural costs about $20 for materials."

Bannister refers to children as "the most in need and the most able to learn." Murals, he said. "promote art, creativity and abstract thinking and shows there are other ways to solve problems."


Apart from his identity as the gringo painter, Bannister is also recognized in the Ecuadoran countryside as the shirtless man who juggles while he jogs along the pock-marked roads.

For the first three years, Bannister wore a long beard. He shaved it off because he felt it brought him too much attention, and he wears his hair very short.

His home base is Misahualli, a remote village of 600 on a tributary of the Amazon River near the Ecuador-Colombia border.

"Among themselves, they're very playful and open," Bannister said. "But with a foreigner or stranger, they're very shy."

The villagers call him "Brando" - choosing a derivative of Brandon because Spanish words almost never end in a consonant.

Oil drilling is a leading industry in eastern Ecuador, and oil spills have ruined portions of the rain forest. Agricultural development, such as corn fields and cattle ranches, has also replaced myriad acres of virgin forest.

It's seven hours by bus from Misahualli to Quito, Ecuador's largest city, a metropolis of 1.5 million people that is sprinkled with American restaurants and stores such as Baskin-Robbins and The Wherehouse.


Bannister visits the Peace Corps office in Quito every six months. The Peace Corps has 146 volunteers in Ecuador who focus on agriculture and animal production, health, youth and the environment. Because of Ecuador's depressed economy, all five projects also stress income generation.

"I have very little interaction with my boss, because he's in Quito and his volunteers are spread throughout the country," he said. "Generally, I communicate each week with him by telephone and e- mail. As long as I am fulfilling the goals of the program, they let me set my schedule and hours."

Unlike many of his colleagues, Bannister has remained healthy. "I've been amazingly fortunate, healthwise," he said. "Other volunteers almost invariably have infections and illnesses, but I've been very healthy for four years."

He attributes his good health to "exercise, maintaining a mental balance and adjusting to the culture." In his spare time, he reads, thinks and takes photographs.

"I'm very spiritual," he said. "I -don't follow any particular religion, but I think along the lines of philosophical, existentialist questions on why we are here, why we die, and what we should do with our limited time on earth."

He reads "mostly any good literature I can get." His favorite authors include Aldous Huxley, Carlos Casta-eda, and D.H. Lawrence - particularly Lawrence's "grassroots look on life and attraction to working-class people and their intense emotions."


Bannister has been able to return home to Monte Rio only twice in the past four years.

"It's been a little bit of a shock to see how materialistic our society is and see how much waste there is. To see so many people in their own cars," he said. "In Ecuador, virtually no one has their own car. They take public transportation. And they're very poor."

But he has also come to appreciate the United States for other reasons: the special education opportunities for children; the various support systems for disabled people, such as handrails and sidewalk ramps; the wide availability of jobs and job options; public libraries; the availability of higher education to many citizens; and the fact that many goods - appliances, televisions, cameras and even used clothes - are cheaper here.

"Seeing the Pacific Ocean was a big highlight for me," he said. "I live about a 16-hour bus ride from the ocean in Ecuador, and I - hadn't seen the ocean for about two years. It's something I miss."

On his recent visit home, Bannister spent time with his family and friends and looked for support for the mural project in the form of donated supplies.

"I'm in awe of Brandon," said his mother, Julie. "He strived so hard to go to college, and I wasn't in the position to pay for it. He saved his money since he was a boy, and with the help of grants, was able to go to college. He has made a place for himself in Ecuador, helping people. Everyone talks about making a difference, but he is really living it."

Bannister has signed up for another year of service in the Peace Corps, which pays him a monthly stipend of $200. He lives on $150 a month, salting away the remainder for travel. When he leaves the Peace Corps, he will also be paid a "readjustment allowance" to help him get started in his next occupation - a lump-sum payment of $240 per month for each month he served.

For now, he seems caught between two cultures - not certain whether he will settle in Ecuador or California.

He chalks up his time in the Peace Corps as "a personal growth experience. . . . It has definitely built my personal confidence," he said. "It's an education that I -don't think can be equaled by any institution. And any travel experience -won't give you as in-depth a view of another culture."


Mural project

Those wishing to donate money or supplies to Brandon Bannister's mural project in Ecuador may contact him via e-mail:

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