During the school year, Dr. Lillian Larson teaches in the Special Education/Communication Disorders Department at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. But come summertime, Dr. Larson travels the world. Her most recent trips included a week-long “eco-tour” in Ecuador, living with the pygmies in Zaire, and visiting schools in Indonesia. Certainly, semester breaks allow Dr. Larson ample time to travel to great distances and discover diverse cultures, but the greatest benefit exists upon her return, when she has classrooms full of students to share her experiences with.
When she visited Ecuador, she and a group of other teachers stayed with a Cofan tribe. The Cofan are a small ethnic group that live in the northern region of the Ecuadorian Amazon whose lives are now deeply affected by oil companies that are taking over the land. Since 1972, when oil companies set their sights on expanding in Ecuador, the Cofan and neighboring tribes began to dwindle in numbers. With a combined population of just over 1,000, they are sadly facing cultural extinction.
To help in this plight, the chief of one Cofan tribe in the village of Zabalo allows 12 groups of “eco-tourists” to stay in his village each year. The money from this eco-tourism provides for the Cofan families and villages while educating visitors about the grave social and environmental consequences caused by the overpowering oil industry. This is the kind of information Dr. Larson brings home. She raises awareness in her community and in her classrooms by sharing how the land is being stripped of its natural resources and how the Cofan hunting land is now marred by 315 miles of oil pipeline.
Standing six feet four inches tall, Dr. Larson clearly towers over people in almost any culture. But when she visits the pygmies of the Congo she really towers over them. While on her last visit, she got down on her knees in an act of humility to greet the chief of one pygmy tribe. And even on her knees, she was still a bit taller than the tiny man. The chief laughed and laughed. “He thought that was the funniest thing, and that kind of cemented our relationship.” It humors Dr. Larson that most travelers, including her, want to take pictures with the natives. But in the Congo, she found that the natives wanted to take pictures with her.
In all of her journeys, Dr. Larson finds that her experience in teaching communication disorders really helps in bonding with non-English speaking people. Trained in connecting with people who have had hearing loss, stroke or cerebral palsy, she is more sensitive to how people try to communicate. “I’m perhaps more likely to notice other things that people aren’t speaking. I’m tuned in to watching the nonverbal.”
Also as the daughter of a minister who often moved, she had innumerable experiences that enriched and broadened her communication skills. “When I was a child, I would go with my parents and visit nursing homes. International students and missionaries from different countries would always stay in our home. I’ve just been exposed my entire life to people of all ages and cultures.”
Her extensive communication skills clearly came in handy when she visited Irian Jaya, a remote island of Indonesia. There she stayed with the Dani, an indigenous group who have remarkably resisted the pressures of modern culture. The Dani will have nothing to do with Western clothes; the men wear only penis gourds and adorn their noses with pig teeth. Their bodies are embellished with clay and grease paint. As with peoples of other cultures, Dr. Larson relates to the Dani with ease. “Smiling is universal,” she says. “And so is music. I would sing just a few bars of a song, and then I would gesture to them, and they would be able to sing it.” It’s her way of breaking the ice with new friends. “When you’re dealing with people who don’t have a written language, they’re more tuned in to listening. It’s amazing how easily they can mimic the sounds that I make.”
And the sharing goes both ways. “I like to learn their dances and songs, and it’s always well received because it shows that you’re interested in them.”
Of course, summertime must come to an end. But when Dr. Larson returns to the University of Nebraska each fall, she always has something to share with her students. She shares with her class how in many cultures, it is the woman who does a greater portion of the work. In Ecuador for example, the Cofan farmers are the women. Their knowledge of soil and weather patterns is exceptional. And in Irian Jaya, women are often seen carrying up to five woven bags of goods at a time. An additional bag holds a child.
She also shows her students how the Cofan uses the forest’s natural treasures for practical and decorative purposes. Dr. Larson demonstrates to her class how they would bend leaves and weave them together to keep the rain from seeping through their roofs. And she illustrates how the seed of a fruit called tagua is used as “vegetable ivory,” and could be carved to create jewelry or etch out the profiles of faces.
And she lectures on the varied ways people of other societies deal with age. In other cultures, she finds that the elderly are very much respected. Among the Dani, the children are at times cared for by the elderly. The young ones are treated differently too. “The children are included in the activities,” she recalls. “I had dinner in the home of the ceremonial king and queen of one of the Indonesian islands, and their young toddler stayed up with us late into the night. In America, the child would have been fed first, and not allowed to stay up with the adults.” She also noted how in many Indonesian villages, she very seldom hears a baby cry.
But Dr. Larson’s sharing of the world doesn’t end when class is over. Just the other day when she visited her chiropractor, the receptionist and assistants were excited to see her photos from her most recent travels. “I think vicariously I give people opportunities that they would never have themselves, but through me, they could learn a little bit more about other parts of the world.”
With her extensive training in communication, along with her many overseas adventures, Dr. Larson acts as a swinging door of understanding for her friends both at home and abroad. She lives her life as an instrument of sharing. Her next stop: Christmas in Brussels. “I travel in order to enrich my life and the lives of others. I feel that I can help bring remote parts of the world a little closer together.”
Backshall, Stephen, and David Leffman, et al. Indonesia, The Rough Guide. (Rough Guides, 1999).
Equador, Galapagos. (APA Publications, 1998).