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The Minga

If you want something done, you do it yourself, right? Not in the Ecuadorean highlands. The minga is a quintessentially South American phenomenon still strongly evident in many Andean communities. Derived from the Quichua word minka, meaning roughly "working together," it evokes the concept of a community's mutually collaborating to achieve a task for the benefit of everyone, and a tradition predating the Incas.

The minga can apply to many different projects, such as helping with the harvest, building or repairing a neighbor's house, or, in more modern times, picking up trash along a dirty city street or equipping a children's playground.

The Incas exploited the practice to great effect within the highland farming communes (ayllus) under their domain, which partly helps explain their success in expanding and supplying their once vast empire.

The work carried out is done free of charge and in shifts for the common good. Mingas, it's important to note, take place in addition to a worker's normal job. In the highland Andean villages, the communities decide what needs to be done: say, a new drainage ditch, road repair, or the potato harvest. Laborers bring their tools to the site of the task in question, and although the project may be back-breakingly hard, there is an almost festive atmosphere as the volunteers come and go.

The minga philosophy -- that what you give, you get back -- is still alive and well. Orphans, the elderly, and the infirm all make their contribution, too, however small, and receive shelter and food in return.

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