Lessons from the Mountains
The short video “Visiting Andean rural Schools: lessons from the mountains” attempts to briefly portray the experience of travelling to two Andean areas of Peru visiting Quechua schools. The first part of the trip took me to the bilingual community of Patacancha in the department of Cusco where I conducted pre-dissertation field work. The second trip took me to several schools in the department of Apurimac while working as an intern for Peru’s Ministry of Education (specifically the agency within the Ministry that creates and implements bilingual intercultural education policies). Cusco and Apurimac are two out of the twenty four departments that make up the nation of Peru.
The video opens with a brief overview of the community of Patacancha’s bilingual intercultural elementary school. Patacancha sits 4000 meters above sea level in the department of Cusco, about a two hour walk from the Inca town of Ollantaytambo, which is two hours away by train of the famous and beautiful Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. Currently, in this region, a bilingual intercultural education (EBI) policy is being implemented successfully. The community of Patacancha is part of a network of eleven Quechua-speaking communities that extends through a valley for approximately 100 kilometers. The Patacancha school is considered a success story among the bilingual intercultural schools of the area. After visiting the school, talking extensively with the school’s principal, Mr. Mauro Masias Condori, and meeting the families and the students it was very clear to me that Patacancha’s success story is due to the leadership of its principal, the commitment of its teachers, and the support of the community. The school was built by the parents, brick by brick. The community members embrace bilingualism and instill in their children a sense of pride in their Quechua heritage.
Next, my travel took me to the neighboring department of Apurimac where I spent time visiting rural schools and meeting with regional as well as local education authorities in different provinces of the department. Apurimac is located in the southern central Peruvian Andean Mountains. The department is composed of 7 provinces, three of which I visited on this trip. There are many districts within each province and furthermore, many Quechua communities within these districts. The department of Apurimac is 75 percent rural. All of the schools we visited are very hard to reach due to poor road infrastructure. For the most part, we were travelling at an altitude between four and five thousand metres above sea level. Most of the population is bilingual with Quechua being the dominant language.
A View of what we saw along the way
Economically, the schools and communities visited by western standards would be considered very poor (no running water, one teacher per 40 plus students, lack of teaching materials, multi-grade classrooms, one-room school house, dirt floors, etc.). However, if we were to measure them by another set of standards we would see how rich they are. Apart from living an existence of deep connection to the earth, the way the Andinos live has much sentiment and a lot of feeling. For example, people gather around to share a song together, to share the sentiment of what the song brings. Whenever my colleagues and I would arrive in a classroom, the customary greeting was for all children to stand up and in unison greet the visitors. Then they would sit down and one student would usually come to the front of the classroom and offer to sing us a song. This is evident throughout the video. In one particular 1st-3rd multi grade classroom, while the children sang, a boy and a girl danced inside a circle made by all children. It was really beautiful. Most of the children sang us songs in Quechua. The sentiment by which these groups of people live is even ingrained in their language. Quechua carries a lot of tenderness in its grammatical structure.
"In Apurimac, everything seems so alive..."
The entire community of Q’ellu gathers at the school.
In Apurimac everything seems so alive. The air is pure, the water sings and it can be drunk straight from the streams, wild colorful flowers abound, especially the yellow retamo. Being there made me happy. People still wear traditional clothing that they weave themselves into intricate patterns of vivid colors. Within the Quechua, one is poor if one has no family, not if one has no money.
The connection with the earth is vital and sacred for the people of the communities that I visited, and it is this love for the earth that seems to bring happiness to their hearts and meaning to their lives. I don’t want to romanticize their existence, but being in their company, in the company of the children, once again has touched a very deep part of my heart. I have learned much about the meaning of life in the land of the Apus (the spirits of the mountains). One of the most important aspects of Andean life is their ritual practices that for the most part involve the coca leaf.
The coca leaf has been a part of the lives of the Andinos for the past four thousand years. It is a special plant that has always been revered by them. Through the leaf or Koka Quintucha as it is called tenderly, millions of people connect with the pachamama or mother earth on a daily basis. The coca leaf is the mediator between humans and mother earth. The practice of using the coca leaf for ritual has survived even through religious persecution during colonial times and has been maintained thanks to the deep mysticism of the paq´os or priests and of the farming families. The coca leaf is also used in all sorts of products such as soap, desserts, meals, teas, etc.
Reaching some of the schools in Apurimac was very hard and took us all day long. To reach Apurimac, first I flew from Lima to the city of Cusco and from Cusco I took a four-hour bus ride to Abancay, the capital city of Apurimac. From Abancay it took us over 12 hours to reach Cotabambas, which is the last town depicted in the video. The entire journey was on dirt roads, zigzagging through the mountains, and with precipices guarding our passage.
"...most of the parents were opposed to a bilingual curriculum"
The most isolated area we visited was the community of San Juan, the second school shown in the video, in the province of Antabamba. When we finally reached the community, we learned that it has only been the second time that the community had seen a car enter their community. All the kids were so happy to see us and to receive the educational materials we were bringing to them on behalf of Peru’s Ministry of Education. In another instance, we arrived in the community of Q’ellu and found the whole community gathered there. The parents were arguing with the school principal regarding the bilingual curriculum in place. It was odd for me to learn that even though most of the children’s Spanish was very limited, most of the parents were opposed to a bilingual curriculum. One of the local authorities who was accompanying us that day tried to talk with the parents regarding the benefits of learning first in the mother tongue and then in the second language, but that didn’t seem to work too well. The parents were still in opposition. They wanted their children to be completely fluent in Spanish as fast as possible and believed that the bilingual curriculum would delay their second language acquisition. I then proceeded to address the entire community in English. I just spoke to them in English and they just stared at me. When I was done, the local authority explained to them in Quechua that just as they had not understood what I was saying to them in English, in the beginning their children do not understand what the teacher explains to them in Spanish. This little exercise seemed to have worked towards reaching a consensus in favour of bilingual education in that particular setting.
During this trip, I was mainly working alongside a colleague from Emergencia Educativa (Educational emergency). We were there delivering educational materials, monitoring and evaluating regional and local educational agencies and their respective schools. In 2003, Peru declared its education in a state of emergency and 2008 schools were selected nationally to serve as pilot schools. By the year 2006, these pilot schools were expected to show great improvement in providing quality education. The schools chosen were selected based on the economic status of the locality of which they are a part. It was interesting to see the governmental hierarchy that exists in Peru and the way that power gets passed down. Coming from the Ministry of Education holds a lot of weight nationally. This shows me how even though Peru is attempting to decentralize its government, Lima is still boss.
There is much room though in legislation (especially as it relates to bilingual and intercultural education) to allow initiatives to come from the bottom. It is a matter of time and innovation and for people to realize that they can make changes that will affect their immediate community and for the authorities to continue dialoguing with the people who are affected by policy in order to work together. I have met many people who are truly committed to the social welfare of all peoples and this brings hope into the horizon. I truly hope that Peru, and multilingual and multicultural nations throughout, find unity within their diversity.
Steven J. Klees
Donna C. Tonini
Mariella I. Arredondo
Mary Mendenhall and Juleen Morford
William C. Brehm, and
OSI 2010 Travel Grant Recipient:
Dr. Subba Rao Ilapavuluri
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