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Schools in Ecuador to preserve ancestral languages

by Erika Astudillo

A modern construction occupying around four hectares of land surrounded by brick houses, tractors and businesses of all kinds stands out between the farmlands and the snow-capped mountains of the Andes, at an altitude of 3200 metres. It is a community school, the full name of which is “Chibuleo Bilingual Intercultural Education Unit of the Millennium, Guardian of the Language.”

<p>The public school in Chibuleo (a community of 10,000 people working in agriculture, commerce and construction), in the Tungurahua region, has 782 pupils, indigenous and mestizo. The teachers use local products as support materials for their classes.</p>

The public school in Chibuleo (a community of 10,000 people working in agriculture, commerce and construction), in the Tungurahua region, has 782 pupils, indigenous and mestizo. The teachers use local products as support materials for their classes.

(Erika Astudillo)

It is a long name, but each word has profound educational and social significance for this indigenous group in Ecuador. It is, moreover, a reflection of the work done by the whole Chibuleo community to guarantee their children’s right to education. It was the first school in the country to give classes in Quechua, the community’s native language and Ecuador’s second official language.

In 2014, it underwent technological modernisation with the introduction of science and IT laboratories, and is now the country’s only school to offer International Baccalaureate studies in an indigenous community.

“We want to be a model for the communities and to educate our students to provide them with knowledge without losing their identity and without forgetting about the rest of humanity,” Alberto Guapizaca, the school director, tells Equal Times.

 

A multicultural environment

According to the figures of UNESCO, some 30,000 languages have become extinct since humankind began to speak, and at least ten languages currently disappear every year.

According to Ecuador’s latest Population and Housing Census in 2010, only 57.5 per cent of children under age 12 speak their native language. The idea behind the Chibuleo school is to preserve one of Ecuador’s ancestral languages, and with it the identity of its indigenous communities.

The children receive classes given by teachers from the community in Quechua and Spanish throughout their primary school years. This ensures that their education is bilingual and the language is cultivated among the younger generations. Hence its name: guardian of the language. Spanish is also spoken, as some of the students are not from the community.

At secondary level, the classes are given in Spanish, but Quechua is taught as one of the subjects, to strengthen the student’s knowledge of the grammar and, above all, to teach them about their history, traditions and Andean cosmovision. “We want them to feel proud of who they are, to feel no shame about their identity and to handle the language well,” says Quechua teacher Homero Paucar.

Another feature contributing to the multicultural environment at the school is the use of the agro-festive calendar, combining the ancestral agricultural calendar with school activities, teaching them how to prepare the land for sowing and celebrating the harvest. They also sing the national anthem of Ecuador in Quechua and do exhibitions in both languages.

Guapizaca explains that this bilingual education is the result of a battle lasting at least 40 years. Education at the school in Chibuleo has been in two languages since 1985. Thanks to the insistence of the indigenous communities, this right was subsequently enshrined in the Ecuadorian constitution. “In the past, when the teachers were Spanish-speaking, the children had to put in twice as much effort: first, to learn the language and then to understand the content. They learnt Spanish by force,” he recalls.

Seven per cent of the Ecuadorian population is indigenous and belong to 14 distinct communities, each with a particular language and cosmovision. The Ecuadorian Ministry of Education is planning to build a guardian of the language school for each nationality – 14 in total – each with a staff of native teachers. The school in Chibuleo was the first. Another is located in the Ecuadorian Amazon and serves the Shuar community. The rest of the schools are due to be ready by 2017.

Pedro Cabazcango, national director of bilingual education, says these and other education policies have brought about an increase in school enrolment among indigenous children.

“During the 2007-2008 school year, 95,400 indigenous pupils enrolled, whereas this year (2015-2016), the figure rose to 149,500,” underlines Cabazcango. In Ecuador, with its 14 million inhabitants, basic education reaches 95 per cent of the population, with no divide in terms of geography, gender or ethnic origin. Only 65 per cent, however, attend secondary school; 69 per cent in urban areas and 46 per cent in rural Ecuador, according to the Education Ministry figures published in 2015.

 

Students with new perspectives

“Ninety per cent of indigenous communities are neglected. Given the historic debt the state has towards our peoples, the best payment the state could make is education,” says Guapizaca, who has spent 31 years working for indigenous education in his community and country.

Examples like the Chibuleo school are the foundations for intercultural bilingual education and the preservation of the Quechua language. “We do not have teachers who have graduated in the Quechua language and there are no masters degrees to strengthen the study of indigenous cosmovision. Everyone contributes what he or she can to interculturality, and there are still things that don’t get beyond words,” recognises Guapizaca.

This school does not stop at preserving the ancestral values of its community but educates citizens of the world. As Guapizaca explains, the fact that it offers the International Baccalaureate is an added achievement.

“With the International Baccalaureate, the students learn the whys and wherefores of things, and are more critical. We educate them to have an international mindset, which doesn’t mean travelling but accepting other cultures and placing oneself at the service of the world. Being sensitive to other international realities and then helping to build a more peaceful world,” he says with conviction and pride in his work.

In 2017, around twenty young people will become the first indigenous students in the country to obtain the International Baccalaureate. They are aware that having access to this type of education is a privilege.

For some, it has opened up the possibility of aspiring to broadening their horizons and going to university at home or abroad. Others dream, but without distancing themselves from the reality of their families. Luz Baraona, the school’s best student, summarises its as follows:

“My mother is my only support. I want to study at university in the mornings and work in the evenings, to be one burden less.” She is also determined to preserve her culture and the teachings learned at the school in Chibuleo: “I like keeping hold of my language and traditional clothing. If I have children, I will teach them our language.”

 

This article has been translated from Spanish.

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