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“Awakening our way of life, our culture and our identity”

  • 22 November 2018
Stephanie reflects on the importance of the new Quality Education Bilingual programme which is being piloted in Guyana as part of the preservation of the Amerindian culture.

On my recent visit to Guyana I visited three schools involved in a pilot project for the Quality Education Bilingual Programme, supported by Jesuit Missions. Ten percent of the Guyanese population are of Amerindian heritage and live in the Amazon basin which covers ninety percent of the country. The Jesuits have always played an important role in the lives of the Amerindian communities, which consists of over fifty percent of the total Guyanese Catholics, and for me it was really inspiring to see how strong the faith was among these people.

Although English is the national language in Guyana, many children from the Amerindian communities grow up speaking an indigenous language, such as Wapishiana or Makushi. This means that when they go to school they have an immediate disadvantage nationally, as they struggle to take in and learn a completely new language. The whole way of learning at school is completely designed for children who grow up along the coast. Even down to the pictures that are used in the textbooks. Many of these children will have never seen an electric fan so will not know what one is, which was one example I was shown in the textbooks. Very few of these children complete their secondary education, as they fail to get through the end of year exams. One Class 6 teacher was desperately showing me the exam papers that the children have to complete, struggling to find the answers herself.

Wapishiana like other indigenous languages is a mainly spoken language, children don’t learn to read or write it. This new bilingual programme encourages children to learn in Wapishiana simultaneously alongside English when they begin school. This is part of a campaign to preserve the local indigenous Amerindian culture which includes using traditional native stories that the children can relate to as part of their learning. This new programme is already having a positive effect.

When I spoke to the parents at the schools, they were all very supportive of the programme and said how much quicker their children were settling into school by being able to communicate freely with their teacher in a language that they are comfortable with.

Angelbert, a villager in Sawariwau where one of the pilot schools is located, and parent to six children says,

“As long as I am a villager here, this programme will run, and it will grow. We are not excelling in our primary schools because the type of education they give us is a western way of doing things. Now this Bilingual education is coming from our own people, our own way of doing things, awakening our way of life, our culture and our identity. This is the most important thing for us Wapichan people.”

A group of parents outside Sawariwau Primary school (Angel Bird second from right)

Part of his work in the region includes working towards the revision of the Amerindian act for the Wapichian people and regaining control of land rights from the state.

Leah Casimero, who is a native Amerindian and is part of the resource team for the Bilingual programme, says,

“It’s so inspiring to see the determination of the resource team working on the materials late into the night. It was the shared determination that broke through to the ministry of education. We’ve always had the knowledge, but we’ve had no way of documenting it or way of portraying our beautiful stories.”

Stephanie and Leah Casimero in Aishalton

It is so important that the Amerindian heritage is preserved. Elsewhere in Guyana lack of opportunities for young people is meaning a large percentage of people are leaving the country. Jesuit Missions is supporting the work of the Jesuits at the Guyana Human Development Centre which provides a place where young people can learn new skills enhancing their employment opportunities and giving them an alternative option to leaving.

Sr Theo spent seven months of 2017 in Guyana helping to develop the Bilingual Programme. You can read her reflection on the importance of this programme here.