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Bilingual education in Guyana

  • 8 August 2018
The Ministry of Education in Guyana last week gave its approval for a new programme of bilingual education to be piloted in three nursery schools, beginning in September. Although English is the national language in Guyana, many children in the Amerindian communities grow up speaking indigenous languages and are often left behind as they struggle to make the transition to a completely new language when they start in school.
Jesuit Missions has been supporting the local Jesuits to implement this bilingual programme for some time and have already been able to print Wapichan-language storybooks for use with nursey children. Fr Jim Conway SJ returned to the UK earlier this year after five years in Guyana where he helped to work on this project.
Sr Theodora Hawksley CJ last year spent seven months in Guyana and describes how the resource team developed the Quality Bilingual Education Programme and explains the significance of indigenous Amerindian children being taught in their own language for the first time.

“It was late when we arrived in Sawariwau, and the villagers were just coming out of an all-day community meeting. ‘With no lunch!’ I said, ‘You must be tired.’ One of the women laughed: ‘Sister, you have to be like us! Strong like turtle!’

A teacher in Karaudarnau told us about a friend’s pet tortoise, which, left unattended for a few minutes, made an unnoticed bid for freedom and disappeared into the undergrowth, never to be seen again. I am also reliably informed that somewhere, a tortoise with ‘ST IGNATIUS’ painted on its shell roams the Rupununi, having escaped its Jesuit captors. Tortoises may not look very imposing, but they have an unassuming determination, and an ability to make quiet bids for freedom.

This kind of strength is one that I had been admiring in Amerindian people; their own quiet and determined bid for freedom which comes to form in the launch of a bilingual education for indigenous Amerindian children.

The bilingual education programme is the latest step in a relationship between the Jesuits and the indigenous people of Guyana that has lasted for over a century. In the 1940s, the Jesuits established the first primary schools in the interior, and new villages formed as people came out of their farming lands in the forests to settle near the new schools. Those schools, taken into state ownership in the 1970s, became the backbone of the national education system in the interior – a national education system that now brings education to some of the country’s remotest communities.

Successive Guyanese governments have improved access to education and opportunities for indigenous people, and there is a strong sense that indigenous people should not be side-lined into a parallel ‘indigenous education’ system, with lower standards and lower prospects. This means that Amerindian children study the same English-language and Caribbean-culture focused curriculum as children everywhere else in Guyana. On paper, this approach is a commendable one, but in practice, it is deeply problematic. Many Amerindian children grow up speaking an indigenous language as their mother tongue and will continue to use it throughout their lives. When these children enter English-medium nursery education at the age of three or four, they are robbed of their ability to express themselves. Tortoise-like, they go into their shells, losing a natural confidence that few regain. One in three Amerindian children never passes the exam that gets them into secondary school, and only one in a hundred will enter tertiary education. A system designed to integrate Amerindians ends up side-lining their language and culture and keeps Amerindians themselves on the margins of national life.

This is where bilingual education comes in; encouraging Amerindians to become confident in their indigenous identities, advocates for their own rights and way of life, and agents of their own development. The model is transformation from within: drawing on the natural resilience, determination, creativity and imagination of Amerindian people to forge a different path to a greater freedom.

The resource team of the Bilingual Education Programme is made up of teachers, community members, artists, Wapichan language experts and storytellers. Together, they have collected traditional stories to create 36 illustrated ‘Big Books’, so that Wapichan children can learn to read and write in their own language, as well as in English. These books are at the heart of a new curriculum that brings into the classroom the incredible knowledge and experience that the children have at home.

My work as part of the bilingual programme was to write a report on the state of education in South Rupununi, so that we have a good picture of all of the factors affecting children’s attainment in school. Language and curriculum have a role to play, but we also encountered the effects of poverty, hunger, poor health and the sheer struggle parents face in providing for their families through subsistence farming, hunting and fishing. As we travelled around the villages interviewing parents, teachers and community members, I was moved over and over again by the resilience and dignity of the people with whom we spoke, and their quiet determination that their children would have better lives.”

Sr Theo ran the London Marathon for Jesuit Missions this year inspired by the work that she witnessed while in Guyana. You can read more here.
This article was taken from a longer article which you can read on the Jesuit in Britain online journal Thinking Faith.