Guyana: Towards an indigenous education – By Felician Medino Abraham

Guyana: Towards an indigenous education

 September 24, 2018 –   By Felician Medino Abraham

Felician Medino Abraham is from Santa Rosa Moruca. He holds a Masters in Society and Frontier from the Federal University of Roraima UFRR, Brazil in 2017, where he produced a study on the Wapichans’ experience of formal education.

The Wapichans of the South Rupununi region have a strong indigenous worldview,  supported by extensive use of the local language and strong cultural practices. This can be interpreted as a result of the relative lack of interest that the colonizers had towards indigenous peoples of the interior over the years (as opposed to the plantations on the coast). A belief that they were incapable of bringing any economic benefits – that they could not be profitable in a capitalist sense – meant that they were left to the care of the missionaries.     

The mid-1940s saw the establishment of a network of primary schools that provided formal education to the Wapichans in the Rupununi, Region Nine. Documents from the Catholic Church highlighted the significant role played by the church in indigenous education. The Wapichans used to live in households in the bush mouth ( where the savannah meets the bush ), but with the entry of the church, people began to settle around schools and chapels, forming communities with growing populations. This has brought its own challenges, in that  the school was used  to educate and integrate Wapichan people into mainstream society.

In my study of these early schools in the South Rupununi, I discovered that the teachers of the Wapichan communities in British Guiana were largely recruited in the 1940s from the Arawak community of Santa Rosa Moruca, located in the northwest of the country. These Arawak teachers went to the Rupununi to assist in the establishment of education and Catholicism. Hence, the South Rupununi population underwent a transformation, instructed by the Arawaks who influenced them in religion and customs, and introduced an education that emphasised the command of the English language and elements that reflected the culture of the colonizers.

These challenges to indigenous culture have persisted up to the present day, but Wapichan culture has always remained dynamic and alive.  For example, transformations to Wapichan culture also occurred when their ancestors came into contact with other ethnic groups from Brazil. In my work I have been interested in the impact of mainstream education on the Wapichans. Members of the community narrated their experiences from different points of view and expressed both positive and negative opinions. On the positive side were the good memories of the first school where Wapichans learned to speak the English language, which created other opportunities in spaces wider than just their community or ethnic group.

From a negative point of view, Wapichan spoke of the devaluation of their culture and mother tongue at most levels. The first school run by the church did not value the Wapichan language, however, it had a more communitarian aspect and was not so focused on financial resources. This contrasted with the experience of school in the post independence period in Guyana (during and after the socialist era), in the sense that it made the Wapichans dedicated to seeking money. Many have become caught between the desire to maintain a practice of simple exchange and the demands of participating in a cash economy in their villages and beyond which seemed to be the aim of public education.

In this context, I found that formal education emphasised competition, selection, and categorization of students. It encourages students to perform better in opposition to others who had a low school performance. This model of Western education contrasted with the indigenous worldview of education, where persons are accustomed to learning in community from the family, and by observation of elders, and where all are teachers and all are students and no one is a dictator of knowledge as in a formal school setting.

The values of this indigenous collective system were diluted with the introduction of colonial education which turned the students into individualistic and competitive learners. This impacted the indigenous people in Maruranau, the village where my study was done and where many students had become very disheartened with schooling. Some Wapichans sought alternatives ways for the school that failed their children. Some parents encouraged their children to work on the farms and when they reach adulthood, they usually go to look for work outside their communities, but most times they end up earning a low salary as unskilled workers. A few health workers or teachers who are trained elsewhere return to work in their village, but jobs in the community should not be limited to only these two areas in indigenous villages. They must include other options that also take into account the local culture and context.

Villagers’ perception of formal education is that few students achieve good academic performance, and those who do  are usually children of parents who are teachers or community leaders. Certainly this is not always the case, because there are Wapichans who have made tremendous personal efforts and and became professionals. Some of the teachers were also praised for dedicating their time to prepare their students for the National Exams.

Mainstream education continues to educate students to believe in “development” and “modernization,” false ideals that do not address the value of indigenous languages or promote quality bilingual education in indigenous communities which is needed by the most vulnerable. This model of education is instead obsessed with generating progress, and promotes the rhetoric of bringing “quality education” to the Wapichans. It is based on seeing Wapichan culture as something that must be improved or left behind.

To transform the Wapichans and their way of living as subsistence farmers, by introducing them to the Western capitalist system, is a false aim of mainstream education. It creates a society divided between those who study and those who do not; between those who reach socioeconomic elevation and those who have not obtained the capacity for significant improvements in their quality of life because they were not educated. Ironically, this model of education ends up generating social inequality, an experience that contradicts the collective values of Indigenous Education, which stresses learning in harmony and where everyone is on the same social level.

The Wapichans approve of schools in their community that teach them to deal with economic issues, mathematics and trade, even on a small scale. Their emphasis however is on education that is in harmony with living in the community, as opposed to an education that takes most of their children to Georgetown or away from their villages.

In the narratives of the interlocutors it was clear that the delivery of mainstream education conflicts with the culture, traditions and oral language of the Wapichan people at several levels. In this view it was evident that the indigenous language and culture were the stone that the builders rejected, and that it has been taking a long time for indigenous values to be recognized as a cornerstone of the ‘modern School’. With such a rich culture, there was a clear perception of the need to strengthen the fundamental aspects of Wapichan peoples’ cosmovision. This means drawing on Wapichan language and other customs as a fundamental resource and base because they are important elements which have resisted rigid school activities over the years.

Wapichans have started advocating for a different model of education in their communities, because they realize that an education system that continnues to reproduce colonial and Western values does not make use of a rich local culture and ends up failing most Wapichan students, leaving them   despondent and with fewer opportunities.  They became involved in a grassroots initiative over the last few years based on collaborative and proactive pratices. They have taken the initiative to review and initiate new models and approaches to education that draw on Wapichan culture and language as a foundation. Making contact and working with the Ministry of Education, they sought to introduce a Quality Bilingual Education Programme (QBEP) in three nursery schools in the South Rupununi. In  August of this year a memorandum of understanding was officially signed between the two parties, paving the way for the Quality Education Programme to be piloted in three nursery schools in the South Rupununi. On the first of September 2018, the education programme was officially launched in Aishalton South Rupununi.

It is good to see Wapichans taking their education into their own hands because in the world at present, there has been a global shift towards recognizing and understanding indigenous models of education as a viable and legitimate form of education. Members of indigenous communities celebrate diversity in learning and see this global support for teaching traditional forms of knowledge as a success. Indigenous ways of knowing, learning, instructing, teaching, and training have been viewed by many scholars as important for ensuring that students and teachers, whether indigenous or non-indigenous, are able to benefit from education in a culturally sensitive manner that draws upon and utilizes indigenous traditions, beyond the standard Western curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The ball is now in the court of the Wapichan people to draw on and expand this initiative which is a different approach in education for their children. It is my hope that when this education programme is successful, it could be extended to other groups in the country, offering local and inspiring examples of appropriate quality education that can provide indigenous people with opportunities to survive in their villages and anywhere in the world.


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