Guyana: Bi-lingual education project for Rupununi

Workshop on bilingual schooling for Wapichan children
Workshop on bilingual schooling for Wapichan children

Paul Martin SJ, Regional Superior of Guyana, reports on a ground–breaking new education initiative for Wapichan mother-tongue children, with its roots in Jesuit accompaniment of the Rupununi communities.

‘O Kaimen,’ (O Good), an essential Wapichan refrain, echoed across the Rupununi savannah last week as participants gathered at St. Ignatius Mission near Lethem.

There is a great wisdom, that our increasingly individualistic and materialistic world largely ignores, in that famous African proverb “It takes a village to educate a child”. It was therefore a very significant moment last week when a resource team of 25 Amerindian women and men drawn from three Wapichan village communities in the Rupununi took part in a three day workshop with high level officials from the Ministry of Education and the National Centre for Educational Resource Development (NCERD).

The purpose of this workshop was to engage in a dialogue about the way in which the national curriculum for nursery and primary schools needs to be revised to reflect the particular needs of indigenous children coming from homes in which English is not the first language.

Like all parents, members of the indigenous communities want their children to “do well”. In Guyana this will mean taking part in an English medium education. However if the initial years of schooling do not respect and value the culture and language of the child then he or she will quickly come to the conclusion that “education is not for me”. Natural curiosity and creativity will be buried beneath a sense of inadequacy and failure as the young child finds herself lost in a strange and incomprehensible world.

It was truly beautiful to witness educational experts entrusted with ensuring national standards in education listening with respect to proposed revisions to the curriculum by the local Resource Team.
These proposals were the fruit of two months intense work by the Resource team aided by an educational expert from India. Through a series of workshops the team had reflected on the goals of education and then worked on ways of achieving these goals.

Following the meeting with the Ministry officials the work continues. The resource team is now developing teaching materials for first year nursery classes. From September, children entering nursery school in Karaudarnau, Maruranau and Sawariwau will follow the revised curriculum and learn in both Wapichan, their mother-tongue, indigenous to Guyana and Brazil, and in English.

While they are using the material the Resource team will be working on what is required for nursery two.

Teachers will utilize teaching materials and textbooks prepared by the resource team under the guidance of an international pedagogue and educationalist, Mr. Manoj Kitta, which draw upon and reflect the Wapichan experience and its rich cultural heritage. At the moment, Wapichan and its rich tradition is largely absent from school textbooks and learning aids.

This pilot is a long time in the making and represents a labour of love that has its roots in the accompaniment  Jesuit missionaries have offered to Amerindian communities for over a century.  Latterly, recognising the poor performance of Amerindian children at every level of schooling, and in light of international research, the Jesuits proposed a revision of the curriculum and the design of a method and pedagogy which builds upon the child’s primary encounter of, and experience with, the world around her.

A plethora of global research shows that the use of the mother-tongue language, combined with an appropriate child-friendly pedagogy, enhances the child’s learning and, as well as embedding the child’s indigenous language and tradition, also builds confidence and self-esteem upon which other languages like English and Portuguese can best be learned.

Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, Mr. Sydney Allicock, endorsed the ground-breaking initiative, Quality Bilingual Education for Wapichan Children, in a moving speech to the participants at the close of the gathering. Mr Vincent Alexander, speaking on behalf of the Minister of Education, expressed similar sentiments and assured the team of his and the Ministry of Education’s support for the pilot programme.