Jesuit language legacy a source for happiness

Reducciones Paraguay Credit Edgardo Olivera via Flickr
Reducciones Paraguay Credit Edgardo Olivera via Flickr

The Financial Times carried an Investing in Paraguay supplement this week. Among articles about this small South American country’s economy and resources was a piece by British born Paraguay resident Margaret Hebblethwaite entitled:

“Jesuit mission in Paraguay left legacy of living happily”

Hebblethwaite referred to the Gallup Global Emotions Report 2019 which for the fourth consecutive year, lists Paraguay as the happiest country in the world.

Hebblethwaite finds a surprising answer to her question: “What can be in the soul of the country to make it such an optimistic place?”

She refers to the 150 years the Jesuits spent building communities – “reducciones” - of indigenous Guarani people, teaching them skills such as how to play and to make classical music instruments, to sing and compose music, and to build in the baroque style.  The violent end to this enterprise was depicted in the 1986 film The Mission starring Jeremy Irons, Robert De Niro and Liam Neeson as Jesuit missionaries attempting to protect the utopian community of Guarani against rapacious Spanish and Portuguese colonisers.  This conflict resulted in the destruction of the reducciones and the exploitation of the Guarani, and ultimately led to the suppression of the Jesuit Order in 1773.

As Hebblethwaite explains in the FT article: “One massive legacy the Jesuits helped preserve was the Guaraní language. The priests came from a variety of nations in Europe but believed strongly in speaking the language of the people, rather than the Spanish of the conquistadores. They ensured Guaraní became a written as well as a spoken language. Thanks to those 150 years in which Guaraní was fostered, Paraguay today is the only largely bilingual country in Latin America: according to a census in 2012, as many as 64 per cent of the population are speakers of both languages. Nothing gives Paraguay its special identity more than this national bilingualism.”

Jesuits in South America are still working to preserve indigenous languages. In the 1940s, British Jesuits established the first primary schools in the interior of Guyana, which were eventually taken into state ownership in the 1970s, and became the backbone of the national education system for some of the country’s remotest communities.  They are now supporting a pilot scheme to provide bi-lingual education to nursery age children in the Rupununi district of the Guyanese interior. Sr Theodora Hawksley CJ spent three months in South Rupununi in 2017 working as a researcher for the Quality Bilingual Education Programme for Wapichan Children. Her report on how bi-lingual early years education can improve outcomes – and hopefully happiness – for these communities can be read here.