issue 191 - January 1989
The grannies make their mark
Women huddle around blackboards on windy Andean hillsides. Paper is scarce.
Pencils are snapped in two so there are more to go round. Learning to read and write
in Bolivia can be tough. Susanna Rance reports.
Through the wind, the harsh sound of wooden flutes draws the surrounding communities to a small point on the Andean high plateau. A flat sea of farmland near the Peruvian border is brightened with a splash of colour.
There is an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation in Iruhito Urus, home of native Aymaras who live by hunting and fishing in the Desaguadero river. To muted applause, a small white flag fringed with red is slowly hoisted in the blustering wind to just below the bright Bolivian tricolour. 'Iruhito Urus celebrates its first triumph over illiteracy' it reads. All present sing the national anthem in Aymara, language of almost one third of Bolivia's six million inhabitants.
Over half of adult Bolivians are unable to use the written word, with the rate for women being twice that for men. Most have had no education at all. Others have had two or three years of primary schooling but, without access to written materials, many of these have forgotten what they once learnt. A gap of even six months after initial training will, according to some studies, return the learner to the status of a 'functional illiterate'.
'I only went to school for two years,' says Maxima Flores, forty-year-old mother of four. 'I was orphaned so I couldn't carry on studying. I did know how to read and write, but I've forgotten, what with the kids and all. Now I'm learning again, it's coming back to me.'
Thousands of adults like Maxima have joined local literacy groups. In some of these there is now an insistence that rural Bolivians should be able to learn first in one of the country's three major native tongues rather than in Spanish the official language.
'Aymara, Quechua and Tupi-Guarani aren't officially recognized by the State,' says teacher Eddy Cadima, director of an innovative adult education centre. 'But we have found that people learn much more easily in their mother tongue, with their own logic and symbols. Then they can go on to learn Spanish with more confidence.'
A programme called SENALEP was started up when Bolivia had a government which was prepared to fight illiteracy. But then three years ago, President Victor Paz Estenssoro introduced monetarist principles and followed them to the letter. He produced a Bolivian 'miracle': economic stability and a halt to hyperinflation. But it had a brutally high social cost. Poverty and unemployment are escalating; education and health are back at the bottom of the agenda.
'There's no need for trained people under the present system,' says Cadima. 'All that's wanted is cheap labour, so logically, there's no investment in education.'
SENALEP struggles on. Deputy Director Rolando Soliz describes his work as a 'mission': he earns the equivalent of $50 monthly, and supports his family by giving evening classes at a private computing institute. 'We have no notebooks, no pencils or blackboards,' he says, as we talk on the half-hour bus ride over bumpy, unpaved roads to a new literacy group on the outskirts of La Paz.
'When we can, we give out sheets of paper and break each pencil in two so they can carry on. Obviously we feel discouraged, but we do what we can.
Most of his staff are currently on strike because they haven't been paid for two months, so Soliz is going personally to open the new group and give the first lesson. We walk over to a dusty square where over a hundred women, migrants from the countryside and recently closed state mines, are digging and paving with picks and shovels. Some are elderly, some are pregnant and many are carrying babies in striped, woven shawls on their backs, toddlers trailing behind them.
'They're with the Food for Work programme,' explains Soliz. 'The Adventists have an agreement with the Town Hall to give each woman 100 pounds weight of donated US foods monthly, in exchange for three days' municipal work a week.' SENALEP has managed to negotiate an interlude in the women's backbreaking workload: one group is freed from manual labour for two or three hours each day to join in the literacy programme.
Today, 40 women stroll over to an open yard under the hot Andean sun carrying tools and babies, many knitting as they walk. Sitting on the ground in a semicircle for their first lesson, their faces radiate interest, hope and curiosity.
The class begins. Text books are handed out: Let's read about our reality!' is the title. The first step: learning how to hold the book the right way up. The first page shows a picture of Bolivians from different regions and social sectors. 'They all want to learn. And what about us - why do we want to get educated?'
The answers come immediately: 'So we won't be cheated'; 'So we won't have to say, "I don't know how to sign my name"'; 'So we can help the kids with their homework'; 'So we'll know who to vote for. That's why we want to learn.'
As the class progresses, those women who have had some schooling race ahead, while the rest, who speak little Spanish, stumble and get confused. Aymara vowels are different from Spanish ones, so they cannot easily distinguish 'u' from 'o', 'i' from 'e'. There is no chance for writing, as there are no materials. Toddlers start to fret, and some women are walking to and fro soothing restless babies. After an hour, boredom has set in: the quick learners are impatient with those who can't follow, while the older women mechanically repeat five or six words in succession after the others, without even looking at their books.
'Right, that's the end of the first lesson. You'LL have to remember it because there's going to be no revision. If you don't make an effort, you're not going to get anywhere', says Soliz, tired and hot under the bright sun. He hands over to a young man with a toothless grin under a Coca-Cola hat who has been elected locally as the group's 'popular educator'. 'I'd just like you to understand the problems we have. we do the best we can,' sighs Soliz as we walk back to the bus stop.
Further down the hillside towards La Paz, another women's group is meeting in the early afternoon. This one is run by a non-governmental organization, the CDA, which works with 63 such groups all over the city, promoting literacy, health and nutrition.
The CDA's hallmark is its firm popular base: all its regular workers are women volunteers from the shanty towns, without professional training. Adelaida Parra coordinates seven literacy groups each week spending long hours travelling by bus between the distant shanty towns. Over her traditional 'pollera', the wide, thick skirt which indigenous women wear, she has the bright blue overall of the CDA staff.
Today, eighty women sit scattered on the brownish-grey stony ground. Adelaida points out the different groups: the 'grandmothers', who sit in the sun spinning and chatting; the 'complete illiterates', mostly older Aymara women who are making their first letters with painstaking care; the 'functional illiterates' who have had some schooling and progress more rapidly; and the groups which practise their recently acquired literacy skills using materials on health and nutrition.
Carolina, a sixteen-year-old whose mother is learning to read and write for the first time, is a voluntary helper with the grandmothers' group. 'I'm teaching them to hold the pencil properly and write their names,' she says. 'Most of them can't do any more than that because their eyesight is bad.'
'I know A, B and all that, but now I want to learn to sign my name, that's all', says Juana Monroy, felt hat pulled down over her wrinkled face. 'It's my eyesight that gets me, I can't read, my eyes start to water. You need a big head for studying, it's a bit difficult.'
'How's the group getting on?' I ask Adelaida. 'The numbers have really gone down,' she says. 'There used to be 200, but since the food stopped coming ... a lot of women came mainly for the donations. Now they've gone off to other groups handing out food, like Food for Work and the Mothers' Clubs where they do weaving and knitting and things like that.'
'It's difficult for us to get time off to come here', says Justa Quispe, mother of five. 'My husband says, "Why are you going to waste your time there if they aren't giving anything out? You're too old to learn, it'LL just make your head spin." I just tell him: "Look, I'm going for a bit of a break. I get fed up here at home with the kids and problems and all."' 'Have you got any books at home?' I ask. 'Books? Well ... I've got this one, and my son's school books. Newspapers? No, we can't afford to buy them.'
Back downtown in the CDA office, the staff are discussing the problems they're having with the groups. 'There are lots of women who really want to learn,' says Sonia. 'But people have such bad financial problems at the moment, they have to give up the chance to study and go for whatever will fill their families' stomachs.'
'The women often have to move, too,' says Esther. At harvest time, a lot of families up here visit relatives to help get the crops in, so it's hard to keep up continuity in the group.'
'And what about the poor diet?' puts in Gaby. 'If the women aren't well fed, they can't concentrate enough to study. And if they've been malnourished since they were kids, they're often slow in learning and remembering That s what we re up against.'
It's a long hard struggle. But there are successes as well as setbacks. Back to the Peruvian border. Another community, Jank'o Amaya, is now hoisting its own white flag. This regional literacy programme has really taken off.
Why here? One important factor is that the villagers have something to read and a reason to read it. The literacy programme has been linked with agricultural training whose leaflets and bulletins are produced specifically for those who are recently literate. There are also mobile teams who travel to outlying communities so that people do not all have to come to one centre. And literacy is not the end of the road: there is the added incentive that those adults who can read and write now have the opportunity to go on to higher education through a special rural matriculation scheme. This gives everyone much more confidence in the future.
'We lost our own voice, but now we've regained it,' says one of the teachers. 'Literacy means more than learning a code or writing a word. It's understanding our reality, reflecting about our country. It's being able to write our own history.'
This time, the silky white banner is larger and bolder. 'Jank'o Amaya defeats illiteracy', it reads. Flying in the wind to cheers and raucous pipe music, the banner does not halt under the national flag, but carries on up the flagpole, vying with the tricolour until it covers it triumphantly.
Susanna Rance is a journalist and researcher who lives in La Paz.
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