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Inter-weaving people and the land: Choba-Choba and Comunalidad

Inter-weaving people and the land:  Choba-Choba and Comunalidad

Posted by on Feb 28, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Peru, PRATEC | 0 comments


The terms choba-choba and comunalidad come from different cultures and places (Peru and Mexico).  Yet, they share a common bond of inter-connection.  In this post, Udi and I tell a bit about how we came to learn something of these different (but similar) ways of being and understanding the world.

Village outside of Lamas, Peru, photo by Kelly

Kelly:

Our first morning in Lamas, in the Northern Amazonian region of Peru, Udi and I walked the ten minutes from the Hospedaje Girasoles guesthouse (highly recommended by the way), through the far end of town and down the reddish-coloured mud hill that is surrounded by forest on one side of the road, to the entrance of Waman Wasi.  There was still a cool breeze in the air but the tropical sun was gathering strength.

Road down to Waman Wasi, photo by Udi

We were meeting Gregorio, one of the three main members of staff at Waman Wasi, who was taking us to several chacras that morning a few kilometres outside of Lamas – to meet with families working the land through choba-choba.  Gregorio lives in Wayku, the Quechua Lamas section of the town and travels often to meet with different Quechua families around the region.

View of Wayku village from the top of Lamas, photo by Udi

The evening before, there had been a brief introduction to the cosmovision and activities involved with ‘choba-choba’ and its association with ‘chacra’ – during Lucho’s overview of Waman Wasi’s work presented to a group of European students.  Udi and I had an understanding that the ‘chacra’ was similar to the ‘milpa’ in Mexico –  land is cultivated in a way that imitates and is intimately connected to natural processes.  In a chacra or milpa, Rather than planting one crop as tends to be the agricultural norm, different types of foods are planted together (typically maize, beans, squash and chili) with the intention of nourishing the land as much as to nourish those eating from it.

Steep hill of chacra cultivated through choba-choba

Choba-choba to the Quechua Lamas is the way that family members and friends came together to cultivate the land, dividing up responsibilities in accordance to ability and strength.  Through choba-choba, there is no need to pay anyone from the outside to help with planting and cultivation as choba-choba entails reciprocity and abundance.  The idea is that all that is needed is already there.  Every person, regardless of age and gender gives to the process and also receives.

Outside the wooden gate of Waman Wasi, Gregorio stopped a passing motor taxi that is basically a seat for 2-3 (depending on size) positioned on the back of a motor bike.  Udi and I hoped in and the motor-bike-taxi sped away.  The warm breeze enlivened our senses with smells of a myriad of plants and trees as houses and buildings almost immediately disappeared, the road windings its way through hills and valleys of intense green.  We stopped 25 minutes or so later and Gregorio led us down a dirt road, telling Udi that we would be walking for a good half an hour or so…

Along the walk, Udi and Gregorio were deep in conversation, about the nuances of the land in the area, about different agricultural processes and techniques of growing food, about the continual deforestation in the region, about the insidiousness of mining companies and the weakness of the government condoning their exploitative modes of intrusion and extraction, about the importance of the chacra and choba-choba, about different species of plants that we passed along the way.  I was envious of Udi being able to converse so freely in Spanish.  I was catching about 15% of the conversation and yearned for much more.  Udi generously broke the flow of conversation many times to translate some of the missing details.

Gregorio describing chacra plants with Udi and I, photo by Kelly

View along the walk – chacra and mountains, valleys, photo by Kelly

A thatched house came into visibility amidst thick trees after at least 45 minutes of walking, and we stopped to chat with a young woman sitting outside.  Her infant little girl was sleeping and we spoke until there was a soft cry emerging from her house.  She offered us chicha the drink of maize/corn and water that is consumed in every type of context in Peru – restaurants, houses, schools…

Following Udi and Gregorio into the village, photo by Kelly

We walked further, through thick forest and down steep chacras where a view of the surrounding landscape was alive with undulating hills of greens, a diversity of foods growing within them.  Suddenly there were people – children and adults, male and female, at the bottom of a steep hill, in a line, working with what looked like small sickles, on the ground.

Choba-choba, photo by Kelly

After a series of holas and handshakes, we sat down and spoke with the eldest members of the family.  They spoke to us about what they were doing.  They were planting beans and maize on that day, but would return later to plant chillies and squash when the moon was right.  All of the children and young people were related within the family.  On most days, the children and young people went to school in the mornings and came back to work on the chacras in the afternoons.  This was the first planting that had been done in this chacra for several years as it had been lying fallow to re-nourish. Chacra and choba-choba occur in alignment with lunar cycles, a sophisticated and ancient form of knowledge which is ignored by the vast majority of the world.

Sitting and chatting with some members of the family, photo still by Kelly

More chicha was offered, the taste was refreshing, slightly sweet.  We said good-bye after 45 minutes or so and the elder man, the father of the family, walked us through another thickly forested area to visit with another choba-choba.

Chicha, photo by Kelly

We walked for another 30 or so minutes, up and down steep hills, some forested, some chacras, my legs becoming increasingly tired under the increasing strength of the sun.  Another line of people came into view – different ages, male and female, near the top of a steep hill.  The arrangement was similar, some people were actively pressing their sickles into the ground, digging up the dirt and putting in different small plants and seeds whilst others were resting.  There were again a series of friendly holas, warm smiles and handshakes.

Second choba-choba, photo still by Kelly

Within both choba-chobas was an atmosphere of joy and conviviality.  The heat, which at that time was intense, did not seem to increase anyone’s irritability.  Rather, there was lots of laughter and joking around.  This is not to say that the work everyone was doing was not difficult.  It was very difficult, exhaustive and physically demanding.

Choba-choba conviviality, photo still by Udi

The atmosphere of doing choba-choba work is within a framework of sharing – not just within the family – but with other families in the area and also with a deep sense of reverence to the nourishment of the land.  This reciprocal form of nourishment has been at the cultural core of Quechua life and is a far cry from industrialized forms of agriculture that is extractive and dependent on monetary exchange, rather than nourishment to all those humans and non-human beings involved.

The term choba choba is a Quechua word that means ‘hair with hair’ (choba means ‘hair’ in Quechua Lamas).  The significance of the meaning of choba-choba comes from the interweaving of hair braids that occurs during marriages.  This notion is extended to the interweaving of people, communities and the land.   One choba-choba inter-weaving of the land with people influences the next choba-choba and so on, strengthening the social fabric of communities.  Gregorio, through his work with Waman Wasi, helps to strengthen choba-choba, providing materials (sickles) when needed, visiting continually and sharing fiesta and laughter.

Udi:

Cut to the deep green undulating hills above the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. This is where we met Zapotec anthropologist and community activist Jaime Martinez Luna in his village of Gualetao birthplace of the only indigenous Mexican President, Benito Juárez, serving five terms between 1858 and 1872. We first came across Jaime in the chapter he wrote for a book called New World of Indigenous Resistance. The book is a collection of chapters by writers across Latin America in response to transcribed interviews with Noam Chomsky on the history and continuing legacy of colonialism, state and corporate power in the continent, and the effects on and responses by indigenous communities.  Interestingly, the majority of the chapters focus on education.   We found this book in a wonderful bookshop, Amate, in Oaxaca.  Jaime kindly replied to our email inviting us to his village, nestled high up in the hills an hour outside of the Oaxaca.

photo by Kelly

To get to Guelatao, we take a taxi 5 miles or so outside Oaxaca city to the ‘place to get a colectivo to Guelatao’ which apparently every taxi driver in the city knows.  We are dropped off rather suddenly in a car park that has a long bench in the corner.  We join the other 3 people and wait.  After 30 minutes or so of conversations with a couple of the people also waiting and the woman running the small shop in the corner of the car park (selling tamales and sodas), a car pulls up.  We are both given the front seat and so configure our bodies in a way so as to endure the hour of driving.  After only 5 minutes we have left signs of human habitation behind.  The air is clear, the sky is more blue – we pass steep hillsides – evergreens and scrubby trees filling it all in.  We notice evidence of mining in the distance and recall seeing in the news how two Oaxacan activists were recently killed protesting mining activities.  There are also milpas (or chacra to the Quechua in Peru) – golden maize that have dried on their stalks.  We are continually reminded of the intense importance of maize here – fiestas, foods of all kinds for all meals of the day…

Drive to Guelatao – view from front seat of colectivo-taxi, photo by Kelly

We are tightly positioned together in the front seat for over an hour.  Although uncomfortable, it gives us a much better view than had we sat anywhere else.  The car stops quite suddenly.  We have arrived at the entrance to the Guelatao village.  There is a small road leading up a steep hill.  We immediately walk to the top of the hill to check out the village.

Mural and bust of Benito Juarez, Guelatao, photo by Kelly

After briefly capturing the beautiful view which stretches across miles of rolling hills and mountains, we explore the lagoon, the government building, the giant statue of Benito Juarez and mural – we ask a woman at the shop where to find Jaime.  His office is just around the corner where there is a sign ‘Foundacion Comunalidad’.

photo by Udi

Jaime is inside and invites us in.  He is very tall and lanky.  His voice is deep and melodious, Leonard Cohen-like.  We are not surprised discovering later that he is also a singer, a musician and has published many cds.  Jaime speaks with a different Spanish, very slowly, enunciating each syllable with purpose.  Kelly is even able to understand much of what he is saying!  We arrange to meet later, to record a conversation by the laguna.  In the meantime, we find a restaurant to sit and write and enjoy some home-cooked Zapotec food.

Jaime, walking along the laguna in Guelatao, photo still by Kelly

During the hours we spent with Jaime, he taught us a great deal about the key word we had discovered across chapters in the book he contributed to, and also in a number of conversations we had across Latin America — comunalidad. As Jaime says in this book:

Comunalidad is a way of understanding life as being permeated with spirituality, symbolism, and a greater integration with nature. It is one way of understanding that Man is not the center, but simply a part of this great natural world. It is here that we can distinguish the enormous difference between Western and indigenous thought. Who is at the center – only one, or all?  The individual, or everyone?

Recorded conversation with Jaime, photo still by Udi

Jaime, like many others we talked to in our journey in Canada, Mexico and Peru, were highly critical of the school as an institution that has historically destroyed the cultures of original peoples across the Americas. As Gustavo Esteva put it, in his own contribution to this same book:

The Indigenous State Forum of Oaxaca in 1997 stated that the school had been the main instrument for the destruction of indigenous cultures, dispossessing them of their way of being and seeing the world to ‘Westernise’ then.

To counter the destructive effects of the school indigenous teachers and community activists have been advocating for interculturalidad in schools, an intercultural education that grounds students in and in between two cultures. A key concept in this struggle for intercultural education in Oaxaca has been comunalidad a word that the State Education Act of 1995 added as a 4th guiding principle of education, alongside democracy, nationalism and humanism. (Jaime comments in his chapter that this may have been a response of local government fearful of the Zapatista uprising of 1994).

Jaime’s Fundacion Comunalidad is working with schools, teachers to re-learn comunalidad as a notion, a practice, a cosmovision.  The emphasis is on bringing this into all aspects of the school, not only in the teaching and learning, but in the ways that people relate to each other – within the school and beyond the boundaries of the school – with the community and with the land and non-human world around them.  Jaime explained to us sitting by the laguna in Guelatao that comunalidad consists of four interrelated ingredients:

1. Territory

Territory involves knowing the land where one is, the place that sustains the community, its history and stories, its plants and animals, not unlike what the Blackfoot where also teaching at Red Crow around place-based learning and traditional foods.

2. Work

Work involves the different kinds of jobs and skills that people from the community take part in and which is not necessarily only about an individuals’ work and skills. This can also be about collective or cooperative forms of work such as the choba choba in Peru, or the mutirão in Brazil.

3. The organisation of the community

The organisation of community life in indigenous communities and around Oaxaca happens through the various assemblies and individual roles of responsibility, cargo, which take charge of different aspects of the community.

4. The fiesta.

Lastly, the fiesta is the celebration of work, of the community and the land, also having as Jaime points out, a spiritual dimension. It is the culmination of community life and comunalidad.

Poster outside of Jaime’s office, Guelatao, photo by Kelly

Kelly:

There is much more for us to learn about both choba-choba and comunalidad.  By being immersed for the time that we were in Oaxaca, in Guelatao and in Chiapas and hearing repeatedly the term comunalidad, we began to learn, to feel, what it meant – the significance of it.  Then by walking and pausing within the chacras around Lamas with Gregorio, we learned more about not only what comunalidad means, but could better comprehend and value the cooperative and communal gift-practice of choba-choba.

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Learning by running… across the prairie with students and teachers…

Learning by running… across the prairie with students and teachers…

Posted by on Feb 28, 2013 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

Although our main focus during our journey is to higher education initiatives emerging from indigenous scholars, community activists and artists, throughout our time in Canada, Mexico and Peru we also encountered and learned from teachers, students, community activists and organisations working to promote these indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing in primary, middle and secondary schools.

Our first experience visiting in/with primary, middle and secondary schools was in the Blackfoot Kainai (Blood Band) Reserve in Alberta. It unexpectedly came through the form of running – across open prairie.

Although this post may seem a bit dated, reflecting back on a particular day under the Albertan sun in October, 2012, I thought to write about how it stands so strongly in my memory – as a form of learning with my body.  Writing now as I am several months later, in South America, where I am far from fluent in Spanish or Portuguese, I have been forced to rely on learning beyond language.  I will be writing much more about this in coming posts, but first I thought to write about the day I remember the most vividly of all the days spent in southern Canada – the day I ran and walked alongside hundreds of children and adults across the open prairie on the Blood Reserve.  When I started writing this post, it came out in a fast flowing rush (and it is therefore longer than planned).  The memories of that day are so sharp – the bluest of blue skies, my skin pulsing from the heat of the hot dry sun, the sounds of the wheat-coloured grasses crunching beneath my feet,  of increasingly heavy and laboured breathing the further we got into the race – and of the excitement of voices, young and old, encouraging the completion of a physically demanding challenge…  I think the clarity of that day has something to do with feeling really alive – with feeling free… with engaging together in activity that defies age, background, gender…

A couple of days before the race, we met Narcisse Blood and his wife Alvine Mountain Horse for dinner in Fort MacLeod.  Alvine, a middle school teacher at the Kainai Middle School on the reserve, and PhD student at the University of Calgary, is a mother of four, grandmother of many.  She is also a long distance runner and has been since she was a girl.  Alvine seemed tired during our dinner, unsurprisingly, as she is busy doing so many things.  However, after I mentioned something about my decision to attend university on the east coast of the US because of being recruited at that time for running (and high jumping), her energy returned and we were suddenly very engaged in an animated conversation – stories about running, about racing, about coaching.  Alvine told us of her most recent 10km race (just three days before) where she had fallen badly, injuring her knee and her face. She was concerned about her ability to do well at the upcoming annual race celebrating the signing of the Treaty – two days later.  Her knee was still swollen and there was still bruising on her face.  Yet, I could very clearly see the fire in her to run, to compete, to participate.

Alvine Mountain Horse and Kelly at the start of the race, photo by Udi

I think once someone becomes a runner, develops a love for running, it is somehow always there, seeping into the core of your being.  So far on this journey, I have done far less running than I would have liked, I not only miss it, often I long for it.  I see someone running on the edges of a park, or alongside the sea, and I wish I was there, feeling the air on my skin, seeing the ground blur beneath my feet, wanting to experience the tiredness and the simultaneous satisfaction that comes with running.  This passion for running is not universally shared, but between those that do share it, there is an immediate connection.  I found this connection with Alvine.  At the end of our lovely meal together, I also found myself signing up for the annual cross-country race taking place in two days.  The 3-mile or 5-mile race (we could choose) was to be across prairie, finishing on the grounds of the Kainai primary, middle and secondary schools on the Blood Reserve.  This particular day of the annual run was to be held on the 125th anniversary of Treaty Seven which signed the reservation territory, amongst other laws and regulations, to the Blackfoot.

I was really nervous arriving to the Kainai Middle School that Friday morning and timidly asked for directions to find Alvine.  There was chaotic and nervous energy that always comes with organizing so many children and teenagers.  At least 10 buses were parked outside from different schools in the area – members of other Blackfoot bands and non-Blackfoot schools as well.  Teachers were trying to organize the hundreds of school-aged children and young people who were excitedly putting on their running shoes, trying to find out where to pin on their numbers.

The dry, open sky and vast horizon of southern Alberta reminded me very much of Klamath Falls, Oregon where I grew up, and I was suddenly feeling the nervousness I would have felt over 20 years ago, competing as I once did in high school, for the cross-country running team.  Only now, I was not very fit – an obvious outsider – joining hundreds of children, young people and adults from the area who participate in this annual event.  Udi was taking it all in as someone who has not only ever run a cross-country race, but has also never witnessed such an event.

After asking several teachers, I eventually found Alvine in her classroom.  She was hurriedly trying to gather her own belongings for the race – numbers to pin on our tops, lists of student names, her tee-shirt.  I noticed many different Blackfoot words written neatly on the blackboard.  She walked with me out of the school and the three of us climbed into our car.  She directed us for a few miles, from paved to unpaved road and finally to a field where there was no road at all.  I looked around to see hundreds of school-aged children, from what I guessed were 6 years old, through the end of secondary school (18 years old) and many adults (teachers).  It was the first time in my life I had ever run with such a diverse and disparate group, all associated with schools in the area.  Any school-related running race in my time was always separated quite rigidly into different age groups.  I do not remember ever running alongside any of my teachers.

photo by Udi

We all gathered together, finding a place to stand where we could.  One of the teachers from the high school gave us all directions, to run alongside the flags he had just stuck into the ground early that morning.  He told us to be careful of the uneven surface.  Alvine looked at me and said not to wait for her, that I should try to win, that she was still injured and not sure how fast she would run.  I told her I was completely out of shape anyway and happy to run with her.

photo by Udi

The gun went off, many children took off fast, excited about what it was that we were doing.  I noticed that many of them looked completely unprepared to run – some in jeans, shoes that we clearly not made for running.  Yet they all seemed very happy about running several miles in the hot sun on unknown terrain.  There was no one whining, which I would have expected from some of the children and teenagers. I ran alongside Alvine for about a half mile or so and noticed I was still feeling surprising fine.  I also noticed that I wanted to run ahead and try and catch a couple of the female adults who were not so far ahead.  The competitive streak in me came right back and was strongly encouraged by Alvine.  She kept whispering between laboured breaths – “go ahead, try to catch them, try to win”.  I laughed with her encouragement and decided to, although I also felt a pull to stay with her and run alongside for the duration.

Half mile or so into the race, photo by Udi

I ran ahead at the top of a small hill coming out of the coulee.  I noticed two women in front of me and set out to catch them.  One of my favourite training activities during my cross-country high school days was when my coach would start us all separately – one minute or so apart.  The goal was to try and catch as many people as you could over a 3 mile course.  It was the same here, only 20 years later.

photo by Udi

I picked up speed for the rest of the race.  I chatted to many children and teenagers along the way.  Many of them would walk and then sprint, rather than running continuously.  I encouraged them to run slowly – to run with me, and a couple girls (I guessed were about 13) did.  We made light conversation that got increasingly more difficult as we all approached the school.  I noticed another adult female runner in front of me, nearing the school and I decided to catch up with her before the finish line, which I did (just barely).  Udi was at the finish line, clapping, yelling and filming.

Finishing the race, photo by Udi

One of the top finishers of the race, photo by Udi

I was exhausted – but felt exhilarated as I often do after a challenging run.  I ran back to find Alvine, to encourage her and run with her the rest of the way.  She was happy that she finished, her knee really hurting her.  After the race we walked around the school buildings, chatting with Alvine and some of the other teachers – Alvine was proudly introducing us to people, saying that the race had become ‘international’ with us being there.  A warmth and joy pervaded the environment through vocal encouragement and generosity of food and care.  It was important to all the teachers there that everyone who participated in and witnessed the race be provided a full meal.  Everything was free.  Several of the students came to speak with Alvine.  It was clear how very loved and admired she is by students of all ages and teachers.

The entire event contrasted strongly with running events (races) that I participated in – in the past.  The diversity of ages running alongside one another was very powerful, particularly as there was so much encouragement – from young to old and old to young.  Although there was a competitive air, it was friendly.  I wondered how much of this conviviality had to do with the very reason we were all there running and connecting with the ground beneath our feet –– in celebration of the sovereignty that exists on this part of the land, the Blackfoot territory.

Overall winner of the race, photo by Udi

An awards ceremony began soon after in the high school gym with a Blackfoot prayer being spoken by one of the Blackfoot Elders in the community.  Udi and I were both inspired to see the hand-made spears (rather than trophies) that were given to the top male and female (of all ages) finishers of the 3-mile and 5-mile races.  The spears were about 2 meters long, hand-carved, with leather straps and fathers wrapped around them at three different sections.  The end of the spear looked as if it had been carved from obsidian.  I received a medal for being a top-3 female finisher in the over-29 age group, which I was rather pleased about (perfect souvenir!).

After the race, Udi and I explored the schools and talked with more teachers and students.  The insides of the school buildings were beautifully constructed and decorated, mixing the functionality of a standard North American high school with Blackfoot structures and designs. Central in the building is the library which has a large steel teepee emerging from its center forming and ceremonial space for lectures, events and reading.  Alvine introduced us to Olivia Tailfeathers, the music teacher for all three schools.  She writes her own music as well.  She gave us one of her CDs and we are hoping to use a couple of the tracks as music for the film we will be editing on Red Crow Community College.

Kainai Middle School library, photo by Udi

Interior of teepee in Kainai Middle School library, photo by Udi

Alvine is fluent in the Blackfoot language and is committed to the teaching that she is able to do, in spite of how busy she is. When we left the Kainai Middle School that day, we drove Alvine to Lethbridge to meet with Narcisse and Ryan Heavy Head.  Along the way, Alvine told us more about her own learning of Blackfoot and the ways in which she has been teaching the language to children and adults.  She herself had learned from her grandmother who did not speak any English.  Alvine’s grandmother had taken her outside on long walks, teaching her words with the land.  The Blackfoot language emerged through the land, and this was how Alvine was taught the Blackfoot language.  She discovered that it was also the best way for her to teach the language.

In the school where Alvine taught we were especially excited about the project she told us about which brought the knowledge of local plants and their uses into the school. In this language teaching/learning approach, students had to discover the plants growing around the school area, find out their Blackfoot names and their traditional use.  Alongside Blackfoot language teaching, Alvine coaches running.  Being outside, on and with the land is a deep significance that crosses both of these very different reasons for and approaches to, learning.

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Invitation to shape the conversation…

Posted by on Feb 21, 2013 in all posts | 0 comments

We have had some wonderful feedback here on our blog, on our facebook page and more recently on our Tedx Talk presentation that was screened on the 9th of February at the University of Bath in the UK.  The link to the Tedx video,  is here:  “Challenging Enlivened Learning” 

The experience making the video for the Tedx Talk was an amazing learning experience – talking in front of a camera is much more challenging than public speaking (at least Kelly thought so).  The Tedx format is not to impress with the mind (with intellect) but rather to speak from the heart, to speak openly about personal experiences, exhilarating and challenging.  We hope that this video helps to explain more about what we are doing here on this ‘journey of enlivened learning’ and why we are doing it.

The Vimeo page where the Tedx video has been uploaded is part of our Vimeo site ‘Multi-Sense Media” where there are other films that Udi and Alan (a fellow co-traveller on this journey!) have made in the past (Henna:  The Ties that Bind; Artisans of Memory; Everything was Carved).  We are also planning to put many more video clips on our Multi-Sense Media Vimeo page from our journey.

We wanted to take this opportunity and turn things over to you, and ask for suggestions, feedback, comments on how we can make this blog more engaging and interactive.  We have many ideas but would love to hear from you! All and any suggestions and ideas are very welcome – and requested :) Also, anyone interested in becoming directly involved in any part of our learning process and journey – virtually and/or in reality – let us know!  Participation is most welcome… You can get in touch with us by commenting to this post or emailing us (kelly@enlivenedlearning.com or udi@enlivenedlearning.com – as found in our contact page).

Some ideas we have at this point for our blog (what do you think?):

– Clips of recorded conversations and events that we have visited

– Thematic structuring as well as geographical

– More information (overviews) about each place we are visiting

– Shorter posts

– Conversations started by anyone interested!

– Virtual discussions – arranged once a month for anyone interested

Hope to hear from you in the near future…

Warm wishes from Kelly, Udi, Marina and Alan

PS – stay tuned for an outpouring of posts over the coming days…

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the School and El Monte

the School and El Monte

Posted by on Feb 7, 2013 in all posts, Peru, PRATEC | 2 comments

Wayku, trucks ready for school trip, photo by Udi

We arrive early in the central square of Wayku, the Quechua Lamas village that is found below the town of Lamas, and wait for the trucks to arrive for the school trip. The square is next to the local bilingual secondary school (Spanish and Quechua) and the students wait outside sitting and chatting dressed in their uniform and packing their lunches in bags and rucksacks. We talk to a few of the students, but mainly we talk to Leonardo, who works at Waman Wasi in the surrounding villages and schools and who invited us to come today.  He introduces us to some of the teachers coming along today. One teaches computers at the school and is a local Quechua Lama. We had heard of these bilingual schools before, where classes are held mostly in Spanish and some in Quechua. We wondered about how these formal bilingual opportunities for children coming from Quechuan communities offered an intercultural environment, how different cultural contexts were combined within the school – and in particular, how Quechua ways of knowing were integrated and cultural practices cellebrated.

Terapoto, school trip truck, photo by Udi

Waman Wasi, part of the PRATEC network and also started initially by Grimaldo, has been practicing the approach outlined in the previous post working to strengthen and promote the values and practices associated with the chacra as well as to ways of knowing and being of Quechua Lama peoples of this region more generally. Wama Wasi had also been trying to encourage the local schools to open their doors to the communities they were inserted in, involving more the parents and grandparents in the teaching, and especially their knowledge. To this end, Wama Wasi had also been running a number of workshops with local teachers over the years to sensitise them to the surrounding cosmovision, for even if many of these teachers may themselves be Quechua Lamas, few retain the connection to this way of seeing and being in the universe.

Leonardo and Gregorio, two Quechua Lamas working in Wama Wasi who generously showed us around during our stay, spoke of how challenging it has been to engage with teachers who have been trained and culturally assimilated into another way of thinking that has tended to devalue local ways of knowing and being. A similar challenge was conveyed to us by Elena Pardo in Cusco, from CEPROSI (Centro de Promoción y Salud Integral), also a part of the PRATEC network, who works with Quechua communities of the high Andes. This challenge was further narrated to us by Jaime Luna Martinez, the Zapotec activist and anthropologist we talked to in Oaxaca, who is similarly trying to bring to the school the ways of knowing and being of the local Zapotec community, especially around the notion of comunalidad (see the post on this).

The two trucks arrive 30min late, they are returning from an earlier trip that day, organised by Wama Wasi with local schools, to go to the local salt mine, a few hours away by road and then an additional 8 hours on foot up to the mountains.  It is a key spiritual place for the Quechua Lamas. The salt mines, like the forested mountain region we are about to go to, is part of the Quechua Lamas ancestral hunting and gathering territory. Once a year villagers go to the salt mines to get a years worth supply of salt. The mine and the territory around it, is now threatened with being appropriated by the state under a policy of ‘conservation’ that excludes traditional uses, such as hunting and gathering medicines, and thus the caretakers of the land. This, we are told a number of times during our visit, is happening across Peru and especially to these upper Amazon mountainous regions. There was also talk that the salt mine, used collectively by the Quechua Lamas for thousands of years, was going to be taken over from this collective use and privatised by an international mining company for their own use.

The school trip was also headed to what used to be Quechua hunting and medicine gathering territory, the region of el monte, the mountain, which alongside the chacra, the field were much work life happenings cultivating a variety of plants, and the river, make up the trinity of places in Quechua Lama cosmovision. This particular el monte, lying by one of the region’s central attractions, the large Ahuashiyacu waterfall beyond Terapoto, is now a biodiversity park looked after by the local university. This dates back some two decades, coinciding with the period in which the state was fighting against the guerrillas emerging from rural areas.

The Quechua Lama computer teacher called the students to attention and read out the register so they could jump to the back of the truck. 30 students, 3 teachers, a few parents and a couple of grandparents later, the troupe packed shoulder to shoulder, standing up at the back of two small pick-up trucks chatting and excitedly screaming as we pulled away and hit the road. Kelly and I imagined health and safety procedures and professionals back in Europe and the US eyes open in disbelief staring at the unfolding scene, tightly gripping regulation manuals and consent forms. Driving across the undulating green landscape with our merry band we did not feel the clenching of officiousness, bureaucratic care or fear of litigation, instead there was the blowing wind rushing through faces smiling with the raw enjoyment of a day out. We were going to El Monte!

El Monte entrance, grandfather blowing smoke, photo by Udi

El Monte is the territory of spirits, the souls of plants and animals and of the forest itself who must be supplicated to provide for those entering it. To enter El Monte, the Quechua Lama need to be purified, their bodies prepared and made ready to enter this place of spirits. At the entrance of the biodiversity park one of the grandfathers stood on the other side of a small stream preparing dozens of small hand rolled cigarettes. The Quechua Lama computer teacher once again read out the register and the students filed through accordingly. As they passed by, the grandfather blew smoke on them, purifying them to enter into the forest. The whole troupe filed past, each person undergoing the same procedure, including ourselves, and entered El Monte covered in a haze of tobacco.

El Monte entrance, grandfather blowing smoke2, photo by Udi

The students quickly made their way through the forest and in a few minutes we arrive at a clearing where the administration of the park and a small zoo are located. Here we are all received by the park keeper, a non- Quechua Lama ecologist from the local university. The children proceeded to ask him a number of questions about biodiversity, the park, its animals and what they ate. The questions had been prepared earlier, perhaps in the classroom, and had been written in their notebooks. The students meticulously wrote down the answers to the questions. Of note amongst the biological and ecological answers given by the park keeper were the sharp distinctions drawn between things that were living ‘biotic’ and non-living ‘abiotic’, as he put it. After several rounds of questions and answers, and breakfast, we set off to walk through the park. Immediately the majority of students rushed ahead with the park keeper and the computer teacher.

El Monte, the park-keeper-ecologist, photo by Udi

We stayed with a smaller and slower group of some six students who were walking with Leonardo from Waman Wasi and with the grandfather, realising that this was the actual teaching about the forest we thought the trip had been organised for. We had been waiting for a coordinated encounter of all the students with the grandfather and the forest, the intergenerational transmission of knowledge! Instead as we later learned, the whole idea to invite grandparents had come from Waman Wasi, not from the bilingual school. Rather than a coordinated and integral part of the trip, the grandfather element was very much a late add on, an afterthought, to the ‘real learning’ to be had on biodiversity from the park keeper. We had come to the trip expecting to see interculturalidad, interculturality, a strong principle across Latin America that seeks not only a bilingual education but a form of education where people learn to be grounded in and in between two cultures, the dominant ‘western’ culture of subjects, disciplines, of maths and ecology and computers, and the indigenous ways of knowing, in this case, how to be in the forest, walk through it, hunt, gather medicines, know its plants and animals and their behaviour.

El Monte, the grandfather, photo by Udi

What we witnessed instead were the very real challenges of enacting such an education. These were not only challenges of organisation but also around the value and respect that teachers and students place on indigenous ways of knowing. Further than that we also observed how formal schooling instils certain deep habits of literacy that make it harder to engage with indigenous ways of knowing and learning. As I wrote previously on the post on literacies, technologies and techniques that mediate the world, whether the written or printed word or the computer screen, subtly shape our experience and how we make sense of the world and relate to others. We saw the sharp contrast of different kinds of literacies operating in the trip to El Monte. The group with the grandfather also asked him questions that they had written down in their notebooks and also wrote his answers down, rarely looking up as they did. By contrast the grandfather animatedly demonstrated through stories, or walking through the forest, or imitating the calls of animals, or reenacting a hunt or gesture, his knowledge and way of knowing. He knew and conveyed his knowing through his body and voice. Yet he was surrounded by his grandchildren’s generation who could read and write well, but did not know the forest through their bodies. They were forest illiterate.

El Monte, literacy, photo by Udi

After the school trip we talked to Leonardo and shared some of these observations, he was surprised that we had noticed these things too and spoke of the challenges of enacting interculturalidad in practice in schools and engaging the interest of teachers and students. There are so many other mediating technologies now that call young people away from knowing the forest with their bodies; tv, mobile phones, digital music on demand anywhere. Even in El Monte. Every so often the sound of the breeze and swaying trees was interrupted by something much more prosaic, Lady Gaga coming from a student’s mobile phone. We spoke with the grandfather later in the trip and also back in his home in Wayku. Though he is happy and excited to talk to the younger generation and be asked to go on trips like this, he lamented that very few young people are interested in learning the Quechua Lama ways of seeing and being in the forest. So in days to come we wondered how many would still know the forest and have the deep relation that he had, how many will be able to know and imitate the calls of the birds in the fiestas?

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Development = Cosmovision and Crianza… Learning from PRATEC

Development = Cosmovision and Crianza… Learning from PRATEC

Posted by on Feb 1, 2013 in all posts, Peru, PRATEC | 0 comments

We are sitting in the beach-front barrio of Barranco under a once again grey Lima sky relaxing in a cafe after another danger-taxi-ride through the aggressive traffic. We have just had a 90min meeting and interview with Grimaldo Rengifo Vásquez one of the founders of PRATEC (Proyeto Andinas de Tecnologías Campesinas) a grassroots network of organisations working with indigenous communities throughout Peru through a perspective that values and seeks to strengthen Andean knowledge and practices. The organisation was started in 1986 by Grimaldo Rengifo Vásquez, Eduardo Grillo, Francois Greslou and Marcela Velásquez development and agronomy professionals who were dissastified with the development models that had were being unquestionably applied across Peru and elsewhere.

As Frederique Apffel-Marglin wrote in a wonderful article about PRATEC in 2002.

In the course of their professional activities they eventually came to the conclusion that development itself was the problem. This realisation did not come swiftly; it emerged slowly after a lifetime of professional activity in the service of development. At first they thought that things were not working because the methodologies that they used were faulty. They worked hard to devise better methodologies. They lived through many phases and fashions in development: community development; participatory development; appropriate technology; sustainable development; women and development. They tried everything available, always striving to capture the reality of Andean peasant agriculture and of peasant life in general. At long last they came to the conclusion that no methodology would ever deliver and that the problem lay in the very idea of development. It is at this juncture that they left their professional activities and their secure jobs and founded PRATEC, a non-governmental organisation. In other words, they deprofessionalised themselves. They had come to the realisation that development had failed. The evidence lay scattered throughout the Peruvian landscape in what some of their colleagues have called ‘the archaeology of development’, namely ruined infrastructures, abandoned to the elements after the project officials had left, uncared for by the peasants for whom they were intended and left to deteriorate. The evidence also lay in their experience of repeated efforts to devise better methodologies and the final realisation that within their professional perspective and constraints it was impossible to approximate peasant reality and therefore make development relevant to their lives.

From Fieldwork to Mutual Learning: Working with PRATEC. Environmental Values 11 (2002): 345–67

I especially like this image of an archaeology of development, the ruined traces of failed schemes dreamnt up elsewhere with different visions of the good life, now scattered across the landscape overgrowing with plants and home to birds and insects.  I guess that the PRATEC team considers the landscape of development ideas to be similarly littered with half-baked schemes, now laying useless on the ground at the mercy of the elements, designed in the distant offices of some large organisation far away from the day to day lives of the peoples here in Peru. And in the picture below, just how many different cosmovisions, different models of how to develop towards the good life!

An indigenous map of Peru found in the offices of PRATEC in Lima, photo by Udi

In our meeting with Grimaldo he conveyed to us the story of the emergence of the organisation in the mid-1980s amidst a climate of violence and conflict in the country following from the guerrilla uprisings. Decades of development projects, the effects of this conflict and of state-supported neoliberal encroachment on indigenous lands and resources had left these populations in a desperate state, destroying the cultural base or social fabric that had sustained these communities for thousands of years. The conflict with the guerrillas alone, Grimaldo told us, had killed 70,000 people, the majority indigenous.

From this period of the 1980s on, Grimaldo said that a new period of rebuilding had started amongst these groups and PRATEC had been a partner in this process. In Grimaldo’s case, and in the trajectory of PRATEC, this has involved coming to understand a different culture and cosmovision (a way of seeing and being in the universe) from his own. For Grimaldo the cosmovision of the Peruvian Andes was different to the  Amazonian campesino culture where he was raised but also from the academic agronomy in which he trained in university. The fundamental and sustaining base of this Andean culture is agriculture and a cosmovision of crianza or nurturance that characterises people’s relationship to nature.

Choba choba, or communal work at the chakra, Lamas, photo by Kelly

We often came across this word crianza, we heard it in the town of Lamas, where the local project Wama Wasi, part of the PRATEC network, works with Quechua Lamas communities in this upper Amazon region. We heard it in our conversations with Elena Pardo in Cusco, from CEPROSI (Centro de Promoción y Salud Integral), also a part of the PRATEC network, which works with Quechua communities surrounding this region of the high Andes.

We loved this term crianza, it has a depth and beauty to it conveying the heart of this cosmovision that is widespread in this region. It also has deep resonances with Kelly’s previous post on Maize and milpa in Mexico, and on the buffalo in Alberta. In our understanding the term crianza means that people help create and sustain, or nurture, nature whereas nature in turn helps to create, sustain and nurture people. The relationship is one of kinship, of the same family, and as such quite different from a habitual way we have come to understand ‘agriculture’ where crops are ‘produced’. For here in ‘agriculture’ there is no sense that the ‘agri’ the crops, are also ‘producing’ us. This relationship, practice and understanding of ‘nature’ being outside of us and manipulated by us for our our ends, and increasingly purely commercial ends, is replaced by a sense of mutuality and reciprocity. I help the plants grow because they help me grow, and we are both part of a larger life collectivity which is, in this cosmovision, our mother earth, a living being that keeps us all alive.

The uniqueness of PRATEC has been to practice a deep listening and learning from the indigenous communities they work with. Rather than begin with the view of ‘experts’ schooled in a particular cosmovision with keywords such as ‘progress’, ‘development’, ‘poverty-reduction’, ‘increasing yields’, ‘growing GDP’, ‘crop production’, PRATEC has instead payed attention to the values and cultural practices that have sustained the life of these communities in these places for thousands of years. Coming to know these values and practices, such as that of crianza but also those surrounding the chacra, the actual field or place where the nurturance is practiced and which makes up most of the community’s working life, was the first step in the trajectory of PRATEC and its founders. We will write more on the chacra in a later post though just briefly we could observe how central this was for the Quechua Lamas communities we came to know and how similar to the Mexican milpa this was (see Kelly’s posts on Maize and Milpa).

PRATEC’s next stage, as Grimaldo narrates in our interview, involved disseminating this particular understanding of close listening and knowing to others. To this end they spent a period of over fifteen years conducting courses across Peru to different groups of professionals and students. This gradually led to a consolidation of a group of people across the country, development and agriculture professionals, teachers and community activists, who were keen to practice this alternative approach to development. PRATEC’s next phase of work has then been guided to strengthening these local practices and systems so as to fulfil not an external expert’s conception of the good life, or of development, but to actualise what this means for the people themselves.

All of this has involved a great deal of unlearning and of re-learning from the people who work at PRATEC, comprised amongst others of university educated agronomists, agricultural engineers, educationalists, and others. Like Grimaldo, others we talked to in PRATEC describe this process of questioning the assumptions they learned in these academic and development institutions and in the cosmovision that sustained the forms of knowledge and values that were reproduced here.

So pervasive and powerful has been the force of this cosmovision promoting a particular kind of technology-driven and market-oriented development and progress, that one important strand of PRATEC’s work with local communities involves redressing the de-valuing of indigenous ways of life which has been happening since the arrival of the Spanish five hundred years ago. What has been interesting to note is that though many of PRATEC’s founders and those they work with now started in the field of agronomy most of them now are actively involved in working in the area of education. As Grimaldo says the latest stage in PRATEC’s trajectory has been to work with schools and with education policy as a way of strengthening local ways of knowing. Important in this shift is also the work of Elena Pardo in and around Cusco, someone who does have a background in education and worked for many years in the Ministry of Education before starting CEPROSI. Here in Peru, as in Mexico and Canada, we found the school as a key institution for the dismantling or the reproduction of a particular cosmovision. How PRATEC and its affiliated organisations work with schools is the topic of the next few posts.

Network of PRATEC projects across Peru (from http://www.pratecnet.org)

PRATEC’s approach to development, some label it ‘post-development’, is both well-known across Peru and internationally and is both respected and controversial. It challenges thinking about who the experts are, who should have the right to impose development (particularly with certain ideas of progress) on a community, what kind of development or conception of the good life ought to underpin these. When we visited one of PRATEC’s many umbrella organizations (this one called Waman Wasi) in the upper Amazon region of Lamas, we were told how the area is filled with different development initiatives by numerous organisations, each with its own set of experts, advice and models. Some offer incentives for the Quechua Lama to grow coffee or cacao for export. The rationale is that the Quechua Lama ought to enter into the global monetary economy to meet their needs, as they are money poor. For Wama Wasi, whom we spent time with, this approach does not recognise the self-sufficiency of these communities and the food security they already have, nor how the chacra embodies a cosmovision that sustains a whole way of life, not only materially, but also culturally, in terms of family roles and relations, and spiritually. Though they are money poor their sense of the good life, buen vivir, is found not in having and owning stuff, but in relation to crianza, to the chacra, and to other elements of their cosmovision that supports their being in the world.

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