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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?