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Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education!

Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education!

Posted by on Aug 12, 2015 in all posts, on the road | 0 comments

As you may be are aware, there is a knowledge movement slowly building all over the world, an emerging network of lets call them Eco-versities for now – of people and communities reclaiming their local knowledge systems and imaginations to restore and re-envision learning processes that are meaningful and relevant to the call of our times, that cultivate new stories and possibilities, that re-connect and regenerate diverse ecological and cultural ecosystems.

El Manzano course strings  copy

From the start of our adventures in this landscape of these diverse ecologies of knowledges focusing on Higher Education emerging around the world we dreamt: – what if these places could share their experiences, knowledges, their learning approaches amongst and between themselves and strengthen the beautiful and important work they are all doing?! What even more wondrous and powerful transformations could occur! As we visited places across different countries, as well as writing and making films, we took on ourselves the role of traveling story-tellers – telling stories to people we met of the other places we had visited and what they had been doing. Some links between places started to emerge through this as people and places begun to hear more about each others’ work.

Now that our physical journey to many of these places has come to a rest, as well as carrying on writing and editing the films, we have put our energy into that original dream.

We are really excited to have co-created with Manish Jain from Swaraj University (Udaipur, India) a Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education! This ‘Re-Imagining Higher Education’ event will gather more than 50 other leading visionary-doers and thinkers from more than 20 countries at Tamera Peace and Research Centre, an eco-village in southern Portugal this August (from the 20th – 26th).

We are gathering this group from a variety of learning places around the world – to share experiences, wisdom, insights and challenges to learn about how transformative learning is being imagined and enacted in each place. Our primary focus is to bring together people who are hosting or who are deeply involved with ‘alternative’ or ‘post-traditional’ places of higher education, or who are somehow re-imagining higher education in their work. Many of these have emerged from different social movements, ecological movements and indigenous communities.

During the six days we will spend together in Portugal we will host an interactive process through a structured un-conference format where there will be a lot of time for sharing and co-creating with self-organizing sessions and open-spaces. Our intention is to co-create a gathering that can propel this movement forward, where stories are shared, creative sparks fly, and friendships and alliances are woven. We hope to be able to explore common emerging themes such as sustainability and social justice; unlearning and decolonizing; indigenous ways of knowing; healing; gift culture; re-engaging community, nature and the built environment; local media; literacies; the question of certification; mentoring; rites of passage; right livelihood and social/eco entrepreneurship, and many others. We will keep you posted on how the event goes on our Facebook and Twitter page. We will also let you know how you can participate in this emerging network.

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Visiting a Sociable Movement, the MST

Visiting a Sociable Movement, the MST

Posted by on Sep 2, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, ENFF | 0 comments

In the next few posts we pick up our journey once again in South America…

The bus from Rio dropped us off on the highway 70km before arriving in São Paulo. The highway passes through small towns, farms and factories. Getting our bags before heading down the small country lane we are greeted by a large sign with colourful dancing M & Ms in front of the chocolate factory across the highway, the banner reads: ‘A diversão começa aqui’, ‘The fun begins here’.

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, outer wall mural. photo by Udi

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, outer wall mural. photo by Udi

We did not know what to expect as we came to visit the Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes ENFF, the Florestan Fernandes National School, named after an eminent Brazilian sociologist and activist. This place of higher education (they do call themselves a university), is a flagship and central learning space of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, Landless Movement of Rural Workers, (or also known as the acronym, MST).

Founded in 2005 through the collective effort of the MST and funds from eminent supporters like photographer Sebastião Salgado, musician Chico Buarque and many others, the ENFF has been created to act as a central learning hub for the MST and other like-minded social and ecological movements in Brazil and Latin America.

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, arial photo of school. photo by Udi

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, arial photo of school. photo by Udi

Our communication with the coordination team of ENFF had been sporadic and brief so we did not know how we would be received and if people really understood what we were doing. We also were not sure what, if anything would be happening at the school as courses do not run all year round but happen in blocks at certain times of the year or else in one-off events. Any unease we had about being here soon dissipated as we are warmly received and shown to our accommodation by our friendly hosts who were in charge of organising this place.

Sao Paulo, ENFF

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Still from film. photo by Udi

Landless Rural Workers, like other marginalised social groups, such as those from the favelas which we wrote about in the last posts, tend not to be fairly represented in the mainstream media in Brazil. The MST in particular, because of their struggle for an overhaul of the country’s intensely unfair land ownership system and the proposal for a socialist and redistributive state, tend to receive a particularly negative representation from the right-wing leaning printed press, such as Veja magazine and from Brazil’s largest media conglomerate, the Rede Globo Network.

Sao Paulo, MST, poster of school

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Poster. photo by Udi

Against this hostile media background the movement has also always suffered from violent attacks and threats by landowners. The most notorious of such episodes was the massacre of 19 MST activists in El Dorado dos Carajas in the state of Pará by military police in 1996. During our days visiting the School, a regional MST leader, active in promoting more environmentally sound agriculture, was murdered in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Many at the school knew him and on hearing the news an emotional celebration of his life took place.

With threats, the actuality of violence or death and the symbolic violence of the media, it is no wonder that the MST can be guarded to outsiders. But it did not take long, as has been our experience in all the places we have visited, to feel warmly welcomed by those we met: people coordinating, running, teaching and learning at the school.

During our time in the School we were shown around and talked to coordinators and activists from the MST, a couple of university lecturers who were teaching classes here, a group of teachers working in schools across the country who also came here on a course on Education, Literature and Music and Rural Education. We also talked to younger MST members who were studying at public universities across Brazil in courses designed in partnership with ENFF. We will talk more about what we learned from them and from being there in the next post.

Whilst here we also talked to people like Cléia who had a degree in agriculture and was working in the gardens demonstrating various aspects of cultivation and who was especially keen on bringing more ecological principles into the movement (which has historically used a more chemical-based and industrial approach to farming and food processing so as to make production more commercially viable). Agro-ecology is taking over as an important agricultural view and practice in the Movement.

Sao Paulo, MST, garden

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Garden. photo by Udi

We learned about the international dimension of the Movement talking to Leo, who was here at the School waiting for the rest of his team from the MST who were going on a two or three year posting to Haiti to work with local partners on a water capture, storage and irrigation project in communities affected by the 2010 earthquake. Leo, from the northeast of Brazil, had already been to Haiti on this project for two years and spoke Creole, he loved his time there and was keen to go back. He was here to also teach others from his team Creole and about the project.

We learned about the experience of children in Movement from two delightful guides, five and eight years old, sons of families who were living here at the School. They showed us around the place: where the pre-school children organised themselves to have a camp night, away from their parents in the premises of the school; the large cafeteria where people ate all meals together; a frog swimming in the swimming pool. We loved their curiosity, confidence and ease at engaging with grown ups. The MST also has its own children’s groups and events, the Sem Terrinha, or Little Landless People, at each camp and settlement which also has its own publication.

Sao Paulo, MST, kids feet

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, The feet of our guides. photo by Udi

(This experience we had elsewhere in our journey when we met children who were being raised within a learning environment that gives young people more autonomy, encourages their own initiative and curiosity in defining what they want to learn. We want to write about this in later posts).

Combined with the warmth of the people we talked to, their optimism and deep motivation and commitment for a better world what moved me the most whilst visiting the School was something more subtle which I had not read or heard described elsewhere about the MST. This has to do with the strong affect between members of the movement, their care and warmth for each other and the ties of solidarity that bound them.

The stereotype about people who are highly politically committed, especially those subscribing to a particular ideology, is that there is a kind of hardness, a righteous anger, a future orientation and single-mindedness that is incompatible with tenderness and a gentle cultivation of interpersonal relationships. But here at the School the deeply political and gently interpersonal were interwoven. There was a beautiful softness between people along with playful laughter in between the discussions of politics.

Perhaps this is the result of the physical proximity through which many in the Movement must have at some point in their lives lived through with other activists in the temporary camps where they occupy unused and unproductive land across Brazil. Living in a camp means living close together and cooperating across all aspects of life so as to ensure survival, like nomadic bands do in so many parts of the world.

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Teachers Play Performance, photo by Udi

Maybe these bonds of affect and solidarity are also the result of the cultivation of a deeply democratic culture within the movement. Decision-making across various aspects of day to day life and about the direction of the movement are taken through constant deliberation, debate and voting. This democratic ethos is promoted across levels of the Movement, from camps to regional and national secretariats, from pre-school children to university study groups. The aspiration for a participative culture is infused in the movements’ very pedagogy, the way they practice and understand the role of teaching and learning. I will write about this in a following post.

Sao Paulo, MST, dinning room

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Dinning Room. photo by Udi

But beyond the living in close proximity and cooperating in camps and settlements and the democratic ethos of the movement there is another important catalyst that weaves the ties of affectivity and solidarity. This is the mística.

Mística can be translated as the ‘mystic’ or maybe more faithfully the ‘mystery’. This is the ceremony that members of the MST are involved in daily, often early in the morning, and at specific events. Though the MST is deeply influenced by Liberation Theology, the popular movement that swept Latin America’s large Catholic community from the 1960s and interpreted Jesus’ message through the lens of social justice and Marxism, mística is not a Christian ceremony. In fact, in the ceremonies we attended whilst we were there, no Christian symbols were seen. Instead the ceremony is a celebration and evocation of a living thread of those who have struggled for freedom and justice across history.

In one of the místicas we attended, for instance, the images of Zumbi dos Palmares, the 17th century African prince and runway slave who led a colony of former slaves in their battle against the Portuguese crown in Brazil, was placed. This picture, surrounded by flowers and candles, sat along that of Steve Biko, the South African activist and intellectual who fought against apartheid and who was murdered by the police in the 1980s. The mística also involved singing and poetry and even some dancing.

classroom with Biko

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Classroom with Biko and Via Campesina flags. photo by Udi

Like other ceremonies we have taken part along this journey (see Quechua post) we enter them shy, awkward, self-conscious of the theatricality of the performance, yet keen to participate with an open heart and mind. We try to soothe the over-analytical and distancing mind and feeling academic training and irony-loving post-modern culture has cultivated. Instead we try to join in song and dance and the spirit of the event, opening ourselves to the experience. Soon a warm feeling of solidarity emerges amongst us in the group and a sense historical continuity with others also striving for a better world. This thread in the mística is probably not far from what Gandhi called Satyagraha, truth or soul-force, a spiritual strength that overcomes injustice in the world seeking to show the true nature of things.

My experiences here, where I have spoken of the strong affectivity, warmth and solidarity at the ENFF are not necessarily reflective of the Movement as a whole, a very broad and diverse collection that includes hundreds of thousands of families spanning the continental scale of Brazil and its many local cultures. But at least here in this place of learning these qualities of friendship and solidarity, so often absent or repressed in more traditional academic spaces, where very much present.

These are qualities we have also been experiencing in other learning places we have visited, teaching us a great deal about a whole sphere of being in the world and being together (of emotional, social and spiritual intelligence to put it crudely) that is painfully lacking in conventional higher education spaces. Experiencing how learning spaces can accommodate and nurture these dimensions of our being, as we have tasted along this journey, has been inspirational for us showing that there are some powerful ways of re-imagining higher education.

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Museo da Maré

Museo da Maré

Posted by on Jun 5, 2013 in all posts, Brazil | 0 comments

As I have written about elsewhere (post on museums), museums have been an important site of learning for us on this journey. In these places different indigenous communities were reclaiming and representing their history and narratives through the form and institution of the museum. At the same time these various communities, including the people responsible for the Biblioteca da Floresta in Acre, where enlivening the museum by making it a place of learning and experience where the stories of those represented are felt in continuity with the present of these communities.

So I was particularly excited to go an visit a pioneering museum in Rio’s largest favela, or shanty town community, the Complexo da Maré. This large conglomeration of 16 different communities has a population of around 140,000 and a history that dates back to the 1940s. But the oldest favelas in the city emerged several decades earlier, see below.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

Before going to the Museo da Maré, Kelly, Marina, Patrick (my Brazilian cousin and sometime co-traveller) went to visit an exhibition in one of the city’s more traditional and oldest museums, the Museo da Repúplica, housed in the former presidential palace in Catete. This exhibition helped us understand more the historical origins of favela communities and the name favela itself. The exhibition was on the legendary spiritual and revolutionary leader, Antônio Conselheiro, now a national folk hero, who led a community of tens of thousands in the impoverished and draught-stricken northeast of the country at the end of the nineteenth century. I will not expand on this important episode of Brazilian history, the Canudos War, which pitted a flourishing religious cooperative community made up of the rural landless and a number of former slaves (slavery officially only ending in Brazil in 1888, one of the last countries in the Americas) against the newly proclaimed Republic. The War of Canudos was the military campaign which lasted between 1896-1897 and mobilised around five thousand government soldiers who ultimately prevailed over the Conselheristas (followers of Antônio Conselheiro) killing between ten and twenty thousand of them.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da República, photo by Udi

Favela is the name of a spiky shrub or small tree that grows in the Sertão or semi-arid lands of the Northeast Brazil in the region where Canudos is found, it is also the name of a hill there. When the battle was won the conscripted soldiers returned to Rio, then the capital, and waited for their promised reward of housing from the government, camping on the Morro da Providência by the port region of the city. The government never fulfilled its promise and the soldiers and their families set up home here, renaming their place Morro da Favela a kind of ironic reminder to the government of the place they had fought in. With this the first favela was born.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da República, Photo by Flávio Barros, 1897

So at the origins of favela we have a series of ingredients; the end of slavery and the entry of former slaves (without compensation, resources or adequate training) into the economy, the violent destruction of a self-sustaining and organising community that challenged the newly formed Republican state, the failed promise of housing in the city for returning soldiers and an influx of people from the impoverished countryside to the city.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da República, photo by Kelly

From one museums and origin story to another. Arriving in the Museo da Maré we are greeted by Luis one of its founders who generously and enthusiastically shows us around. The museum is situated in a large warehouse a couple of blocks down from the Avenida Brasil, the large highway that bisects Maré. The museum, the first of its kind, has been many years in the making, since 1989, initiating its life in the research of the TV Maré, a community station who was compiling oral histories for a programme about the history of Maré. Noting that the community was being transformed by government action and that many elderly residents were passing away and their stories forgotten the programme makers started compiling more systematically the oral histories, photographs and historical documents from residents. In 1997 some of these local researchers founded CEASM, Centro de Estudos e Ações Solidárias da Maré, the Center for Study and Solidarity Action of Maré, a local grass roots community development organisation, more formally institutionalising this memory archive. CEASM then founded the Museo da Maré in 2006 with support of the then ministry of culture’s progressive programme of supporting local cultural initiatives or Pontos de Cultura.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

In the Museum gathered stories, photos and documents of the residents from Maré have a ‘permanent’ display in the warehouse. I say ‘permanent’ both because the museum was undergoing a transformation when we visited and the layout was going to be updated, but also as Luis told us, because what is important here are the stories about this community and the memories people have rather than any of the objects themselves.

As the website description and aim of the museum states, and as Luis also narrated to us:

The intention of the Museo da Maré is to break with the tradition that the experiences to be remembered and historical places to be memorialised are those elected by the official, “winning”, version of history and because of that a version that limits the representations of history and memory of large portions of the population. Therefore, the Museo da Maré, as a pioneering initiative in the city, proposes to extend the concept of museum, so this is not restricted to the more intellectual social groups and the cultural spaces still inaccessible to the general population. The favela is a place of memory and therefore nothing is more meaningful than doing a museographic reading from such perception. [my translation from the website].

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

The objects in the museum tell the story of the history of Maré through old photos, documents and a re-constructed wooden house on stilts which we walk through and see the various objects people would have made use of in the 1960s. Walking through the different sections of the museum we are taken through different significant historical moments of the community; the time of water when the houses were built on wooded stilts over the regularly flooded margins of the Guanabara Bay; the building and day to day life of family homes; the religious life of the community; the games children play(ed); and the contemporary problems of drug gangs and violence.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

The museum has been visited by many on outside Maré and the possibility of encounter that this space offers has been significant. With that said, as Luis put it and the Museo website reaffirms the key audience for the museum are residents themselves with numerous events, workshops, talks, guided visits and so on organised by the museum for the community.

The projects developed by the program [at the museum] are designed to encourage the creation of channels that strengthen community bonds among residents, driven mainly by historical and cultural identity. [my translation from museum website].

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

We are taken into the wooden house on stilts that dominates the museum by our guides Luis and Lourenço and a flood of memories and emotions is unleashed with stories about living in this spaces, having to wade through water to get to work, of kids happily playing outside on the mud, of the religious life of the community, a syncretism of Christianity, Camdomble, Ubanda. A curious metal object sitting on the old gas stove also elicited memories. This was a metal comb that was heated on the stove, which most Afro-descendent women used in this period to straighten out their hair. The comb embodies and reminds us of dominant cultural norms and values of beauty and race at a time before Black Pride had emerged in Brazil.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, metal combe, photo by Kelly

These values and norms, and further forms of prejudice and discrimination continue to affect Afro-descendants in Brazil today. Further prejudice and discrimination is associated with the favela itself (see the next post on this) and those who live there. A space often referred to through all that it lacks (education, sanitation, work, culture) or through what it has in excess (violence, drugs), what gets left out are the living trajectories of these communities, their capacity to be creative in adverse urban environments and build communities with their own forms of organisation, social and cultural life. A place like Museo da Maré is a celebration of these qualities and one which countless other communities across Brazil have now replicated.
Rio, Museo da Mare, religion.jpg    rio museo da mare, kids games.jpg

Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

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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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Reflections and learnings about Zapatismo…

Reflections and learnings about Zapatismo…

Posted by on Jan 1, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

Las Mujeres con la Dignidad Rebelde (Women with dignity rebel), purse for sale in Zapatista cooperative, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Udi

On the 21st of December (a couple of weeks after our departure), the start of the new Mayan era (Bakhtun), over 40,000 Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojobal, Chol, Mam and Zoques indigenous peoples – men, women and children, all of whom are representatives of a much larger Mayan community across Mexico and Central America – assembled and silently marched, without weapons and wearing black ski masks, into seven cities in Chiapas, the poorest state of Mexico.  These 40,000+ people are all Zapatistas – the white number stuck to each of their masks representing their particular Zapatista community.  It was the first public statement in over 18 months – the message, although silent, was loud and clear“Did you hear?  It is the sound of your world collapsing/ it is our world coming back…”

What are these different worlds that the Zapatistas are referring to?  How is their world coming back – and how is our world collapsing?  What place does Zapatismo have in the world today – how can we understand it, learn from it and apply it into our own lives?

Pig in scarf, imitating Zapatista balaclava, Unitierra seminar room, Oaxaca, Mexico, photo by Kelly

These were the exact questions being asked in the Zapatismo seminar we attended on our first day visiting Unitierra. This particular week’s seminar that had been advertised across Oaxaca, through email, Unitierra’s blog and through flyer, was focusing on the 19th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, critically engaging with the question of, What does Zapatismo mean today? 

The answer to this question emerged over two and a half hours of critical discussion, debate and emotional statements – different historical narratives – coming from more than 40 people in the main room at Unitierra – Oaxacans – Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Mestizos… Europeans, Americans – from the age of 18 to nearly 80.  I was lucky enough to have simultaneous translations provided for me by a friend.

At the beginning of the Unitierra seminar, Gustavo helped to provide a stronger background of the Zapatistas.  The three people (2 men and a woman) who initially went to the Lacandon jungle (in northeast Chiapas) as guerilla activists in 1983 to begin organizing an indigenous uprising were not indigenous themselves.  They had each been politically active during the 1960s and the 1970s and had endured varying degrees of violence (torture and incarceration) at the hands of the state.  Clearly these years of violence did not encourage them to discontinue their involvement.  Rather, it stirred an even deeper commitment.  Living in the Lacandon jungle – especially as a shift from living in an urban center, is no easy task.  For more than 10 years, these three people slowly mobilized – without any knowledge to the outside world – thousands of indigenous peoples from different Mayan communities, within Chiapas.

Poster – Congreso Nacional Indigena, photo taken by Kelly in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Gustavo told us that aside from learning about survival in the jungle, the biggest learning for these non-indigenous activists was about listening and communication.  When they initially came to discuss current problems – and histories of oppression – with local indigenous Mayan peoples in villages, they were not understood.  They were still talking forcefully through their ideals as guerilla activists.  They had to become more humble, bring their thinking ‘down to Earth’ – and instead, to listen.  This required a complete shift in learning – toward dialogue (that prioritizes listening) and forms of encounter and assembly.

These two notions – encounter and assembly – are still the two key principles for the Zapatistas.  The third is to create.  Encounter.  Assembly.  Create.   To encounter, is to engage with the other, through an ethic of opening up oneself even, or especially at the risk of losing yourself.  It is to listen (radically).  As they see it, encounters cannot be exhausted – listening should never stop.  Assemblies are created through collective decision-making bodies through a perception and practice of power that is atypical to what is normally practiced in politics (our current forms of democracy).  The Zapatistas are re-creating (and re-claiming) indigenous forms of leadership that have otherwise been lost over the past several hundred years.   These assemblies are not about taking power, rather they are about sharing it.  It is about learning how each one of us can exercise power in ways that does not support the current ‘Empire of Money’ – but rather learning how to create other worlds outside.  This is where create comes into the picture – creating autonomous forms of education, health, justice, government, food cultivation that is through shared decision-making.  It is currently through the formation of caracoles (slow moving snails) that governing occurs within Zapatista communities (see Udi’s post on art of rebellion – part 2).

Mural in Oventic, Chiapas (Libertad, Paz, Democracia), photo by Kelly

There is much to consider from what the Zapatistas are advocating.  One of their main challenges is for us to change our perceptions of power.  The Zapatistas tell us that we need to equip ourselves with ‘inverted periscopes’.  This means that instead of trying to understand what is going on ‘above’ in the ‘halls of power’ we should be looking way down below, on the ground, in the spaces that tend to be ignored.  Power is not only with those ‘up there’ – those ‘in power’ – power that is exercised over people.  Another way of understanding this is that there is power everywhere, we all can exercise power in multiple ways –through people and with people – also with the Earth, alongside non-human species.   It is entirely possible to exercise power without taking it.  We may not believe it is so, but this is exactly what the Zapatistas are trying to do.

The shift in learning – towards listening and toward ‘becoming common’ – that occurred between 1983 and 1994, helped to organize thousands of people – Tzotzils, Tzeltals, Tojolabals, Chols, Mams and Zoques – all united for the first time in insurrection as Zapatistas.  To become united they learned new ways of communication and more critical understandings of historical experiences.  They also learned how to arm themselves and how to stand up for themselves following over 500 years of oppression at the hands of (primarily) the Spanish, the Church, the Mexican government and now, multi-national corporations.  The learning continues… from letting go of arms (fire) that were used more strongly in the early days and instead building dialogue through encounters that prioritize communication (the word).

The decision by the Zapatistas, the EZLN, to surprise the world and occupy buildings across Chiapas on the 1st of January, 1994 was no accident.  It was a war that begun out of desperation (and it was through the use of arms that the primary source of controversy is centered).  The Zapatista emergence into public visibility was carefully calculated. It was the same day that NAFTA was signed.  The Zapatistas knew well that such a law would affect themselves – as indigenous peoples – more than anyone else (see my previous post on Maize and Milpa for more discussion on NAFTA).  Their initial demands of housing, land, work, health, education, food freedom, independence, justice, democracy and peace have essentially turned into demands for autonomy, for self-sufficiency through which they are able to provide these demands for themselves.  They continually have to struggle for the recognition of these demands.  There is a long history of struggle and reactions between the Zapatistas and the Mexican Army and government that continues today.

Sign for Oventic outside of village gates, Chiapas, photo taken by Kelly

My first encounter with the Zapatistas – virtually – was in Pakistan when I became acquainted with Assim Sajjad Akhtar who was then dividing his time between leading the Peoples Rights Movement (PRM) in their support for landless peasants in Pakistan, teaching (post)colonial history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and writing as a journalist for Pakistani media – The Nation, Dawn, etc.  (Aasim is now a professor at Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and continues to publish as a journalist and assist PRM).  In Pakistan, through Aasim’s knowledge, I learned about the Zapatista’s existence, what they were trying to do and how they were trying to do it (and how it related to what PRM was doing in Pakistan).  My learning was expanded further when I returned to London, participating in the European Social Forum (the regional World Social Forum event) in 2004, where there was an abundance of literature available about the Zapatistas and people speaking about them – people who had spent time with them in Chiapas and other parts of Mexico.  Although the work and struggle of the Zapatistas is located in Chiapas, they have been hugely successful in assembling international solidarity – inspiring imaginations, creating new visions and igniting controversy and debate through an intensity of dialogue that has emerged in various forms and in various places.

Between the WSF London and this trip to Mexico, I had been incorporating the Zapatistas into my teaching at the University of Bath – particularly in two units:  Researching Social Change and Education and International Development.  The insights about the Zapatista orientation and cosmovision as associated to social movements (what they are and can be) and the learning that goes on in them (expectedly and unexpectedly) are immensely engaging and controversial which adds more flavor to critical discussion and learning.

To help me incorporate the example of the Zapatista movement into my teaching, I used a particularly inspiring book that I had encountered in 2009, The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatistas (by Gloria Rumoz Martinez – 2008) at the Solidarity Economy conference in Hampshire, Massachusetts.  From the social research perspective, what I find most interesting about the book The Fire and the Word is the way that Gloria presents the ‘histories’ of the Zapatistas – as a series of narratives and images.  She prioritizes photography, sketches, diary entries, interviews and her own analyses.  These are all woven through the book equally – all modes of representation predominate.  I have always hoped that encountering such a diversity of representations helps to create further debates about the politics of representation – in research – and also what counts as research in the first place.  And, what stories are the ones that matter?  How can historical experience be represented?

My learning about the Zapatistas since 2004 has been in stops and starts, fragmented and intermittent.  The time we have just spent in Mexico enabled a tremendous surge of learning more about the Zapatistas through many events and encounters – the Unitierra Zapatismo seminar, reading more literature (from the shelves of Unitierra) and visiting Chiapas – watching historical documentaries about the Zapatistas (at the cultural centre such Cronica de una Rebelion and A Place Called Chiapas) and visiting Oventic, one of the Zapatista communities – or caracoles (which they are called – see Udi’s posting on Art of Rebellion 2).  There is more I could say (much of which engages with the controversies of the Zapatistas not explored in this post) and a substantial amount that has been written, documented and debated about the Zapatistas.  One particular insight I learned from the Zapatistas stands out for me.

This insight is the statement by the Zapatistas that there is currently a total war occurring – in every corner of the world.  The Zapatistas call this total war the ‘Fourth World War:  The Empire of Money” that is against all of humanity and the Earth (the idea of 4th as following from WWI, WWII and then the Cold War as WWIII).  This “Empire of Money” prioritizes extracting and pursuing profit at the expense of everything and anything blocking it.  In the Zapatista perspective, this is a war of no fronts – there is no nation against nation, group of nations against another group of nations… it is about imposing an ideology across the entire world – of profit and capital, into every corner of the world.  The enemy is everyone – any person or group can be, or is considered an enemy any time that the ‘Empire of Money’ is threatened (the recent media and state resistance to the ‘Occupy Movement’ comes to mind).  The Zapatistas explain that within this current war, states (government) are being reduced to puppets of privatization and the multi-national corporate world.  Armies are fighting to uphold the strength and spread of this empire – rather than protecting their own nations within their own boundaries.  Through globalized forms of exploitation and extortion of profit the ‘Empire of Money’ seeks to capture and control all territory (land) and labour to expand and construct new markets.  The ‘Empire of Money’ seeks to destroy any way of life that defies this orientation and organization – anything that allows individuals and communities to exist outside of capital must be destroyed or reduced to a quantifiable exchangeability – cultures, languages, histories, memories, ideas, dreams… The new world/s the Zapatistas are creating threaten the Empire of Money. It is through non-capitalistic (non-profit orientated or non-quantifiable) forms of self-sufficiency, autonomy, hospitality and comunalidad –  that is practiced, promoted and studied at Unitierra that this ‘Empire of Money’ is also directly challenged.

Map of military occupation in Chiapas, photo by Udi, taken in San Cristobal de la Casas

During the seminar at Unitierra, there were many fragments of discussion that directly engaged with the Zapatista insight of a Fourth World War.  For example, Gustavo commented toward the end of the seminar that ‘War is everywhere now’.  And engaging with the repeated questions of ‘What do we do – what should we do?’ Gustavo commented — ‘The Lacondon jungle is inside of us – we are already in it…’

Many of the young people in the Unitierra seminar room had spoken of their involvement in social and political change – profound frustration with the present challenges and a lack of coherent vision for the future.  I remember how several spoke of their lack of knowledge and understanding of political activities prior to the Zapatistas, how wonderful it was for people like Gustavo who were older and had such a rich history of experiences and knowledge.  Several also spoke of the importance of ‘searching for light’ — ‘looking for examples that inspire us to invoke the world through thinking of it, imagining it.  It is also about acting out of love, hospitality and friendship’.

Mural in Oventic, Chiapas – sharing maize cosmovision, photo by Kelly

I remember something very wise that Edgar (Edi) the young Zapotec learner at Uniterra we had met first earlier that day, said during the Zapatismo seminar.  He said that Zapatismo is about looking into the mirror at ourselves, seeing our own path, our own choices.  It is about looking at the responsibilities that we face and that we choose each and every day.

I left the seminar, my head and my heart full – yet also hungry for more of these encounters, these assemblies, to inspire my imagination to create….

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