In Carol Black’s 2010 critical education documentary, Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden there is one particular quote that has returned to me again and again. It is something that Vandana Shiva, the internationally renowned eco-feminist, physicist and activist says at one point during the film: “What we need are Grandmother’s Universities. All over the world.”
Whilst the film brings up a series of profoundly important points that urgently need to be critically reflected on, this quote by Vandana Shiva was something that I kept thinking about. I had read much of her work in the past – on bio-patenting and its disastrous effects on local communities and also her writings of ‘monocultures of the mind’, or how schooling tends to encourage singular and universal ways of thinking and learning, rather than encouraging diversity and plurality. All of the writing I have encountered from Vandana Shiva is provocative, political and poetic. I am a fan. While I was not surprised at her being included in the film as a speaker, I was surprised to hear of her particular focus on higher education – with grandparents as taking the central role of the leading teachers and thinkers.
I could clearly relate to the logic of her argument. I knew something of the importance of Elders, especially within indigenous communities. I also feel deeply about the devalued place that grandparents and the elderly generally hold within so-called industrialized societies. During this journey, Udi and I have come to understand much more of the importance of knowledge and experience that can/should be valued from grandparents and Elders in communities. We encountered the significance of this from the very beginning of our journey, during our time in southern Alberta, with the Blackfoot community. We learned about the traumatic experiences of the past, the processes of healing in the present and the future of Blackfoot language and knowledge that is kept but also re-generated and re-claimed with the support and encouragement of Elders.
Not only were the Elders active in the preparation of the curriculum (Udi has described in previous posts the inspiring story of the repatriated beaver bundle and how this led to the ‘Blackfoot learning with the land’ curriculum that Ryan Heavyhead and his wife Adrienne developed through their own learning of how to traditionally bring beaver bundle ceremony back into practice), they teach and also declare and provide their own degrees which are not provided by the University of Lethbridge. For example, Ryan Heavyhead is recognized as having a PhD in Blackfoot ways of knowing from Blackfoot Elders that is not recognized by the University of Lethbridge.
During our time visiting with Pratec, in Peru, this understanding was furthered. Greatly. Udi has described some of this in his post on the Quechua grandfather coming from Wayku (the Quechua village next to Lamas) to teach the Quechua children and young people more about the sacredness and depth of knowledge that is within the forest of El Monte. The grandfather’s knowledge and the Quechua cosmovision was demonstrated by the tobacco ritual he offered to purify each of our bodies as we entered the forest that was once one of the most sacred hunting grounds of the Quechua Lamas. This process of purification is also a process of respect toward the guardian of the forest. It is an act of reciprocity to also be looked after safely – and previously, to ensure a successful hunt.
The grandfather also offered many stories of particular plants and animals, how they act as different types of medicines and how we can interact with them, as we ventured through the forest.
I remember noticing his ease of walking through the forest, his feet bare, his body more deeply connected to the Earth. For Udi and for me, we would have liked many more hours of time with him there in the forest, to hear his stories and deep knowledge he has with the living beings that make up the forest. The encounter that we did have, with his knowledge and story-telling, made the forest come alive. I felt a sense of the soul of each individual being in the forest as we passed through in a new way that I had never experienced.
The day before we visited El Monte, Lucho had taken us to a ‘grandparents school’ in a Quechua village 45 minutes outside of Lamas. On our way to the village, I heard Vandana Shiva’s quote echo in my head, and I wondered how much the experience would resonate with her vision.
It was a hot afternoon. The sky was cloudless and the sun felt relentless. We sat with a family in the village as we waited for the grandparents’ gathering to begin. There were five or so children, boys and girls, and a mother and father of three of these children. The mother was molding a bowl from wet clay, her two young daughters helping – one watching and the other starting her own. The bowls would be used during each meal once dried in the hot sun.
The father had taken a large palm branch and was using a machete to cut and twist various leaves for weaving. His son came over and started to weave the palm leaves with his father helping him, giving him instructions and showing him what to do when needed. The woven palms would be used as mats (typically about 4ft by 6ft – or 1.5m by 2m) to sit on, to put on the walls or even used as walls. Udi had a conversation with the father about what was being taught (weaving and pottery) and how important it was for them as a family but also as a community.
The grandparents ‘school’ occurred several times per week, after the hours of formal schooling, offering different learning experiences for the children, but also adults, that were not offered within the school. These various activities, central to Quechua ways of knowing and being are not a priority within the walls of the classroom in spite of the claim of Quechua ‘inter-cultural’ learning and teaching that is offered in all schools in the area.
After nearly an hour, some kids came and ushered us into a house. We entered a large room and were shown to a seat along a long piece of wood that had become a bench. There were 5 women sitting against woven mats that were lining one wall. I guessed they were aged between 30 and 70. There were 9 children in the room, girls and boys, the youngest looking about 4 years of age. Colourful threads of yarn were tied around posts and several girls were beginning to weave – belts, blankets, skirts, etc.. Another little girl was working with a very old woman, the grandmother of the ‘school’ to spin cotton – again for different types of clothing. Several younger boys were on the far side of the room with the grandfather, weaving mats from palm leaves, similarly to what we had just observed outside.
The grandmother came to speak with us, her face in a constant smile, tremendous warmth emerging from each line on her beautiful face, touching all parts of me. Udi had a difficult time understanding her Spanish and once Lucho came in we were able to converse more easily. The little girl who was spinning cotton seemed nervous next to us and I was told later that I had cat eyes which scared her. We moved around the room and were shown slowly and deliberately the different forms of artistic and practical materials that were emerging. There was gentle interaction between everyone in the room and quite intense concentration. These gatherings happen at least 3 times per week.
A little while later, the grandmother took us outside to show us her medicinal garden. I was really excited to learn from her as I have always been keen to learn much more about natural healing. She gave us a tour, describing the great variety of plants outside. Her wisdom and warmth were captivating – as were her descriptions of the multiple plants and their healing benefits.
There were many there that supported all aspects of pregnancy – from helping with fertility and conception, to health during pregnancy, healing during miscarriage, to reducing pain during delivery, to speeding up the birthing process. There were plants there to be used as anesthetics, antiseptics, pain-killers and basic nutrients rich in various vitamins and minerals. She told us that in addition to weaving and spinning that the children come to work with her out in the garden, cultivating and nourishing the plants – whilst learning about the various ways they heal and nourish them. I wanted to attend this school – this grandmother’s university!
Weaving hats, mats, walls from palm leaves; spinning and weaving wool; embroidering complicated and colourful patterns onto materials for skirts, tops; cultivating medicines for every health complication, particularly for women; cultivating foods from their chacra for sustenance and nourishment… I know I could greatly benefit from such a wealth of knowledge. I doubted that either grandparent could read or write in our measured forms of literacy. Yet – the forms and depth of literacies I had just experienced far exceeded my own.