Can education save a tribe?

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Deep in the Amazon rainforest children are being taught in their own language for the first time.Gabriella Gamini reports from Brazil

In the remote village of Demini, deep in the Amazon rainforest, Yanomami Indian children awake to the sound of a toucan's song. After a hearty breakfast of boiled manioc - a root vegetable - they crowd into a classroom set up in their communal hut, for lessons in their native language about jungle myths.

They are among the first Indian tribes to benefit from an unprecedented government plan to fund schools that teach in the indigenous languages spoken in 1,591 villages. "The objective is that each village will have its own school and specially-adapted curriculum by the end of the year," said Paulo Renato de Souza, Brazilian education minister.

The government announced the introduction of a special curriculum for 62,000 school-aged children from 207 tribes. This is the first time since the Portuguese landed 500 years ago that the government has shown a commitment to preserving tribal traditions.

The classroom that 34 of Demini's children attend was set up several months ago and its success has served as an example to others. In the nine million-hectare reserve inhabited by the Yanomami, there are now 12 similar village schools.

"We struggled for so long to win the right to teach our own language and have our culture officially recognised," said Davi Kopenawa, the Yanomami's chieftain in Demini, who is among only a few in his tribe who speak Portuguese. "Now we make sure our children go to school and take great pride."

Dozens of children - sporting body paint that is traditionally used for special occasions - sat in line along wooden benches as a teacher stood before a large blackboard and spoke of the medicinal qualities of a white creamy tree sap used to treat malaria.

An anthropologist and trained teacher from Sao Paulo were sent to the village six months ago to set up the school. Selio Loureiro spent the first months learning the Yanomami's unwritten language and then chose two adult members of the tribe to train as teachers.

"Because the Yanomami, like all the semi-nomadic tribes of the Amazon, do not have a written language, we adapted it to the Roman alphabet," Professor Loureiro said. "We use nine vowel sounds and 11 consonants and have managed to start teaching the children to read and write."

The two Yanomamis who trained as teachers, Kapana and Auwa, have already started taking the three-hour morning stint, for children between eight and 13, and the afternoon lessons geared for older children and some adults. Aside from lessons in Yanomami and rainforest customs they are also taught maths, geography, history and mechanical skills to operate boat engines.

"They are given some instruction in Portuguese and also learn about the other world, as they call it. The white men's thinking is not something they want to adapt to, but they feel it's good to know something about us," explained Professor Loureiro.

"What is different to before is that now they want to go to school because they know that the central theme is their own culture."

Missionaries have for centuries attempted to convert and integrate the Indians to western civilisation and set up schools all over the Amazon. But despite often forceful methods they have largely failed. In most of the missions that have moved into indigenous areas, the Indians are plagued by alcoholism and other social problems.

Indian chieftains all over Brazil have hailed the initiative as a "way to help dwindling tribes survive".

The country's 250,000 surviving Indians are said to speak 170 languages. Yaminalo Tankane, of the Bakari tribe in the state of Mato Grosso, said that without this tailored education the language spoken by his community of 1,000 might have died out in the next few years. "It was not planned to turn our language into written words, but we realise it might be the only way to keep it alive," he said.

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