My Travels to Paoyán

Alianza Arkana is increasingly working with volunteers from different countries who want to make a contribution to the work we are doing. Some, such as the German volunteers we have from the organization Eco-Selva, come to the Peruvian Amazon for a year, others for ten days.

The following blog is written by Sharon Rukin who volunteered to teach English to Shipibo primary school children at the village of Paococha. Sharon showed through her energy and enthusiasm just what could be accomplished in a short period of time.

My Travels to Paoyán, by Sharon Rukin

I often encounter individuals who have plans to visit or have visited Peru. Most often their destination is Machu Picchu. Rarely, however, do I hear of people traveling to villages inhabited by indigenous groups in the Amazon rain forest. In fact, that is a part of Peru that most visitors never even think about.

There are remote indigenous Shipibo villages scattered throughout the Ucayali and Loreto regions located in the Amazon rainforest, far from the typical tourist destinations. They do not have an agrarian economy and have historically subsisted on a diet of animals and fish that they could hunt and foods such as yucca, camote (sweet potatoes), plantains and bananas that they could gather.

Severe droughts and flooding in recent years have wiped out many of the banana and plantain trees. In addition, the influx of large companies involved in logging and oil and natural gas extraction has resulted in deforestation and contamination of the water supply, killing fish and disrupting the animal life and flora, further threatening the food supply.

In recent years, the flooding, which can last from January to April, has necessitated evacuation of the populace in some villages, forcing them to seek refuge with family for the duration of the flooding in the urbanized areas of Pucallpa and Yarinacocha. This constitutes a huge disruption of family and community life. In addition, the appearance of missionaries over much of the last century touting various religious dogmas has robbed the indigenous population of their religious, ethnic and cultural traditions without leaving anything in their place. This disruption has splintered the community life that has been so vital to survival in the Amazon rainforest.

Shipibo village, PaocochaPacocochaI recently spent ten days in the Shipibo village of Paococha, which itself is part of a larger village called Paoyán, located about a half day down river from Pucallpa heading toward Iquitos. It is in the lower Ucayali, in the Loreto region.

There are about 40 families in Paococha. The men typically engage in fishing, hunting and food gathering. The women bring in money by making pottery, doing beadwork and weaving, embroidering and/or painting textiles with intricate patterns that symbolize their tradition in vivid colors. In fact, for many families, sale of this ‘artesania’ is their only income. The money is then mainly spent on buying clothes, basic school supplies and food products that are typically highly processed with low nutritional value, brought in from Pucallpa.

During my time there, I had the privilege of getting to know many of the residents. The highlight, however, was spending time with children ages 2 to 11 in both their school setting and in play after school.

Seeing their classroom was a bit of an eye opener. It did not contain any basic teaching tools such as textbooks, pens and paper. There was just a blackboard that was in very poor condition, some chalk and a few tables and chairs. The children were expected to buy their own notebooks and pencils. This is a huge problem considering many of them do not even own a pair of shoes.

Indeed, the indigenous population is paying a high price for not getting an adequate education. In addition to losing access to their own traditions and the savvy that has allowed them to thrive in the Amazon rainforest for so many centuries, they are also not acquiring the skill sets and world view that will enable them to understand and constructively deal and communicate with the western culture that has been impacting their environment, often in destructive ways. They are also not getting equipped to creatively address the changes in their ecosystem that has already necessitated finding new ways to exist and thrive on their land.

In order for them to not only survive but begin to thrive, education is of vital importance. One aspect of such education would involve reclaiming the lore, cultural values and mores that define their unique identity.

Because the populace traditionally thrived on a diet of fish and native plants, another educational focus is ensuring continuation of the food supply through active domestic animal rearing and crop cultivation as opposed to relying solely on hunting and gathering whatever is available.

Finally, education that allows for constructive and meaningful intercultural interaction requires learning about other cultures and the global community and garnering an understanding of others’ worldviews. Such intercultural education also includes learning English. Indeed, teaching English was what I had the privilege to initiate during my ten-day stay in Paoyán.

I arrived with some basic materials designed to introduce words, numbers, colors, shapes and basic sentence structures in English. I also brought some simple games, matching cards and a variation on Bingo, which, in addition to being fun also introduced basic vocabulary. The children delighted in repeating words in English and then challenging me to produce those words in their native Shipibo. One of the 10 year-old boys gave me sobering feedback on my pronunciation declaring it “más o menos” (more or less).

Because the children had no prior exposure to English, I introduced most of the material through songs that involved a lot of body gestures and games. The children engaged the songs with great enthusiasm and joy. By the second day of my stay there, a ‘good morning’ song that I taught could be heard reverberating throughout the village as the children sang it to signal that my presence was needed in the classroom. I spent every day there from 10:30 to 12:00.

We typically ate lunch around 12:30 and by 1, the village children gathered nearby and waited for me to come to engage them in another two hours of songs and games.

There were a few children that acquired the English very quickly. One boy in particular would seek me out whenever he could to go over flashcards and other materials I had brought with me. By the end of the 10 days, he could even produce some basic sentences.

Toward the end of my visit, I entrusted this boy with the task of carrying on the teaching through game and song that we had all enjoyed over the 10 days. I told him how important it was to stand tall for his culture and be able to engage other cultures. I told him he would need to get educated in order to do this and learning English would be useful. On the last day of my visit, this boy led the games for all the children. He made sure they said the words in English as they played and sang. He is someone who can help lead his village into the future by merging the immense resources of his native culture with new ideas and possibilities.

I look forward to another visit to Paoyán in the spring (when the flood waters have abated) when we can again greet one another in a joyful “good morning.”

Paul Roberts, Sunday, 27 October 2013

Advertisements