Discover the Fantastic World of Books: Building a Bilingual Library for a New Generation of Intercultural Learners

When I arrived as a volunteer in Santa Clara over nine months ago, I was shocked by how few children I saw reading. Books in the rural indigenous school system, I was to learn, often sit for years locked away in cupboards collecting dust and getting devoured by jungle bugs. Though the Peruvian government has established a bilingual educational program to reach the Shipibo in their native tongue, implementation is highly ineffective. Students experience an abrupt shift from learning mainly in Shipibo in primary school to almost exclusively in Spanish as soon as they enter high school, when most youth still feel far more comfortable expressing themselves in their native language. Corruption and dysfunction, combined with abysmally low state funding for schooling, contribute to a low literacy rate among the Shipibo generally, so that even when there are books on site, they often remain in boxes.

Working with students and their parents to determine what could be done, we decided to create a communal space for learning and study open to villagers of all ages.

The early stages of the mural!

We incurred unexpected costs in our construction of the library when we discovered that the former (chronically absent) Primary School Director had run off with up to $1,000 designated by the Peruvian state for repairs to the schoolhouse building. As I learned from Shipibo friends who had witnessed similar stories in other communities, this is a relatively common occurrence. There was no sense in starting a library in a classroom with a leaking roof that flooded persistently in the rainy season, where the limited resources available were often stolen from the site at night given the lack of a door lock to prevent theft. Once Alianza Arkana’s Shipibo workers stepped in with the building repairs that should have been provided by the Peruvian government, the room was ready for artistic transformation.

Freddy, Eileen, and Ruthi work on mural details.Working with Eileen Hinckle, the visionary volunteer behind the overall design of the mural, we set out to make sure the students felt this new space was their own. Students from tots to teens took to the wall with joy and zeal, painting a fantasy world with roots in their culture’s legends and traditions. Central to the concept of the mural is that it seeks to bring the world of books to life by linking images with words in both Shipibo and Spanish.

Books have arrived from all corners of the world: through collaboration with UNICEF, which has extensive bilingual book resources for indigenous communities across the Amazon, the Public Library system in my hometown of Los Angeles, where friends donated several boxes of books for children and young adults on a range of topics, and friends and family working at schools and used bookstores in the US and Lima. The library is, in reality, trilingual, as it also includes English language resources to meet a growing demand among Shipibo youth in particular.

The Shipibo language was historically not transcribed, and its written grammar and spelling have been largely dictated by foreign missionaries, with various structural modifications over the years rendering even more recently-compiled dictionaries obsolete. Before starting this library, there was not a single bilingual Spanish-Shipibo dictionary in the bilingual school, nor a single dictionary focusing on either of the two languages separately.

This past week, we held an opening ceremony and celebration in Santa Clara with over seventy children and community members in attendance. In a communal meeting, parents and teachers decided on a set of rules and regulations, a schedule, and three Santa Clara residents to share on a voluntary basis the responsibility for overseeing the space. Over lunch, we rejoiced in the opportunity for learning and growth in the new library, which will also be open to children from the neighboring community of Nuevo Egipto.

Still to come: hammocks in the library for kicking back and relaxing with a good read!

The finished product, pictured with the party piñata!

Lucy O’Leary, Sunday, 05 July 2015

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