Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

NICARAGUA: Major Blow to Illiteracy Among Native Groups

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Aug 26 2010 (IPS) - For 46 years, Nicanor García didn’t know that his first name was seven letters long and that the first letter was also the start of the names of his country, Nicaragua, and his father, Norberto. He found out just eight months ago, when he finally learned how to read and write.

In January, a brigade of university students from cities on this Central American country’s Pacific coast reached the remote village of Bilwaskarma in the eastern jungle area known as the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) as part of a literacy campaign targeting the Miskito Indians who have lived there for centuries.

Along with García, more than 60,000 adult members of the Miskito and Mayangna native groups have now learned to read and write in that inhospitable Caribbean coastal region that the leftwing government of Daniel Ortega has proclaimed an “illiteracy-free indigenous territory” because the illiteracy rate has plunged from 40 to just over four percent.

“I used to have to sign with an ink-stained thumb, but now I can write out my whole name,” García told IPS on a visit to Managua this week, where he was taking part in the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the great National Literacy Crusade.

The 1980 literacy campaign was also promoted by Ortega, after the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) guerrillas — now the governing party — overthrew the 1934-1979 Somoza family dictatorship.

The 1980 campaign, which brought the illiteracy rate down from 52 to 12 percent, was relaunched in 2007 when Ortega became president again. This time around, the National Literacy Campaign has used the Cuban “Yo si puedo” or “Yes I Can” teaching method that has been adopted by several other Latin American nations and a number of countries in Africa as well.

The first major results were announced in 2009, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared Nicaragua free of illiteracy after the proportion of people unable to read and write fell from 20.7 to 3.56 percent.

This year, the achievements in the RAAN were celebrated on Aug. 23, which is National Literacy Day in Nicaragua to commemorate the first crusade.

Orlando Pineda, the head of the “Carlos Fonseca Amador” Popular Education Association, said some 500 university students have studied indigenous languages and cultures over the last two and a half years in order to teach the country’s native people to read and write.

“The kids are volunteers, but we had the government’s support,” said Pineda, a high school teacher who is a veteran of the 1980 Literacy Crusade. “So we threw ourselves into the task of bringing indigenous people the light of knowledge, from their own ecosystems, in their own languages, and respecting their cultures.”

The course involves 65 half-hour daily video classes in which the students have the help of one of the volunteer facilitators.

Students pass the 12-week course when they can write a letter to their relatives or teachers. The Miskito and Mayangna students were taught to read and write with the Cuban system specially adapted and tailored to them by Nicaraguan educators.

In Sikilta, a Mayangna community of nearly 1,000 people, only eight people are now unable to read and write.

“They were adults who were sick and exhausted, and refused to take the classes,” Silvia Rodríguez, who is earning a degree in education at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, told IPS.

“After work, everyone, from the elderly to young children, without exception, would come to the study circles with their notebooks, to ask about the letters and numbers,” said Rodríguez, who volunteered in the campaign.

According to the report by the “Carlos Fonseca Amador” Popular Education Association, in charge of the campaign, the aim was to cut illiteracy in the RAAN from 40 to 10 percent, but they managed to bring the rate down below five percent.

“Only 2,275 Miskito Indians on the banks of the Coco River, out of a total population of 54,778, have not yet completed the course. It was a real odyssey reaching the communities,” Pineda said.

“We travelled along 400 kilometres of rivers and visited 124 Miskito and 24 Mayangna communities, who welcomed us with open arms,” he added.

Pineda said that after completing their work in the RAAN, they plan to head to the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS), to teach the Rama Indians, Creoles and Garifunas — ethnic groups who like the Miskito and Mayangna have had little to no access to the educational system.

Nicaragua’s Creoles are the descendants of English-speaking people, of mainly mixed African and European descent, who settled the Caribbean coast. The Garifuna are descended from a mix of Amerindian and African people.

At Nicaragua’s request, the literacy statistics are being studied and verified by a commission made up of 21 experts from Canada, Cuba, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan indigenous leader and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, took part in the official celebration of the 30th anniversary of the first literacy campaign.

Menchú said “it is laudable and exciting to see that they have not only taught everyone to read and write, but that they have done so in the students’ own languages, in their own territories and with respect for their traditional cultures.”

UNESCO secretary in Nicaragua Juan Bautista Arríen also praised the results: “Nicaragua continues to fight against illiteracy, and deserves applause for having taught more than 400,000 people to read and write since 2008, despite the chronic poverty and other challenges.”

According to government figures, indigenous people represented nearly 10 percent of the population of 5.4 million in 2005.

A 2005 report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) noted that the people of the two autonomous regions along the Caribbean coast (RAAN and RAAS), where the Miskito, Mayangna, Garifuna, Rama and Creole ethnic groups live, had the most limited access to opportunities for development and education in the country.

Nicaragua’s poverty rate stands at 47 percent, according to United Nations statistics. But in the RAAN and RAAS regions, it is 79 percent.

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