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BRAZIL: Guarani Education Empowers Women Leaders

Mario Osava

DOURADOS, Brazil, Feb 26 2008 (IPS) - Leia Aquino gave up her plans to work in a hospital in order to be near her husband, a nurse, the day she saw a motorcyclist badly injured in an accident. Her aversion to the sight of so much blood led her to become a teacher instead, and now she runs a school for indigenous children on the Brazil-Paraguay border.

 Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Aquino, today a 40-year-old mother of three, lived in several different towns in the west-central Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul until she started teaching in 1997 at a crumbling Guaraní village school in the municipality of Antonio Joao, on the border with Paraguay. She had still not finished her own obligatory primary education, which lasts eight years in Brazil.

Since then she has expanded the school and introduced indigenous education. The school now has 406 students – 10 times as many as when she first arrived. It also has a new building and six computers, and computer classes and secondary education will begin this year.

But none of this was easy. In 1999, Aquino’s annual contract was not renewed, in retaliation for her support the previous year for a peaceful occupation of Guaraní ancestral lands that had been taken over by big cattle ranchers.

One of the landowners affected by the occupation was actually the mayor of Antonio Joao at the time.

In reprisal, the mayor’s office closed the little school, which by the end of 1999 had only 12 pupils. The following year, armed with a list of 160 children deprived of education, Aquino pressed successfully for the reopening of the school and was readmitted as a teacher. In 2004, the new municipal authorities appointed her head teacher.

In 2005, "we designed our pedagogical programme," she said with pride. It includes early education in the Guaraní language before gradually switching to Portuguese, as well as interdisciplinary classes, Guaraní geography in South America, discussions with community elders, and participating in community action such as land occupations to recover indigenous territory.

The school children have also developed a special calendar of their own which honours Guaraní heroes.

These positive changes at the school took place in parallel with the struggle for land, which the Kaiowá branch of the Guaraní call Ñanderú Marangatú (Great Sacred Father).

The government recognised their communal right to 9,317 hectares in 2005, but actual possession has been delayed, pending a decision by the Supreme Court and negotiations on compensation for landowners.

On their own initiative, however, after a series of land occupations, the Kaiowá have reached agreement with local landowners to provisionally move onto two areas totalling 127 hectares.

At first "there was resistance" to classes taught entirely in Guaraní for the first two years at the school, as parents were afraid that if their children did not learn Portuguese, "they would never be able to get out of the village," said Aquino.

Local people also found it hard to express their opinions and wishes freely and openly at school meetings, but that has all changed now, she said.

Aquino had to fight tooth and nail to put a stop to discrimination against a boy who showed homosexual tendencies. Parents were threatening to take their children out of school, she said.

While running the school, Aquino is also taking a special course for Guaraní students called Teko Arandú, which means "living in wisdom" in Guaraní.

The programme started in 2006 with an enrolment of 56 students, and the second intake arriving this year is made up of 58.

Most of the students are adults, with a few elderly people, and there is a large proportion of women. They meet in Dourados, a city of 180,000 which has no less than five universities. The course duration is five years, and it is taught for three weeks in January, and shorter periods during the rest of the year, taking advantage of holidays or annual leave.

From 1999 to 2002, Aquino took the Araverá ("time of enlightenment" in Guaraní) secondary level teacher training course, qualifying her to teach the first few years of primary school.

The enthusiastic expansion of education for Guaraní indigenous people in the villages and the special teacher training courses are empowering Guaraní women, as well as providing an education that is better adapted to the children’s sense of identity and preserves indigenous culture, with innovations. Many teachers take on leadership roles in their villages.

Valdelice Verón’s leadership role was thrust upon her when her father, Marcos Verón, was murdered in 2003 for leading an occupation of a large estate. As a teenager she taught classes "under the trees", and now, at 28, she is head teacher at Panambizinho, a Kaiowá village in the municipality of Dourados.

She studied law at university, until one day in her second year she heard a professor say that "indigenous people deserved to die for invading other people’s land." She attacked him with a chair, and decided then and there to drop out. Making money as a lawyer "was not what I wanted for my people," she said, so she enrolled in Teko Arandú.

Adir Casaro Nascimento, a professor at the Don Bosco Catholic University (UCDB) who has devoted herself to indigenous people’s education since the 1980s, was instrumental in the design, approval and implementation of the Guaraní teachers’ training course.

"I learn from indigenous people in order that I may educate non-indigenous people," she said, adding that the Guaraní education systems can contribute to creating new educational models for society in general, as they can be used to foment bridge-building between all kinds of social and cultural differences.

Indigenous teachers have proved to possess the worldview that is needed for planning appropriate, ethnically sensitive education, and they are frequently elected as mediators by their communities. Indigenous education is empowering women, not only those who become teachers but also mothers in the villages, who are now speaking up and being listened to at school meetings, Casaro Nascimento said.

The thirst for education among indigenous people in Mato Grosso do Sul is also filling standard state schools, attended at present by some 500 native children.

"Once, going to university was seen as a way of dropping one’s indigenous identity and becoming assimilated into mainstream society, but that is no longer the case," according to historian and UCDB professor Antonio Brand, who is a supporter and facilitator of indigenous education.

Indigenous people are seeking to improve their lives, as well as "empowerment to shape their complex relations with the society that surrounds them and is dominated by others, through an ethnic movement that seeks to affirm their dignity and rights," he said.

Environmentally-sensitive agriculture, or agroecology, is also being included in indigenous education programmes, bolstering local production and drawing on the resources of traditional knowledge.

Agroecology is part of the secondary school curriculum in the villages in the municipality of Caarapó, along with fish farming, small animal raising and agricultural techniques. The programme began in 2006 with the purpose of ensuring food security.

Students spread the knowledge they gain at school to their relatives at home, said Eliel Benítez, coordinator of indigenous middle education in Caarapó.

One of the challenges is to overcome the dependence on welfare that many Guaraní have become accustomed to, consisting of government food hand-outs, seeds and even tractors received as donations.

Studying agroecology has given rise to discussions on indigenous history and has boosted indigenous peoples’ pride and self-esteem, because it recognises the value of traditional knowledge and practices, "another good reason to be an Indian," said Benítez, who is also a student in the Teko Arandú course.

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