Photo: Alejandro Galiano, Martin Castillo, Ramiro Zúñiga
On Wednsday, right in the middle of our final week of the project, the 1st-2nd grade teacher (Margarita) was told she needed to attend a day-long training at a school in the nearby town of Kucya. She invited me to come along.
Martin had taken Margarita and me to a mountaintop Monday and pointed out which direction we would need to hike in order to reach Kucya. She and I started out just after dawn, made our way through the fields, orienting ourselves toward a house used for radio transmission on one of the mountain tops. We knew we were supposed to go to the north of that mountain and down around the south side of another mountain to get to Kucya. We weren’t on any trail for parts of the trek but gradually found our way down to Kucya and confirmed with schoolchildren hiking up the pass that we were heading in the right direction.
The hike itself was pure joy for me as several of my friends have told me many stories of wandering through these Andes as itinerant teachers. I always wanted to do it, and we did it!
The day was also a tremendous boost for my morale. I was included in a group of about 15 novice rural teachers as we watched a local master of native language instruction work in a first grade class for a full day. There were periods of time for questions and answers, reflection, debate, but mostly we just watched this master with his class.
The school is in an especially arid place and has no electricity. I recognized the master teacher (Alejandro Galiano) as someone I had met three years ago as part of a Quechua-language curriculum design group. The really dedicated, hardcore teachers all tend to know each other and support each other in various groups and associations. Alejandro invited the novice teachers to join these groups; he made it clear that there is no closed circle and that new energy is needed.
The first outstanding things about this teacher is, he speaks Quechua in class, insists on wearing traditional dress, carries a bag of coca with him everywhere, offers alcohol to the mountain gods for their protection, sleeps in the country folks’ homes and knows them all as friends and allies. Even the most cynical townspeople around the region speak of him with great respect.
The second outstanding thing about him is, he works day and night on every lesson he teaches, and clearly adores the kids. He does not raise his voice or humiliate children or adults. Young people in Kucya have begun to flock to him and his colleagues, begging to learn to read and write in Quechua, because they recognize that what they speak is in mixture of Quechua and Spanish. Elders in town are honored as guests and sages in his classes and are engaged in recuperating their language and culture for the next generation. Alejandro has teamed up with a quena player (reed flute player) and there is frequent music and dance in his class.
All schools in the Andes seem to start with Catholic prayers and recitations of national creeds; Alejandro’s class includes a morning ritual of holding up three coca leaves and asking the local mountain gods and Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) for assistance in being good people and good students.
Alejandro has been teaching for eight years; he pursues 80% of his instruction in Quechua and 20% in Spanish. His students have done well on national tests and have gone onto excel in professional and university settings. For this reason he has been identified by the Ministry of Education as a master teacher and now is charged with visiting schools in his region to improve native language instruction.
A humorous note…one of Alejandro’s practices has been to engage local artesans in teaching their specialties to children, and he wanted the kids and their families to sell their products to tourists passing by in order to raise funds for the school. Since the community is extremely arid and poor with no tourist attractions to speak of, he and some friends looked closely at ancient ch’ullpas (funerary towers) in the neighboring town of Ninamarca and decided to build some replicas themselves of local materials. They built the ch’ullpas in a matter of several evenings on a hillside and began selling their weavings and crafts projects to tourists passing through.
The National Institute of Culture (INC) was horrified; the ch’ullpas came out so authentic-looking that Alejandro and friends were first accused of having stolen them and rebuilt them on a different site. They were called to a series of meetings to defend themselves and were ultimately instructed to destroy the ch’ullpa replicas or face jail time. Meanwhile, the Marriott Hotel chain is apparently destroying actual Inca structures in the center of Cusco in order to build a monster tourist trap – no trouble from the INC there.
I took some nice photos of Alejandro’s ch’ullpas…every time they are told to destroy them, they call out the press and nothing seems to happen.
Alejandro wanted to see for himself what was going on at the school in Ccotatóclla, so we invited him to attend our project’s closing ceremony on Friday.