NATIVO Story #2 - Education in Guna Yala

The Guna are one of the 7 indigenous nationalities that live in Panama. They live in three autonomous districts, of which two are located on the eastern side of the country. The third and most populated district is located in north-east Panama and stretches across the northern coast line from the province of Colón to the borders with Colombia.

This is the district - or comarca - of Guna Yala, a community of around 33.000 Guna who inhabit the continental shores and the archipelago of San Blas. The archipelago is a tropical paradise immersed in the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea and it counts as many as 365 islands, of which 36 are inhabited.

 

 

"When I was young I moved to Panama City to study and it was very hard because I only spoke Guna. Now our children start their education program in Guna and after the very first year we introduce Spanish."

 

View of one of the 2 schools in Gardi Sugdub, which hosts students from primary and secondary level.

Like many other populations of the Americas, the Guna lived the times after the Spanish colonisation attempting to survive and keep their tradition and culture alive. When in the 19th Century the nations in Latin America established the equality of all citizens before the law, the "Western" ideal of monoculturalism and linguistic homogeneity left no room for the survival of indigenous peoples as inherent societies within the newly born nations.

But the Guna fought to achieve the creation of autonomous territories that would allow them to continue their historical process as a society. After the revolution in 1925 that resulted in the creation of the autonomous Guna districts, the one in Guna Yala amongst them, education started to slowly take shape in an attempt to preserve and nurture the immense cultural heritage that the Guna people have been keeping alive for centuries.

The 1925 Dule Revolution established the creation of autonomous Guna districts - comarcas - such as Guna Yala.

Back then, the official education - promoted by governments - made schools a place where there was no space for the history, beliefs, and spirituality of the Guna. It was a monolingual school in Spanish that was bound to have disastrous effects for the Guna, who expressed their right to change this form of education and, eventually through progresses in the debates with the government in the 80’s and 90’s, managed in 2004 to implement a new school system called EBI - Educación Bilingue Intercultural (Intercultural Bilingual Education).

 

“We want them [the children] to know that, yes, there are other languages and many other cultures that are worth to know and understand, but this should never mean that they forget about their own culture, where they come from. They shall never forget they are Guna.”

 

Juan Manuel, a boy of 11, before heading off to school.

Dalys Morris teaches economics in the secondary school in Gardi Sugdub: “When I was young I moved to Panama City to study and it was very hard because I only spoke Guna. Now our children start their education program in Guna and after the very first year we introduce Spanish."

Guna and Spanish go together so that the children will learn about another culture while learning about their own. "I teach my student the subject of economics both in Guna and in Spanish!” - empazhises Dalys.  EBI thus contributes to a dialogue between cultures and to a respect that there must be in a country where there is great cultural diversity.

“I see a virtuous cycle in my class.” - Dalys carries on - “Students want to be better and strive for excellence, and this is great not only because without this we would see them dropping school, but also because it makes us professors want to teach better.”

Ginela Salazar - on the left - during a lesson in the kindergarten of Gardi Sugdub.

The goal is to preserve the bilingual education system. The majority of children in Guna Yala fluently speak Guna. When they go to school they start to learn Spanish as a second language so that in the future they can continue their studies in bigger villages or in Panama City.

Ginela Salazar has been working in Guna Yala as a teacher for 20 years and she is now in the primary school at Gardi Sugdub, where she teaches language and culture in Guna and Spanish. “It’s good, and needed for children to learn another language, but it’s also fundamental that they don’t lose their identity as Guna.” - she says - “Children have to understand the importance of our traditions and our culture, so that they can appreciate and cherish all that as part of the culture.”

 

“Students want to be better and strive for excellence, and this is great not only because without this we would see them dropping school, but also because it makes us professors want to teach better.”

 

Portrait of Eufemio Barrantes, teacher in Gardi Sugdub's primary school.

The EBI has great merits, amongst which to have unified the reading and writing of the Guna language in one unique alphabet that will be soon made official by the Panamanian government. But the EBI alone will not work unless it’s helped by families. The role of family is crucial to preserve the traditions of the Guna culture.

“We used to help the family when we were home.” - continues Ginela - “What we were thought when we were children has to be passed to the children of today and tomorrow. The respect for nature and for everything that surrounds us, for example. Or the importance of our traditional clothes, the mola and the chaquira. It’s fantastic that women of any age make them when they are home and feel free to wear them in any occasion.”

Portrait of Meritxel, in her school uniform, and his cousin Jonas.

“We want them to know that, yes, there are other languages and many other cultures that are worth knowing and understanding,” - concludes Dalys - “but this should never mean that they forget about their own culture, where they come from. They shall never forget they are Guna.”

A society manifests itself and becomes tangible only through its culture. There is no society without a strong cultural presence and the object of education, its raw material, resides in the culture itself.