Written Tuesday, July 20
When I first proposed a natural science project to the teachers at Ccotatóclla, I had some very specific hopes for what the children would be learning. I proposed that each small group lay out a square in the schoolyard, to be marked with stones and wool yarn (easily found here) so that they could develop hypotheses about what lives there, observe everything they found within the square closely, take notes on it in their own language, later to be discussed as a group and connected orally and in writing with local wisdom, and hopefully reinforce and move the local wisdom forward in real time. That is the heart of the scientific method, which we also discussed explicitly in their own language .
I didn’t conceive of this as an outsider’s gift or a case of enlightenment coming to those in the dark. I was thinking of it as a celebration of local knowledge and life. As I presented the idea to various indigenous curriculum designers, each had their own take on the project – the artist, Jaime, for example, thought we should ask local sages about wild animals and domesticated animals – he noted that too often if an animal is wild we see it as a nuisance and do not perceive its role in the spiritual order of things, something that an elder would be more aware of.
When I presented the idea to the local schoolteachers, I cringed when one of them said she would like to add a school cleanup day to these ‘pure’ science and indigenous spiritual activities. When this teacher heard talk of the schoolyard she connected it with her impression of the local people’s ignorance about personal hygiene and waste disposal. She asked me to buy trash cans for the school. She proposed that we make home visits to local farms and instruct people on how to improve their lives. This nearly missionary attitude was exactly what I wanted to avoid. I believe that the most able and alert of the farmers are better qualified than outsiders to consider in what ways their activities are connected to their health.
Nevertheless, there are ways in which local farmers are unprepared to deal with the encroaching industrial world. Pesticides arrive in metal canisters labeled only in Chinese. Things that people buy are increasingly wrapped in plastic bags and containers, which get thrown on the ground just as their organic waste has been dealt with for millenia. There is no public recycling program in Peru’s cities, let alone in the countryside.
I asked my co-worker Martin to address the teachers on the issue of respecting local knowledge and keeping an indigenous Andean perspective rather than adopting a ‘save Mother Earth from the locals’ attitude, or as my friend Hipólito put it, an ‘all Indians are dirty and need to be taught cleanliness’ attitude.
We set Monday as cleanup day and most of the children arrived with plastic bags, rakes and picks. We labeled half of the trash cans ‘plastic’ and half ‘non-plastic’ waste with the idea that we would bury plastics separately. Maybe someday it could be recycled. The rest of the waste would break down. Some of the bigger kids dug two huge holes with Martin in the back, and the rest of us fanned out, picked up trash and dumped it next to the holes. One of the teachers decided to burn piles of eucalyptus leaves in the area where most of the children go to the bathroom. The school has no working outhouses for the children, a political issue which the teachers blame on the parents and the parents blame alternatively on the teachers or on townspeople who have no children.
At the end of the schoolyard is a house where parents take turns preparing hot cereals and soups for school breakfast and lunch. We found lots of tin cans dumped behind this cooking house (right next to the kindergarten. The rest was mostly plastic wrappers and bags, with occasional papers. It took all day, and we had a potato roast at the end, insisting that kids wash their hands with soap. Although some of the kids insisted on tattling if others seemed to be slacking, most kids gave it their all.
Afterwards the teachers and Martin and I had a long lunch, and then Martin took two of us up to a mountaintop to muse about the ancestors and the voices of mountains and trees.