Voices GY’s Warao Intercultural and Bilingual Education Project aimed at valuing Guyana’s linguistic and cultural diversity

By Lakhram Bhagirat

It goes without saying that throughout Guyana and the wider world, the rich cultural diversity and unique heritage is being traded in exchange for popular culture. We are witnessing the loss of traditional languages, customs and beliefs because they are deemed “unacceptable” when it comes to the global platform.
Right in Guyana, many of the younger generation are less inclined to speak creolese because it has been ingrained in them that the local dialect is “not acceptable”. Our dialect is part of what makes us unique as Guyanese and should be spoken.

Some of the beneficiaries of the Warao project in Region One

It is the same issue with our Indigenous languages. It is being lost because we as a society do not offer a free space for Indigenous peoples to express themselves. They are forced to learn English when their first language is totally different. The foisting of English as a first language to the Indigenous population has devastating effects and results in the loss of part of their identity – their unique language.
In an effort to place value on Guyana’s linguistic and cultural diversity, Voices GY – a local Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) working in the area of migration – has piloted the Warrau Intercultural and Bilingual Education Project (WIBEP) in Region One (Barima-Waini) where most of the country’s Warrau population reside.
In neighbouring Venezuela, the Warrau tribe lives close to the border with Guyana and as a result would cross over to Guyana to access services. The economic situation in Venezuela has resulted in a number of Warrau people settling in Guyana and during a 2019 needs assessment on education in Region One, Voices GY interviewed about 300 persons from various areas as well as organisations to identify some of the barriers to education for Venezuelan children.
One of the things they found was that among those settling in Region One were the Warrau people and they could speak neither English or Spanish. That made communicating with them harder and with Warrau being their first language, them accessing education was even more difficult.

Charlie Tokeley

Using the Intercultural Bilingual Education (IBE) model, the Voices GY team created the WIBEP.
The Sunday Times recently spoke with Voices GY Co-Founder Charlie Tokeley who explained that intercultural bilingual education has been a way to involve migrant children, mainly if they speak a different language, in formal education and giving them an education, which is not only accessible in their own language but also which appreciates and respects rather than assimilating them in whichever country they are in.
Since the 1970s, Latin America and the Caribbean have used IBE to support Indigenous languages in education with the idea of including Indigenous languages in education, instead of just teaching Indigenous children in Spanish or Portuguese.

Classes in session in Voices GY’s Warao Intercultural and Bilingual Education Project

In Guyana, IBE has been explored in Region Nine (Upper Takutu-Upper Essequibo) with the Wapichan people.
“Basically, we have the challenge of migration from Venezuela of Warrau persons who only speak Warrau. We have the challenge of education again and it not really being tailored or all kind of accepting of the different realities in the hinterland,” Charlie related.
Voices GY’s project is supported by the Pan American Development Foundation, with funding from the United States Government. It started in February 2021 and actual Warrau classes commenced at the end of May and will conclude with graduation ceremonies on Thursday and Friday. The project is being implemented in two communities in Region One – namely Smith Creek and Yarakita. There are working groups in both communities comprising of Guyanese and Venezuelan Warraus who actually execute the mandate of the project.

In Smith Creek most people would speak Warrau but in Yarakita it is not so prevalent so the aim of the project is to teach both adults and children how to read and write in the Warrau language.
“The idea with this is if adults can read and write in Warrau, then they can help their children to read and write in Warrau as well and that means that it’s easier to maintain the written language even though Warrau isn’t a written language, but it will maintain the language through writing. That means it’s easy to integrate into public signs, public places, communications, school, law, and all these kinds of things in a way which people will understand,” Charlie said.
He explained that both projects have been successful and persons would travel for hours to access the classes.
“The region from Venezuela where the Venezuelan Warrau all coming from, they speak Warrau every day, it’s very a common language and it’s really in a lot of use. In Guyana, in some communities is disappearing a little bit, not in all the communities, but in some communities, English is becoming the primary language. So, this migration context has presented like an amazing opportunity to revitalise language and to keep it in use, to keep it relevant in the future, that’s at least how we see it,” he added.
The other aspect of the project is the translation of level one nursery literacy and numeracy books from English to Warrau for better understanding by children. The working groups in the communities would sit and go through the work books looking at ways to not only translate but also make the content relevant to the Warrau children.
“We’re currently at this stage where we’re currently working with two designers who are producing these books and then we will present these to the Ministry of Education, we hope in the next few weeks once they are ready. We also plan to distribute these books to the communities so that they have these books and we hope, from our side obviously and this isn’t something that we can guarantee, but we hope the Ministry of Education would like them and will be able to incorporate them into the classrooms in Region One where there are Warrau children.”
“Children and adults in Guyana need English so this isn’t to replace English teaching. But what we do think is that if English is taught to children and adults doing so in a way, which also strengthens their own language and the use of their own language, then it will be contributing to something we’ve seen across the world with Indigenous languages,” Charlie explained.
He said that as this pilot project wraps up, they are seeking funding for the implementation of similar projects in Region One with the hopes of extending it to other regions.
“We are hoping to start translating the second year of nursery books next year and then obviously moving out through the grades so that we have like kind of a library of texts in Warrau and English for formal education. We hope this will be accepted by the Department of Education and included in schools in Region One.
“We would also love to be able to take these experiences to other regions of Guyana so that other Indigenous communities can benefit from a similar approach so that Guyana is really kind of able to value the linguistic diversity and cultural diversity which it has and include that in education.”
Charlie and his team are expected to make a presentation on intercultural and bilingual education in the context of migration before a UNESCO forum in Mexico in the coming days. The team will also host two graduation ceremonies for the beneficiaries of the pilot project on Thursday and Friday in Region One.