The Community at the Bar Convent, the CJ, has a tradition of working outside the walls of institutions and within communities that stretches back to the 17th Century. Recently, Sister Theo Hawksley spent several months in Guyana in South America, working with local people. Here she explains a little about her role and asks for a helping hand.
When I left university, I thought that Biblical Hebrew was probably the most obscure language I would ever learn. I couldn’t have known that, ten years later, I would be in Guyana working with a team of Amerindian people and Jesuits to bring Wapichan language education to indigenous children for the first time.
The Jesuits have been accompanying the indigenous peoples of Guyana –Amerindians– for over a hundred years. They serve an incredibly remote area of rainforest, mountain and savannah, looking after Catholic communities who may only see a priest three or four times a year. Part of the Jesuits’ work has always been advocating for indigenous people’s rights. They set up the first schools in the 1940s, and they continue to work with Amerindian people to address challenges like the destruction of indigenous peoples’ lands through logging and gold mining.
Increasingly, the social change sweeping through these communities is a cause for concern: there is a danger that indigenous people will lose a way of life and a language that has been their heritage for thousands of years. As a comparison, 9 million people speak Modern Hebrew today, the descendant of the Biblical Hebrew I learned at university. Only about 9000 people speak Wapichan.
My job in Guyana was to write a report on the state of education in the South Rupununi district. Many Amerindian children grow up speaking an indigenous language at home: Macushi, Patamona and Wapichan have the most speakers. When they get to nursery school, aged three and a half, everything is in English. The books they use come from the Caribbean coast of Guyana, or often from North America.
These children find themselves submerged in a foreign language and a foreign world. Many children never catch up: one in three Amerindian children never passes the exam that gets them into secondary school, one in twenty-five will get the equivalent of GCSEs, and only one in a hundred will ever get into university.
Bilingual education, in English and their indigenous language, is a way of helping these children to flourish. Similar programmes with other indigenous groups have improved results dramatically, including in students’ English language skills. Just as importantly, bringing Wapichan storybooks, alphabet charts and indigenous crafts and skills into the classroom are all ways of teaching children to value their irreplaceable and beautiful way of life.
It was great to be involved in this work and I left a large part of my heart with the Amerindian communities I was working with. I’m running the London Marathon to raise money for the bilingual education programme, through Jesuit Missions. If you want to sponsor me, visit: