In Bolivia, Baha'is in an isolated village help to establish a local school system
PUKA PUKA, Bolivia — For many years, the Government-run school in this village of some 700 people on the Bolivian altiplano offered only kindergarten through third grade. Students who wanted any kind of education beyond that had to walk from 3 to 6 kilometers to one of several nearby towns.
The young students mostly didn't mind the distance. But they did object to the treatment they received in the other places. All members of the Quechua indigenous people, the students were forced by teachers elsewhere to wear Western clothes instead of their traditional tribal dress.
"It is important to wear our clothes, because we don't want to forget our culture," said Pascual Vargas, a 17-year-old Puka Puka native.
So the people of Puka Puka did something quite unusual: they started up their own school, first raising money to hire teachers for grades four through eight and then establishing a private high school for those students who wanted to continue.
The story of how the community of Puka Puka in Chuquisaca Province came to take that initiative some five years ago, and how it has continued to manage and finance the schools, is a tale of genuine grassroots development. After identifying the problem, the community itself came up with a solution and proceeded largely on its own to implement it, seeking external help where necessary but remaining essentially in control.
Although largely composed of illiterate farmers, the community now manages an extended school system, with an enrollment of some 140 students in kindergarten through eighth grade a remarkable achievement in this underdeveloped region, itself in one of the poorest countries in Latin America. The more recently established high school has about 30 students in grades nine and ten.
By all accounts, the underlying motivation for these projects and their sustaining potency stem from the practice of the Baha'i Faith by about one-third of the people here. The Faith's emphasis on education and unity supplied the vision for advancement and a process for empowerment, said local leaders and outside observers.
"The desire for our own school was born in the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Puka Puka," said Claudio Limachi, 35, a native of the village who has been involved in the school project since its beginning. "The Assembly didn't want the community's children to suffer any more.
"And they had often studied the quotation from the Baha'i writings that says when the indigenous peoples of the Americas are educated, they will become 'so illumined as to enlighten the whole world.' So to help fulfill that promise, we established the school," said Mr. Limachi, who was among the first to embrace the Baha'i Faith in Puka Puka and who is now a leading figure in the community.
Although the community had a school covering kindergarten through third grade, sending the children in the upper grades to schools in the surrounding communities was a major problem, because of various forms of discrimination.
"In one town, Mishka Mayo, we had trouble because the school was Catholic and we felt there was religious discrimination," said Mr. Limachi. "School officials would force the students to participate in religious festivals in which there would be lots of alcohol, and when they refused, they were punished physically, with a paddle."
The discrimination, said Mr. Limachi and others, stemmed partly from the fact that a number of families in Puka Puka had become Baha'is who are, incidentally, forbidden as part of their faith to drink alcohol. A few residents first accepted the Baha'i Faith in 1980, and they gradually taught its principles to their friends and families. Today, of the some 700 residents in Puka Puka, about 300 are Baha'is.
It was the emphasis on education in the Baha'i Faith that led the community to establish its own school system. In 1997, the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Puka Puka, the locally elected Baha'i governing council, decided that year to raise US$500 and to hire a teacher for the Baha'i students.
Very quickly, however, the members of the Assembly, many of whom are also leaders in the community at large, decided that all levels of schooling should be available to everyone in Puka Puka. So they enlisted the help of other community organizations and raised money to hire three extra teachers, enough to cover grades five, six, and eight.
Not only did the Baha'is initiate the community-wide effort to hire teachers for middle grades, they have themselves launched a high school program. Called the "Unidad de los Pueblos Collegio" (Unity of the People High School), the institution currently operates out of several rooms in Mr. Limachi's home, with an enrollment of about 30 students in ninth and tenth grades. So far, two teachers have been hired, at nominal salaries.
The money for the schools has been raised in various ways. A portion of what had been previously spent on alcohol was contributed, and the local farmers' association donated a portion of its potato sales to the school that first year. The Baha'i community has also initiated a number of small-scale income generating projects to help support the high school, including a beekeeping/honey-making project; a chicken-raising project, and a vegetable-growing/greenhouse project. As well, outside agencies, such as Nur University, a Baha'i-inspired institution in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, took note of the community's desire to help itself and began to assist in various ways.
The practice of the Baha'i Faith has empowered the community in other ways, say community members and outside observers. In addition to connecting them with a wider network, it has promoted a sense of unity in the community itself, a unity that extends to other religious groups and has helped make possible the level of cooperation necessary to establish the schools.
"Before, we used to have drunken parties and we used to fight more among ourselves," said Cecilo Vela, 30, the treasurer of the Puka Puka Spiritual Assembly. "But since the Faith has come, we have become united -- the Catholics, evangelicals, and Baha'is -- and now we are working to get an education for our children."
Constanio Quispe, a 39-year-old Catholic in Puka Puka, confirmed that members of other religions share the sense of new possibilities. "It would all fall apart if we weren't united," said Mr. Quispe, who serves as a catechism teacher. "The Baha'is united us and the Catholics understood that we can follow that way also."
*Editor's note: the above story was adapted from a feature story in the latest issue of ONE COUNTRY, the newsletter of the Baha'i International Community. To read the full story, visit the ONE COUNTRY site at www.onecountry.org