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Community development through indigenous leadership

by Dennis Olson

Reprinted from Notes on Anthropology and Intercultural Community Work 18:30-37
© 1995 Summer Institute of Linguistics

The Aguaruna development program

I believe that the bilingual education program, started in 1953, formed a base for community organization and development seen in later decades. These are some of the products of the bilingual education program that helped the Aguaruna to meet the dominant culture on its own terms:

  1. People learned to read and write.
  2. They learned basic math skills.
  3. A core of the population learned Spanish and were able to communicate with the dominant outside culture and government.
  4. The bilingual school system provided a model of organization that modified traditional patterns of organization.
  5. Annual teacher conferences provided a model for intercommunity organization and problem solving.
  6. The bilingual school system was a training ground for leadership development.
  7. Teachers learned about keeping records and the administrative processes of the dominant culture.

By the time I started working with the Aguaruna in 1967, bilingual schools were well established, the age of the primary school student population was decreasing, and adult education was coming into focus. As one of the avenues for becoming a bilingual teacher and receiving a government salary, volunteers could receive training and then work with the adults in their community.

In the village of Temashnum, a volunteer teacher worked about three hours a day with several adults. After several months many of the adults could read and write, and do simple calculations. At this point in the training, one of the men asked me to get him a platform scale, which I was able to do.

On a subsequent visit to the village, I watched as each man brought a sack of rice up to the scale and weighed his rice. One of the men from the adult literacy class wrote down the weight of each sack of rice and calculated what it was worth. When all of the sacks of rice were weighed, I went with the men across the river where they would sell it. I watched with amazement as they brought each sack of rice to the trader from the coast and told him what each one weighed and what it was worth. Without asking any questions, the trader paid each man for his rice based on these calculations.

That was quite a different picture from the days of selling rubber when the traders were said to have calibrated muscles. They could tell exactly what a ball of rubber weighed by lifting it up. This new method of doing business put control of weighing and measuring into the hands of the Aguaruna instead of the trader.

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