In Bolivia, an isolated village seeks to establish its own school system in the face of discrimination

PUKA PUKA, Chuquisaca, 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 came to take that initiative, 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 Bahá'í 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 Bahá'ís 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 Bahá'í 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 Bahá'í Faith in Puka Puka and who is now a leading figure in the community.

On the Altiplano

Puka Puka is located about 6 kilometers south of Tarabuco, which is the capital in the province of Yamparaéz, in the state of Chuiquisaca. It lies in the zone known as the "altiplano" - the almost desert-like high plateau in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia and Peru. Virtually all its inhabitants are Quechua, members of a sub-group known as known as "Ayllu" or "Tarabuqueño," and almost all are farmers, growing potato, wheat, barley, beans, green peas, and corn.

The region is also marked by an austere beauty: weathered rolling hills, climbing into craggy mountains, covered with a green baize, dotted with cattle and terra-cotta-roofed adobe houses in the valleys. But the altitude, scarcity of fertile soil and lack of water make it hard to prosper here.

For years, the community had undertaken various projects aimed at improving its lot. Some years ago, residents said, they shared a tractor - donated by an international aid agency - with two other communities. But infighting over how to split the use of the machine led to the collapse of the project.

For the current project, the community was successful at attracting aid for the construction of several school buildings and in obtaining government salaries for teachers covering kindergarten through third grade. Sending children in the upper grades to schools in the surrounding communities, however, was a concern.

"In one town, Mishka Mayo, we had trouble because the school was Catholic and we felt there was religious discrimination," said Mr. Limachi. "Schools 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 largely from the fact that a number of families in Puka Puka had become Bahá'ís - who are, incidentally, forbidden to drink alcohol as part of their faith. A few residents first accepted the Bahá'í 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 Bahá'ís.

It was the emphasis on education in the Bahá'í Faith that led the community to establish its own school system - that and an interesting intervention by the community's young people, also sparked by the Bahá'í teachings.

Although many residents became Bahá'ís in the 1980s and 1990s, they did not immediately give up their old ways. Many adults, for example, continued to drink alcohol. Then, in 1997, at a Bahá'í meeting, the community's young people challenged their parents to stop drinking entirely, suggesting that instead they contribute the money spent on alcohol to a fund for education.

In response, the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Puka Puka, the locally elected Bahá'í governing council, decided that year to raise US$500 and to hire a teacher for the Bahá'í 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. (They were not able to fund the seventh grade immediately.)

The money was raised in various ways. Not only was a portion of what had been spent on alcohol contributed, but the local farmers' association donated a portion of its potato sales to the school that first year. Such donations continued in subsequent years. As well, outside agencies, such as Nur University, a Bahá'í-inspired institution in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, took note of the community's desire to help itself and began to assist in various ways.

"Part of the story is about how a little community with no access to resources was able to reach out and raise resources," said Duncan Hanks, director of social and economic development projects at Nur University.

"Most other communities will wait for an international agency or NGO to arrive on their doorstep with the programs. But the Puka Puka community didn't sit and wait. They took the initiative to go out and say 'this is what we need and now we're going to figure out how to get the resources.'

"The reason why they are able to do that kind of outreach is because they are Bahá'ís and connected to the worldwide Bahá'í community.

"This is redefining oneness," added Mr. Hanks. "They are part of this global community because they have chosen to be."

A sense of unity

The practice of the Bahá'í 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 Bahá'ís - and now we are working to get an education for our children.

"We feel like we are one family, and it is as if someone were above and directing us with one hand," Mr. Vela added, noting that community meetings generally start with prayers, read by members of all the different religions in the village.

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 Bahá'ís united us and the Catholics understood that we can follow that way also.

"We all feel this way," he added. "We have meetings and we have talked about the unity created by the Bahá'ís."

Not only did the Bahá'ís 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.

Although run by the Bahá'ís, the school is open to all. "I like to study in this school, because it is very good," said Faustino Quispe, 14, a student who is Catholic. Faustino said he feels no prejudice at the school. "We are all friends," he said.

Spin-off projects

The Bahá'í community of Puka Puka has 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.

"It is an incredibly determined community," said Jeremy Martin, another Nur University official who recently visited Puka Puka. "The community has now got all of the other nearby communities behind the high school project, and, although they do need money and support, they have this incredible vision that I think makes it sustainable."

Mr. Martin, who is Director of Institutional Development at Nur, noted that in addition to the schools and income projects, the community has also erected a building designed to house a small museum, dedicated to showcasing the community's history and culture.

"It's another thing they've done on their own initiative," said Mr. Martin, "and it indicates their level of self-awareness. On the one hand, they are developing a school system to give them the kinds of new knowledge they need to survive today, and they are also creating a museum as a means of conserving their traditional knowledge."

Indeed, many in the community spoke above all else of a shared vision of the future, when the opportunities created by the projects will allow their children to go to the university and become professionals.

"Then our children won't have the same difficulties as we do," said Bacilia Pachacopa, 35, a mother of five in Puka Puka. "We're doing this because we want our children to have capabilities so that they don't depend on others the way we do, and to show others that it is possible to make progress."