Nicaragua: "Poor Man's" Adult Education

September 25, 2007

A group of well-armed men en- tered the town of Las Brisas in northern Nicaragua. After burning all adult education materials and forcing everyone to listen to vio- lent, fanatical speeches, they kid- napped the education program's young administrator, Valentina P6rez. P~rez managed to escape, Catherine Gander has worked in Nicaragua for the past two and a half years. She recently worked for seven months with the Vice-Ministry of Adult Education. hiding for several hours in a ditch, while her captors were fighting the Sandinista Army. Undaunted, P~rez soon requested a new sup- ply of materials from the regional adult education office, pledging to "work harder than ever to eradi- cate ignorance and cultural back- wardness." Jeny Perez, who works in adult education in the northern town of San Fernando, reported that con- tras "burned our office, along with most of the materials, the food distributed to popular teachers and the archives. After opening fire on the town, a band of men had entered and begun pounding on doors. They then burned the house of one of the teachers, Jesi(s Ortez, and kidnapped him. "They later kidnapped and killed another teacher, F6lix Melgara, and Jos6 Betrin, who was taking a training course in adult educa- tion. All told, about 30 students and teachers from this area have been kidnapped." Members of the militia at the Chiltepe dairy farm on Lake Managua study two hours each evening. 0 ZE (5 C NACLA Report 42update * update update * update Factory workers, farmers, fish- ermen, housewives, market ven- dors, shoeshine boys and soldiers are among the 161,000 Nicara- guans who gather each afternoon or evening to study. They attend Popular Education Collectives, or "CEPs," as they're commonly called, which constitute the nu- cleus of the country's adult edu- cation program. These teachers and learners are only one of the many targets of Reagan's "secret" war. From May 1982 to May 1983, 81 popular teachers were kidnapped or mur- dered by opponents of the pro- cess of social change. Transport- ing adult education materials and basic supplies to communities has been made more difficult by am- bushes. Some of the materials de- livered to outlying towns in the north have been destroyed by counterrevolutionaries. Poor Man's Formula The CEPs are the continuation of a unique educational process which began with the 1980 national literacy crusade. Given the dev- astation caused by the civil war and the overwhelming scarcity of resources, the only way the Sandi- nistas could fulfill their longstand- ing promise to eradicate illiteracy, was to use the "poor man's for- mula." Through a series of workshops, 85,000 were trained as literacy teachers. Sixty thousand of these were brigadistas, high school stu- dents who taught in rural Nicara- gua. The various mass organiza- tions were mobilized to help sup- ply and transport the brigadistas. The international community also made important financial and ma- terial donations to the crusade. Sept/Oct 1983 PINSA's first level CEP uses books they printed themselves. The young people fanned out across Nicaragua, integrating themselves into the daily lives of the communities where they taught. For many of the brigadistas, the experience helped broaden their perspectives by bringing them into contact with rural Nicaragua. By the end of the crusade in August 1980, over 400,000 adults had learned to read and write. The national literacy rate had been reduced from 50.37% to 12.96%. During the second stage of the crusade on the Atlantic Coast, twelve thousand costeiios acquired basic skills in English, or the in- digenous languages, Miskito and Sumu. The literacy crusade laid the foundation for the current adult education program. To take the place of the brigadistas, outstand- ing students were named "coor- dinators" of new groups called CEPs. Each group had from five to fifteen students. A "promotor" was appointed to supervise the work of the groups in a particular zone, and coordinate with the mu- nicipal commissions set up dur- ing the crusade. The Vice-Ministry of Adult Education was established to oversee the program at the na- tional level, Working Children Included The coordinators and promoters, or "popular teachers," are the driv- ing force of adult education. There are now 21,682 coordinators and 3,103 promoters. More than half the popular teachers had not com- pleted primary school in the times of Somoza, and relatively few had attended high school. Nationwide, the average educational level is 2.5 years. Marvin Garcia, coordinator of the CEP at the Chiltepe dairy farm, has a fifth grade education. Ex- plaining why he decided to teach, he says, "I saw that many of my co- workers needed and wanted to learn, so those of us who knew even a little had to help in any way we could." The Chiltepe farm, on Lake Managua's southern shore, was nationalized when its owner fled Nicaragua in 1979. After work or classes, teachers such as Garcia devote two hours per evening to teach and learn with their fellow workers, neighbors and friends. They receive only a small stipend from the Ministry of Education. Mario Justos, coordinator of the fourth level CEP at the PINSA print shop in Managua, says he sees his role as coordinator to orient, or 43update * update update * update Alejandro Sosa, first level student, adjusts the press at the PINSA plant. focus the class, but not "teach" in the traditional sense. "The others really run the class, and we all learn from each others' experiences." Adult education classes are currently offered at the introduc- tory or literacy level, and five out of an eventual six progressive levels which correspond roughly to a primary school program. It is hoped that upon completion of these levels, students will have a solid base on which to build tech- nical training. Of those registered for the first semester of 1983, over one-third were at the literacy level. The ma- jority of students live in rural areas, and 44% are women. The "adult education" program also includes a large number of working children who spend their days selling news- papers or cigarettes, shining shoes or guarding parked cars. A student's progression can take various tracks, dependent on age. The children will eventually be in- corporated into the standard edu- cational system leading toward further schooling. Those from 15 to 24 years old, the majority, may follow up with job-oriented techni- cal courses after completing the 44 basic adult education program. Public sector employers are re- sponsible for upgrading the tech- nical skills of their employees be- tween 25 and 46 years of age. Transforming Reality The Sandinista government has given top priority to improvement of the educational system. Thou- sands of new schools have been built or opened in communities which previously were completely isolated or ignored. The number of teachers has almost doubled since 1979. Curriculum as well as methodology are changing. In a revolutionary context, "edu- cation" is part of every social, po- litical, economic and cultural ac- tivity. Adult education in Nicara- gua is just one element within a wide-ranging process of social transformation. Inspired by the pedagogy of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, the program has developed a methodology unique to the Nicara- guan experience. Adult education seeks to stimulate a process of "conscientization," encouraging not only a description of the parti- cipants' social reality, but also the understanding, analysis and even- tual transformation of that reality. The methodology and materials used in Nicaragua's program do not reflect a rigid separation of disciplines. Natural and social sci- ences are interwoven, while math books make use of problems that may arise on the job. A fourth level student at PINSA, Luisa Torres, says she had studied 15 years ago, but had to drop out to work. "Classes are different now; we go at our own pace. If we need to review a lesson, we do. While each lesson teaches us lan- guage skills, it also teaches us history, geography, economics... all of this combined. The lessons are based on our experiences at work and at home, things we really live." The program is characterized by flexibility. It is continually re- evaluated and adapted to the changing needs and demands of an accelerated process of social change, as well as to the rhythm of labor requirements for the prin- cipal harvests, and to varying paces of classes in different re- gions. Ideally, the program can be used successfully by people of very different ages, professions, interests and capabilities, in a great variety of social settings. Poolside CEP As the sunset engulfs the sil- houettes of two volcanoes, the militia members at the Chiltepe dairy farm, armed with rifles, pen- cils and notebooks, study at rustic picnic tables. A corner of the ex-owner's house is now a spartan guard post, sur- rounded by a sand bag barricade. The kidney-shaped pool lies aban- doned. A thatched hut-with a picturesque bar, a forgotten fish- ing trophy and hanging lanterns- NACLA Reportupdate * update * update * update now houses a poolside CEP. Coordinator Garcia, also pro- duction secretary of the Sandinista campesino organization, the As- sociation of Rural Workers (ATC), explains the three-step methodol- ogy they are using. "First, we dis- cuss the photo at the beginning of the lesson; this one shows people preparing the soil for planting. Then there are readings and ex- ercises which tell us about health and agriculture, like here where it talks about how to prepare the soil, which crops should be plant- ed in different kinds of soils, how to choose seeds, how to plant and irrigate, what fertilizers and pesti- cides to use. "Finally we look at how we can apply what we've read to our own community, to change things. We could do a skit illustrating all of these things, and talk about how we can take advantage of the courses offered by the Ministry of Agriculture and better organize our work in the cooperative." One first level student, Porfirio Ruiz, says that adult education will allow students to "better" them- selves. Instead of working in the fields with a machete, Ruiz hopes that in a few years he will learn to operate agricultural machinery. "Adult education is the base of our future technical training. We must work to replace many dairy technicians who were here in the times of Somoza, for they are against the revolution. We, the campesinos, will become the fu- ture technicians of Nicaragua." "Being An Example" The concrete walls of the lunch room at the PINSA print shop are decorated with red hearts from Mother's Day, lively posters and a mural of a co-founder of the San- dinista Front, Carlos Fonseca. De- Efrain Vargas--printer, CEP teacher and university student. spite the stifling heat, about 20 workers of all ages are gathered around long tables in the room's four corners. They are studying books they printed themselves a few months ago. Ernesto Arteaga, secretary of culture for the local of the San- dinista Workers' Confederation (CST), explains that it was hard to get the CEPs going in the factory. "We used to have five different shifts, which meant that not every- one could attend afternoon class- es. Our union worked with the ad- ministration to resolve the prob- lem, and we managed to unify the work timetable so we can all par- ticipate." The union helps the adult education program in any way it can: assuring that the necessary materials arrive, explaining to workers the importance of educa- tion, functioning as liaison to man- agement. Mirta Guti6rrez, a student in her mid-forties, is in first level. She works cleaning the factory and stacking books. She is very active in the defense committee (CDS) and the women's organization, (AMNLAE) in her neighborhood. "At first I thought I'd die of shame Sept/Oct 1983 when I had to get up and speak to people. Now I help other women get over their shyness." She felt she was too told to study, but her daughter told her that since she was so involved, she should also "be an example" in adult education. "Unless you have some prep- aration, you can't talk to people about anything," she now says, "and since you are always talking in AMNLAE and the CDS, you should improve your ability to think through what you want to say and how to say it." Guti6rrez explains that it is hard for her to concentrate on classes at times, because she worries about her three sons who are sta- tioned with the Army on the bor- der. "I suffer, but I know we must struggle. .. ." Efrain Vargas coordinates the third level classes. He works eight hours a day making plates for printing, attends the CEPs in the afternoon and university classes in the evening. He is active in the Sandinista Youth movement (JS- 19), which supports adult educa- tion by organizing informational meetings, making posters and 45update * update update * update providing popular teachers. He also plays four instruments in a musical group just formed in the factory, called The Border Guards -"in honor of our heroic brothers and sisters defending our freedom." Vargas was a brigadista in the literacy crusade, an experience which fed his desire to be a popu- lar teacher. "I enjoy teaching and I'm learn- ing a lot from the people in CEP. I'm especially learning from their tremendous sensitivity and sincere desire to better themselves. "It's a bit heavy to be doing so much, but when I see how high people's spirits are, how much energy and dedication everyone has, I know nothing could stand in the way of adult education, or this historic process. ... Adult edu- cation is very important because it awakens workers and campesi- nos from the ignorance they were subjected to, and lets them see clearly what this revolution is all about, that it belongs to the popu- lar classes." Upgrading Teaching Skills Problems inevitably arise in a program which is so ambitious, and is evolving in such a complex and difficult situation. Transporta- tion problems sometimes prohibit materials from reaching classes on time. Many of the popular teach- ers are not sufficiently trained. Sometimes teachers are only a few steps ahead of their students in the curriculum and cannot an- swer questions. Their inadequate understanding of the methodology of popular education can also lead to its mechanical implemen- tation. Recognizing these problems, program planners have deemed teacher training a high priority. Teachers now attend weekly work- 46 shops and intensive training ses- sions over a two- to three-month period at the end of the academic year. They also receive some pedagogical orientation via a daily radio program. Another problem is that the adult education materials are not always relevant to users in different re- gions of the country. Although the texts are essential to rediscover history, explain reconstruction pro- grams and analyze the current difficulties Nicaragua faces, ma- terials must also respond to very disparate regional realities. More decentralized production of ma- terials would better fit into the revo- lution's focus on empowering people to develop their own form and content. In response to these considera- tions, materials are now beginning to be produced locally. Among the first experiences was the produc- tion of photo-stories. A core team of popular teachers was trained as "grassroots journalists," learning to photograph, collect oral histor- ies and construct lively sociodra- mas. They returned to their com- munities, captured residents' words and images and transformed these into photo-stories. In another recent example of participatory research and curri- culum development, a series of regional workshops taught com- munities how to use different forms of communication (music, dance, theater, graphic arts, poetry) in the process of adult education. Yet the most serious problem facing the program is the reper- cussions of U.S. pressure on Nica- ragua. The economic boycott, which includes the blocking of Nicaragua's loan applications to international lending institutions, has made it difficult to acquire some of the basic materials need- ed for adult education, such as printing supplies and pencils. An international campaign to discredit the Sandinistas has resulted in re- duced support for educational pro- grams by some international or- ganizations. Destabilization Backfired Most troubling, however, is the escalation of military attacks. Those involved in adult education have responded to these attacks with great courage and conviction, seeking ways to continue study- ing. In some northern towns, chil- dren are posted outside the house where a CEP is being held. With their signal of the approach of someone "suspicious," reading materials disappear and the CEP turns into a social gathering. Ma- terials have at times been buried to save them from destruction. Many teachers have refused to surrender. In Kiwaska, armed in- vaders tried to forcefully recruit a CEP coordinator, Teodoro Diaz. He repeatedly rejected the AK rifle thrust at him, shouting that he would rather die than take up arms against his own people, and de- nouncing the contras' "preach- ings." Dfaz was led away by the attackers and is presumed dead. Inevitably, adult education pro- grams reflect the possibilities and limitations of their social context. Despite Nicaragua's current diffi- culties, the Sandinista government has continued to allocate signifi- cant resources to education. At- tempts to destabilize and defeat the educational efforts, and the revolution, have backfired. Nicara- guans have responded with ever greater strength and commitment. "After taking the first step," they proclaim, recalling a slogan used during the literacy crusade, "we'll never stop moving forward."

Tags: Nicaragua, contras, adult education, literacy, teachers

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