This is from a series of reports written in 1997 for an NGO, Mopawi, exploring their efforts to promote sustainable development in the native Miskito and Garifuna populations in La Mosquitia, a rainforest in eastern Honduras.

educacion bilingual
puerto lempira
scott wood and tom keogh

for most of this century, up until the 1990s, it was illegal for miskito students to use the miskito language in schools in la mosquitia. the government mandated that all pupils speak and be spoken to only in spanish - "hable espanol" the imperative form, spraypainted on school walls; miskito kids prohibited even at recess from speaking the language of their families.

hable espanol spraypainted in 1990, in conjunction with mopawi, the newly-formed committee for bilingual/intercultural education in the honduran mosquitia (CEBIMH), lobbied the national government for indigenous language legality in local schools. as part of their efforts, in 1992, they conducted a survey of miskito students in solely spanish speaking schools, and discovered that most kids needed 10 years in school, 15 years of age, and to be in the sixth grade to understand most what was being taught at them; to understand class lectures. presented with that evidence, the government gave the go-ahead for a pilot bilingual education program.

bilingual education was mopawi's first sustainable development effort in la mosquitia: first through lobbying the honduran government in the 1980s, now working with educators to develop miskito-specific classroom materials.

PEBIMH is run by project director scott wood and american linguist tom keogh. out of their office near the lempira park of puerto lempira, they design and dispatch hundreds of books and materials for teachers across la mosquitia. the idea is to establish first the students reading and writing skills in miskito, their mother tongue. once the students can read and write in miskito, commanding language, then they learn to translate their skills, gradually, to the spanish language.

tom shows me books; some he's illustrated, some by others; some printed by PEBIMH, some printed by the honduran government. in first grade, the books have illustrations and miskito word identification. is this a duri (canoe) or a kuri (fruit)? the second grade reader has pictures with phrases, like comics; here the children learn situations and context. for third grade, they intend to offer two books, spanish and miskito; for now, only the spanish text is finished. it offers short stories, and asks students to comprehend and respond to event sequence and outcome questions. the book opens with an introduction acclimating some spanish and miskito word and their orthographic equivalents. this is a maintenance, not a transition program; miskito will still be used in the classroom, but spanish becomes the dominant teaching language over time.

the program is currently being offered in 20 schools, with 2000 students (of a total of 12000 students in la mosquitia). a vote by the school and the community determines if that community will join the project; no one offered has yet turned it down, but it is hard to see followthrough everytime: people are reluctant to embrace this new system without some hand holding. ensuring proper distribution of materials, as well as appropriate teacher training takes time from the development of future curriculum - it is a tough balance for the small staff in puerto lempira.

but the project has already seen some pretty impressive results. after only three years, students working in spanish only 2.5 hours a day, with this bilingual program, have higher comprehension of both spanish and miskito than students in the current 5 hours a day of spanish instruction still maintained throughout most of la mosquitia.

mopawi intends a radical shift in the education of indigenous peoples here in honduras. rather than presenting outright western knowledge and expecting people to get it, they envision the entire curriculum, not just language development, progressing through a miskito-spanish transition.

tom keogh uses biology for an example: before the students can understand the biological system of animal classification, they should understand the notion of classifying animals. toward that end, perhaps there is a manner the miskitos have of ordering the crawling universe. up until now, the miskitos have not collected that kind of information in a portable form. but if that material were codified, and presented to the kids, then they can say, ahh okay, we're talking about animals, and the differences between them, and how they are related. this is my way, my families way, of ordering creatures, and this is this guy's darwin's way of ordering creatures.

the teachers, 85% of whom are now miskito, often present material they don't understand (imagine presenting newtonian physics without any basic understanding of the notion of physical laws of the universe).

but before this kind of project can be realized, what constitutes miskito worldly knowledge needs to be collected, agreed upon and published. and perhaps before that can happen, the miskito language needs to have a proper, agreed upon written syntax and grammar.

that is a lot of work for a few folks in puerto lempira. there are other people across the honduran and nicaraguan mosquita working on pieces of that project, but as they progress, it seems the miskito culture could be changing out from under them. in our first conversation, tom marveled at the dynamism of the miskito language. we mused that it might be dynamic precisely because they don't yet have a daniel webster, with his dictionary, having codified the standard proper miskito.

until that time, the program will be slowly extending it's bilingual capacity, as it probes for the miskito knowledge base. next year, PEBIMH reports, they will not be in more than 20 schools, but they will be in those 20 schools better. lucky for those kids.

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