Kasia Buzanska, ‘Ethnographic Notes on the Decolonisation of Schooling in the Andean Valley’

What do they do now? They do the famous ajtapi ajtapi [attempt to pronounce the Aymara word apthapi] which is eating on the ground, they put an aguayo on the ground put the food on it and there you have to sit and eat. It does not seem right to me because it had cost so much to educate people to eat at a table and use cutlery. What they want is for us to go back to what was before, to eating on the ground, those practices it’s what they’re doing with this new law.

– Eugenia, Social Sciences Teacher at Colegio Valle Hermosa

It was February 2020, the first day of the new academic year at Colegio Valle Hermosa in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba and the Plurnination State was still shaken by recent political turmoil. In November 2019, the indigenous president Evo Morales and his closest cabinet members had fled the country after country-wide protests against suspected electoral fraud. Eugenia, the social sciences teacher who was ‘strongly aligned with the civic opposition that led to Morales’s downfall’, was content with the transitory head of state Jeanine Añez who took office holding a huge bible in her hand and proclaimed the holy book’s return to the palace. Eugenia hoped Añez will reverse the educational changes introduced under Morales and without any hesitancy announced to the class: “This law needs to be repealed. The law made us regress thousands of years. It’s more a model of the countryside, not the city”.

The law Eugenia was referring to is the introduced in 2010 educational law – 070 Avelino-Sinañi~Elizardo-Pérez (ASEP) – aimed at revolutionising the schooling system by placing the ‘decolonial, intercultural, intracultural and plurilingual’ (Article 1.6) at the very core of education. In the governmental understanding, decolonial education aids societal transformation through the recovery, revaluation and enrichment of indigenous knowledge and cultural self-reaffirmation (the ‘intracultural’) to reconstruct relations and common dialogue between the country’s nations or cultures (the ‘intercultural’). Many teachers at my fieldsite and others I’ve spoken to find the emphasis on the indigenous superfluous, even receding. An educational law should be first and foremost, as I further heard during Eugenia’s first day of school speech, ‘technological because those are the interests of today, not the intercultural, the ancestral but robotics, computing, IT, the web’.

Eugenia was adamant about her views: ‘Thank God scientific knowledge will be back.You do not need to know about pachamama [Mother Earth]. We know about it, challamos’, she further told the class pronouncing ch’alla – the pouring of liquids on the ground in exchange for Mother Earth’s protection – with an ejective consonant for an affricate, which is typical for non-Quechua speakers. Whilst, for Eugenia, the pachamama has no place within the school and the Christian God should regain its rightful standing inside the classroom walls. That is because, to her, the pachamama is not scientific but Christianity is: ‘We cannot think that the universe just emerged out of nowhere. I’ve heard an astronaut say that God’s marvellous creation is scientific. If during the past 14 years it did not enter schools we have to open up the Bible again and hear God’s words – it is im-por-tan-ti-simo [very important]’. Eugenia’s class discourse laid crystal clear a vision of what urban school education should and shouldn’t be about: it should be about scientific knowledge, technology, the city and Christian practices and shouldn’t be about the intercultural, ancestral, the countryside or the pachamama.

The principal of the school himself echoed the social sciences teacher’s worries about a negative influence of the law on the quality of education. During a reunion with parent delegates he responded to their concerns about the university entrance exams: ‘Before the law 070 education prepared for university, now with all the things about the socio-productive project, about the pachamama education has gone down’. The principal frequently talked about the pride he feels when students re-visit the school as university graduates, reminded current students that ‘one day they will be architects, lawyers, engineers’ and believed that public education should be able to prepare them for this task.

The word ‘scientific’ actually appears in law 070 as many as twenty-five times, ‘science’ a further twenty-one, and ‘technology’ or ‘technological’ as many as fifty-two. How come so many teachers were opposed to it to the extent that Eugenia, in an interview with me, sustained that ‘law 070 destroyed Bolivian education’? Blatant discrimination towards the indigenous is not the explanation for Eugenia, and others, who considered indigeneity an important part of Bolivian identity and culture. She showed admiration for national folkloric practices and defended indigenous rights. During one of our interviews she stressed that ‘if you want to have a culture of civism you need to know your roots, where you come from (…) Quechuas, Incas, Tiwanakotas, Collas, Aymaras, etc.’ To her, however, knowing where one comes from did not signify acting as one’s ancestors but recognising indigeneity as a partiality of a mestizo identity and culture – ‘we are a mestizo culture, we are mestizos because we are a mix of Spanish and indigenous’.

This mix, nevertheless, is compartmentalised into the ‘permitted’, or even desired forms, and the ‘disdained’, the kind capable of keeping the country behind. An important aspect differentiating the new law from its predecessors is its emphasis on education being ‘transformative of economic and social structures’ in the construction of the Plurinational State and Vivir Bien (Living Well)’. While Vivir Bien – a set of ideas evolving around life in harmony with oneself, others, the spiritual world and nature with roots in Andean indigenous thought – appears in the law 070 only ten times, it does so in order to upturn formulations for the construction of a new society based on its terms rather than, as mostly do scientific or technological, in descriptive enumerations or bureaucratic technicalities. The legal utopia of the law’s bureaucratic all-inclusiveness is not only overshadowed by the novelty and resounding character of indigenous markers in legal text but by the state’s broader performativity of an image associated with Andean indigeneity making it the public face of the national imaginary (see Postero 2017).

Central Meeting at Don Bosco School in Cochabamba, Bolivia. “Cochabamba” by teens4unity is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

A common characteristic of the mid and late 20th century educational reforms is a particular form of imagining Indian participation that fits the, coined by the Bolivian sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (2004), phrase ‘indio permitido’; (authorised or permitted Indian). The contemporary permitted Indian, as elaborated in the work of Charles Hale, conforms to the global multiculturalist framework, prevalent since the late 1980s, in which indigenous rights and cultural recognition are important as long as they do not upset the economic and political status quo (Hale 2004; Hale & Millaman 2006). The phrase suggests the use of cultural rights in the era of multiculturalism as a palliative for indigenous empowerment and mobilisation, rather than a strong shift from historical discrimination. The presence of ‘Indio permitido’ at the school manifested itself in the practice of folkloric dances without a critical take upon their origins and political meaning. There was also an  ignorance of legislative recommendations with regards to the duration and amount of indigenous language teaching. The ‘indigenous’ was presented as an abstract and foreign concept of ‘the Quechua nation’ rather than as a vivid part of the students’ family culture and history . The socio-productive project, meant to include students in community matters, was ‘ticked off’ by giving presentations in younger classes without any involvement in the indigenous immigrant neighbourhood of the school. Despite being criticised by teachers for its pachamamismo, the law and governmental curriculums themselves do not provide explicit indications nor practical instructions for shattering school walls. Consequently, they do not equip schools with the means to learn with the community and environment, as you would expect from an education based on Vivir Bien but retain a focus of learning exclusively about them.

The inability to break through the barricades of ‘indio permitido’ is sustained by the prevalence of ‘orders of interactionality’ (Silverstein 2004: 644) tied to aspects of a cultural imaginary of civilization linked to the European. Silverstein conceived of orders of interactionality as the macro-social cultural conceptualisation in which microsociological interaction orders take place (ibid). Those orders infiltrate school life by structuring the culturally accepted and institutionally viable forms of interaction and their denotational capacity. Eugenia’s uneasiness towards apthapi quoted at the beginning of this text stems from an idea of superiority of European heritage and its congruity with contemporary practices of the ‘developed’ nations. Eating at a table and use of cutlery creates a distance between the human and the earth and its produce upholding the idea of human epistemic and economic dominance over nature challenged by Andean cosmovisions (see de la Cadena 2010; Allen 2002; Harris 2000). A ch’alla, accepted by Eugenia, involves watering the earth, usually with alcohol, in an act of blessing or simply gratefulness to Mother Earth; thus, acknowledging a relation that need not necessarily be horizontal. Yet, sitting and eating on the ground in apthapi brings the human down to the Earth’s level — a position historically reserved for the ‘authentic’ or  rural and menial indigenous, which is incompatible with schooling towards urban youth professionalisation.

The power-turning aspects of the legal document and the new performative state imaginary enter into a conflictive encounter with rival imaginaries based on social-evolutionist ideas of development and Christianity that have held hegemony over the nation in the past centuries. Most teaching staff at Valle Hermosa saw schooling as a means to develop rather than decolonise the country. They worried about fostering student aspirations and study skills towards obtaining higher education and improving the ‘ranking’ of their country within the global nation-system, rather than ‘breaking the shackles’ of coloniality. The celebration and instruction of indigenous folklore and history at the school helped raise cultural awareness and cultural pride amongst school youth of indigenous roots, but remained within the scope of a neoliberal, multiculturalist framework where it would not be conceived as a threat to the country’s development.

Kasia Buzanska is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is currently writing a comparative doctoral thesis based on ethnographic research at two urban high schools in Bolivia and Poland. Her broader professional interests include the anthropology of schooling and youth, cognitive anthropology, sociolinguistics, media and political ecology. Before joining the Department of Social Anthropology, Kasia completed an MPhil in Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge writing her thesis on Quechua language ideologies at a Bolivian university.


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