Yupukari literacy project helps reading take root in Rupununi

A vision by a United States-based social worker in 2001 to improve literacy in Yupukari, Region Nine, has resulted in the building of four libraries, greater interest in reading and some improvements in examination results.

Nursery school children in their classroom at Yupukari.

Yupukari, an Amerindian community located in Central Rupununi is home to the Makushi nation. In 2001, while Alice Layton was in the community, a teacher told her that the community’s children lacked creativity, which disturbed her. As a result, she sought to find a way where she could use her skills and resources to impart “learning” to the community. After engaging in conversations with teachers from the community, she realized that the answer lay in the building of libraries. This led to the creation of the Rupununi Learners Foundation (RLF) in the same year, with the goal of contributing to improvements in the quality of life of Rupununi inhabitants.  This enhancement, Layton felt, could be achieved by access to materials and activities that would enhance literacy, numeracy, access to information, and the preservation and dissemination of indigenous knowledge.

The local arm of the RLF, the Rupununi Learners Incorporated (RLI) was registered in 2007 and comprises Rupununi villagers who work to build and support community learning centres within the Rupununi. The RLF, meanwhile, is based in the United States. The focus of the organisation has now shifted to eventual expansion of the programmes into other villages. While language continues to be a barrier, they believe that a curriculum, which includes Makushi as a written language prior to or alongside English, is needed in the earliest grades and would be supportive of any such move.

The Yupukari Public Library

From the inception, the villagers of Yupukari have been involved in the process to make books available to the community. They played an instrumental role in the building of their public library, the “Caiman House Field Station” and in the renovation of the school buildings with mayu (community service) labour. Currently, there are four libraries in the community, three of them are classroom libraries in the nursery and primary schools; the other is the public library.  These libraries are staffed by three full-time librarian-trainees and include six Internet-enabled laptops and an all-ages book collection.

One of the first obstacles identified by the RLF was the disparity between the English language and Makushi, the language spoken by the residents of Yupukari. However, school children have to learn to read and write in English, which is the country’s official language. Makushi is the language of the majority of Amerindians in the Rupununi, however, the inability to read and write it has proven to be a problem. Therefore, one of the aims of the public library is to act as a reservoir of local knowledge to facilitate the production of a Makushi-English dictionary and other bilingual tools.

To deal with the difficulties posed by language, Layton held regular meetings with the school teachers to examine ways of improving English-language learning in the Makushi-speaking community. Books were selected based on the peculiar scenario at Yupukari. However, once acquired it was realized that work also had to be done with the teachers to help them use the books and teach reading. Consequently, teachers were taught phonics and how to make reading interesting to children.

Experiments were also carried out with the introduction of multimedia tools to further generate interest and participation among children. Response received by the RLF from teachers had indicated that children were more interested in reading stories which had accompanying video/ DVDS. Another experiment was the introduction of low-cost tape recorders, microphones and headphones to make read-aloud tapes.

In 2005, the organization realized that although the villagers had access to materials, they did not make adequate use of it since reading was not seen as fun. This led to the creation of the Reading Rodeo, which is an all-day event aimed at involving the whole village in enjoyable reading activities. This event has become annual since its launch in 2006.

In 2008, the Rupununi Learners extended its reach into other communities by assisting in the creation of nursery and primary classroom libraries, similar to the ones which had been successful in Yupukari. Work has been done in the villages of Kaicumbay, Katoka, Nappi, Parishara, Kwartamang, Quatata, and Arapaima Primary School in Lethem, and the Bina Hill Institute.

In 2009, a village Reading Survey was conducted by Shamir Khan, Editor of the Cayembe Telegraph. It sought to determine the cause for the increase in passes at the National Grade Six Assessments as well as the cause of poor class results. Last year, 14 students were successful at the assessment, which represented the highest number and percentage of passes ever. Respondents credited the Yupukari Public Library with being the main reason for the success.  As to why many children were still earning low grades, respondents indicated that children spent too much time playing. To this end, greater involvement of parents in the academic lives of their children was recommended.

The Tree house project, which was set up in 2007, is aimed at motivating and supporting English-language learning through media literacy. Villagers are exposed to computer training and are taught how to type, enhance their English-language skills by using Rosetta Stone software and practice setting up and using email accounts. It is anticipated that beneficiaries of the training would be able to impart their knowledge to others.

Bookmaking also forms an important part of the Tree house project, since it channels creativity, learning, and literacy.

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