I was nine years old when, on the kitchen table of my grandmother's house, I did homework one afternoon after lunch. The exercise asked him to draw what the reading narrated: the way in which the Incas buried their dead. Perfectionism has been present in the hundreds of academic activities that I have done since that day, but I think I have rarely worked as hard as I did on that one. It was as if with my drawing I had wanted to honor the character who described the text, and with it, a whole culture that – as they gave me to understand – had also died.
In the following history classes they told me about colonization and miscegenation. They told me about the formation of the Republic of Ecuador, my country of birth. They made me recite the names of the presidents and took me to visit Catholic churches in the historic center of the city of Quito where I grew up. I do not remember any more mention of the original peoples in my school education, except for a brief reading of the indigenous novel Huasipungo, almost at the end of high school.
However, the diversity of clothing, traditions, and cultures remained very present in my day to day. In addition, in my vocabulary, as in many Spanish-speaking Ecuadorians, words of the Quichua language, one of the ancestral languages of Ecuador, have been cast. So far I play soccer on the ‘court’, when I'm cold I say ‘achachay’, and I call my sister ‘ñaña’. But until recently, Quichua was for me a language with which I lived, but I did not know.
“Traditional education makes invisible the languages, customs, knowledge, world views, and philosophies of the native peoples. It represents us as something of the past, but, despite centuries of exclusion, we are still very present, ”explains Rasu Paza Guanolema, from the Puruhá culture of the Balda Lupaxi community in the province of Chimborazo in the Ecuadorian highlands.
Rasu says that his own relationship with education was good while he lived in his community. However, when, at the age of 12, he moved to the city of Quito to attend school, he was forced to leave Quichua, his mother tongue, and to adopt the language, traditions, and knowledge of European roots.
“It was a terrible experience. I felt harassed by teachers and classmates because I was not one of them. They made it very clear that in their world, I didn't fit. They made me believe that millenary cultures are worthless and that we do not have the capacity to learn, much less to contribute with our own knowledge, ”he says. After two years, Rasu returned to his homeland and dedicated himself to work. At 20, he resumed his studies and entered Chaquiñán School, where he was taught his language again and invited him to value his culture, philosophy and spirituality again. Thus, he fell in love with them again.
Sharing love for the self
The love for the language inspired Rasu to pursue a university career in Spanish literature, where he was able to confront the professors who tried to make him feel that his culture and language had no equal value. Then, his commitment to his roots motivated him to apply what he learned in the teaching of Quichua, which belongs to a linguistic family present, with different variants, in seven South American countries.
Seeking to increase the number of Quichua speakers in Ecuador, in 2008 Rasu joined Tinkunakuy. This organization, located in Quito, bears the Quichua name of the principle of relationality, fundamental in the philosophy of the native peoples of Ecuador. “From our perspective, people, nature, and the cosmos are related, we are all part of the same fabric; it's a peer interaction based on respect, ”Rasu says.
It is from this vision that the members of Tinkunakuy have taught the Quichua language to the more than 1,000 students who have passed through the organization in its 15 years of existence. In addition, Tinkunakuy promotes political-organizational, communicational, spiritual, educational, and economic proposals. For his part, Rasu plans to write poems, stories and novels to continue communicating the knowledge of the original peoples from his own language. “My goal is that as many people as possible become fond of the language, and through it, learn and value a way of life different from that imposed by the current system,” says Rasu.
With me, you have fulfilled this purpose. I always liked the sound of Quichua, but because I have lived outside Ecuador for the past eight years, I thought I could not learn this language until, one day, returning to my country. The Reframed Stories project that we carried out in Rising Voices in collaboration with different communities, some of them indigenous, increased my desire to learn this language even more. Therefore, when the announcement of Rasu Quichua classes appeared on my Facebook almost seven months ago, I did not hesitate to ask if it would be possible to have them online. To my surprise he said yes, and the following Monday I had my first lesson. Since then we talk on WhatsApp an hour and a half a week. Rasu creates a document in Google Doc, and I follow what he writes in real time. We also use a digitized book with exercises that we review together, and I take notes by hand in a notebook.
This option to learn quichua from a distance began less than a year ago. Rasu says that at first he did not know how to take advantage of technology for this purpose, but when he was invited to teach in a language center, he asked to be taught how to use some digital tools. Now he wants to continue exploring possibilities to create audios that facilitate phonetic learning. Meanwhile, he gives me music in Quichua that I listen to while I order my house or road.
“It's nice to know that distance is no longer an impediment, and that everyone who wants to can approach the language from anywhere,” says Rasu, and I agree. I am learning Quichua from Canada, and there are students doing the same from the United States and Sweden. Thus, he shares us roots that, from the outside, we are becoming ours.
Although I live far away and my days are spent in English, a language that is not mine, thanks to the Quichua classes I feel closer than ever to my country. And not only to the urban Ecuador in which I grew up, but also to the ancestral knowledge to which I was not very exposed while living there.
Another Rasu student, Catharina Blomquist, has also approached a new world thanks to Quichua. “I am Swedish and my mother tongue is Swedish, but I feel that Quichua is my language, I cannot explain why,” says Catharina. She remembers that when she visited Ecuador for the first time in 2017, she did not know about the existence of Quichua, but as soon as she heard it she fell in love with him and knew that she had to learn it, so she looked for classes on the Internet and found those of Rasu. “Quichua has another thought, it is a very deep language for me,” he adds.
And it is that the Quichua part of its own logic that is reflected in the language and changes our way of understanding the world and inhabiting it. In this time I have learned, for example, that in quichua the self (ñuka) is part of us (ñukanchik) and that the one cannot exist without the other. I have also understood that time and space can be as inseparable as the two sides of the same page; that the future is nothing more than the succession of the past, and that the present guides us. I have understood that illness can be seen as something that visits us to let us know that some aspect of our life is not in harmony; and that death can be perceived no longer as an end, but as the eternal return to life.
For Rasu, only through deep understanding of the language can we truly approach these ancestral knowledge, with so much to offer, without emptying them of content. Therefore, he mixes the teaching of this knowledge with grammar and vocabulary lessons, and finds it gratifying to see how this learning transforms us. Inspired by the classes, there are students who have recovered the customs, clothing, and traditional ways of life they had abandoned. Other students have pledged to contribute to the language and the needs of the native peoples from their own spaces and experiences.
In addition, Rasu considers the teaching of quichua inconceivable without also addressing issues such as the lags of colonization still so present, racism, and the law over territories. Talking about these problems is essential to rectify history and question what we have learned, and also what we have not. It frees us.
“The Quichua frees us from continuing to repeat the mistakes of the past and from others speaking for us,” says Rasu. “It gives us the possibility to express ourselves from our own visions and perspectives, to denounce injustices, and to work together for diverse futures where we can live in this time-space-world-universe in harmony and mutual respect between peoples of different languages” he adds , and I understand that quichua closes gaps that have been open for too long.