At a glance: Venezuela, The Bolivarian Republic of

Venezuelan indigenous group begins to revive its lost language

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© UNICEF Venezuela/2006/Markisz
Juan Andres Conrado, 5, and his mother Zaida Benifa Guerra are members of the Añu indigenous group in Venezuela.

By Kun Li

LAGOON SINAMAICA, Venezuela, 8 January 2007 – This corner of northwestern Venezuela is home to the Añu, one of the country’s many indigenous groups. Añu means ‘people of water’, but today their water is polluted and their culture and language are under threat.

Among the 3,500 Añu men, women and children, knowledge of their indigenous language has been all but lost.

But UNICEF, working with its partners in Venezuela, has made revitalizing indigenous cultures – including that of the Añu – a top priority.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Venezuela/2006/Markisz
Children from the Añu indigenous group attend a class to learn their native language.

Cultural movement takes hold

Like all the other children in his community, Juan Andres Conrado, 5, is unable to speak or understand the language of his ancestors. Instead, he and his friends only speak Spanish. This deeply saddens Juan’s mother, Zaida Benifa Guerra.

“We are losing our culture, especially our language,” she says.

With support from PROANDES (the Andean Programme of Basic Services against Poverty – a joint project of UNICEF and Venezuela’s Ministry of Education), a cultural movement involving many members of the community has taken hold. As a result, Juan and his mother are now learning Añu for the first time.

Learning word-by-word

Ms. Guerra meets with a group regularly to develop strategies for reviving the language.

“We hold workshops every afternoon,” she explains. “A few grandmothers and a scholar from the state university help us recover our practically dead language word-by-word. Gradually, we have compiled 360 words and made them into a small dictionary.”

At home, Ms. Guerra teaches her newly acquired Añu vocabulary to her son. “Everything that I have learned from my teachers, I will pass on to my children,” she says, “so that they don’t feel ashamed of their ethnicity and know how to speak their own language.”

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Venezuela/2006/Markisz
Felix Marcial Guerrero is one of the teachers trained to help restore the native tongue among some 500 Añu children.

Bilingual education

Today, Juan joins a group of children for a lesson. Felix Marcial Guerrero is one of the teachers who have been trained to help restore the native tongue among some 500 Añu children. Classes like this are held in both schools and homes to make sure all children, especially the most excluded and disadvantaged, have a chance to learn.

As the cultural movement progresses, textbooks and other teaching materials have now become available with UNICEF’s help. These tools, along with the children’s enthusiasm, have motivated the teachers.

“At first, the schools were very shocked,” says Mr. Guerrero, recalling his first experience with teaching Añu in the classroom. “Today you can see a difference. The school is accepting us, and most important, the children are accepting us. They say, ‘come tomorrow, come tomorrow.’ Every day, they tell us to return.”

Knowledge and pride

Preserving their language has become an urgent task for the Añu community. They have come to the realization that success depends on everyone’s participation, especially the young.

Despite his tender age, Juan understands what is at stake and how he can help. “When I grow up I want to teach children how to speak Añu,” he says.

Juan’s ambition is fully supported by his mother, who wants her children to know and be proud of their heritage. “I want them to carry it in their blood, to go on to defend their culture everywhere they go, all over the world,” she says.


 

 

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UNICEF correspondent Kun Li reports on efforts to revitalize the language of the Añu, an indigenous group in Venezuela.
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