MITU — This is a very different kind of education story, under circumstances far from your ordinary classroom.

The Rural Education Center Bocas del Yi is in the middle of Colombia’s Amazon jungle. And yet three of its students and three of its teachers have managed to achieve outstanding test scores in a nationwide program of academic and sports competitions.

I decided to pay them a visit.

It’s not easy to get to the center because it is, after all, in the middle of the Vaupés jungle. If a reporter accompanied by the school director and members of Mitú’s Casa de la Cultura finds it difficult, imagine what it must be like for a 5 or 6-year-old child who lives in this boarding school in the middle of nowhere — a child who must leave his or her family behind for the duration of the school year.

Apart from being away from home, students at the center live in conditions utterly different from their peers in other regions of Colombia.

To get to the center, it’s necessary to travel by boat against the current on the Vaupés River. The kids share communal dorms at the school, sleeping in hammocks, using plastic sandals to be left outside the classroom, staring out at the river and painting it in their artwork. They eat whatever the river provides for them and nurture themselves with its sunsets. They wait for news from the world to arrive from its waters, and take baths in it to keep clean.

All photos by Enrique Patiño

When it is time to return to school after a visit home, they travel by river. They do so, even if this means that they must travel with their parents for up to two days on the Vaupés to reach the education center. These parents then entrust their children to the teachers.

In fact, 90% of the children reside at the school. They come from distant communities such as San Luis, Huasai, Corroncho or Puerto Pupina, none of which are identified on a map. Most of these communities are just a cluster of houses located on the banks of the river.

The students don’t have uniforms so they dress with whatever they have at hand. And the computers are only activated with diesel-powered energy during school time or when it’s necessary to go on the Internet. So the students very much live their days according to when the sun is up, going to bed at 6:30 p.m. when it gets dark. They are lulled to sleep with the soothing sounds of the river and chirping insects.

At 6 a.m., the older students go to class, while elementary school classes start at 7:30 a.m. At 1 in the afternoon, they are free to play, almost always along the shores or under a persistent rain.

Many of them are unfamiliar with Spanish, given that they are indigenous and speak regional languages. These include the Cubeo, Yurutí, Tucano, Siriano, Carapana, Desano and mestizo communities (where one parent is indigenous and the other European). They come to Bocas del Yi to learn Spanish. They stay until the ninth grade, living in one community with the teachers, who have their own dorm rooms. 

There, in that isolated world, four of the students (two from fifth grade and two from ninth) took the national tests using the center’s computers, but because the power plant kept failing, they had to finish the tests in Mitú.

Their outstanding scores won these seemingly quiet students — Yeison Javier Uribe Acuña, Nider Alexis Jiménez Montaña and Rubén Darío Lopéz Castrillón — free tablets. Their teachers — Jesús María Portura, Tarcisio Rojas and María Eugenia Ortiz — won portable computers. These rewards will all become part of the school’s computer room.

Living among different ethnic groups at the Bocas del Yi education center, the kids spend their afternoons reading children’s books like Ali Baba or The Three Little Pigs at the school library. Waiting anxiously to see their parents again, they share not only their days and nights with the teachers but also their hardships and dreams. The teachers take an ethnocultural approach, determined to preserve their native languages and ancestral traditions.

An open approach

María Esther Fonseca comes from Papurí near the Brazil border and is a teacher with two nationalities. She lived through the rigid literacy process when Dutch missionaries came to her region. They started teaching her when she was eight years old. “I would just memorize it all. Now, we allow them to speak and express themselves instead,” she says.

A member of the Tucano ethnic group, Fonseca remembers that she reached only a basic level with the missionaries. She later studied by sheer willpower at the José Eustasio Rivera de Mitú school, even though she did not speak Spanish at the time. She has now been a teacher for 27 years and teaches the fourth grade at Bocas del Yi. She says there are big changes happening that are very important for today’s indigenous youth. “There are light years of difference between what I lived and what they have now,” she says.

Standing by her side, María Eugenia Ortiz, also Tucano, has to travel three days by road to get to her hometown, Papurí. She says that teachers and students eat the root vegetable manioc, which is kind of like a potato, and yuquitaña pepper, the two trademarks of local cuisine. The traditional dish, “la quiñapira,” is served from time to time and tends to include fish, termites and hunting prey. She says that “none of the manioc is wasted” and notes that even the leaves are used. Because it is so acidic, the river gives them little fish, but the manioc makes up for everything. 

One day, while the kids have a celebration, adults from a nearby community do farm labor that’s paid in food. The Casa de la Cultura has organized activities in traditional dance, painting, sports, technology and reading. Everything will later go back to normal with the traditional calm of the jungle. The kids will go back to the kind of daily learning that seems so different to those of us outside, but is as normal to them as the sight of the river.

When my plane takes off from Mitú, I can see a green mantle laced with copper-colored, winding rivers. There, in the middle of all of that, are families who must say temporary good-byes to their children. It is clear that any achievement or award is little compared to the efforts of these parents, teachers and students.