Sister Mariela describes herself as an educator because she believes that this word has a wider meaning than the word “teacher”, encompassing ideas like “developing, accompanying and participating in educational processes”. Mariela belongs to a women’s religious educational order which originated in France. She is a teacher in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, within the Ánibal Jiménez training centre, and will continue to be an important role model for the community members, particularly the children, not only for her educational skills but also for her dedication to small-scale farming and peace. Before she continues on her journey, offering educational support where she is needed in other areas of Colombia, she shares with us her vision of the alternative education invented by the Peace Community and of PBI’s holistic accompaniment with the Peace Community and others.
PBI: Mariela, according to your experience, why is self-defined education important?
Mariela: During meetings with communities and with other people who have been persecuted and threatened, ideas began to form around a different kind of education. Because state education is not sufficient and does not respond to the needs of the small-scale farming population. Public education does not touch on life, does not have anything to do with reality, don’t you think? Anyway, the defining moment, that is to say, the moment that made the community think about and propose its own kind of education, was the massacre that took place in 2005 and that transformed the Peace Community. After the 2005 massacre the government of Álvaro Uribe sent more army and police to the urban centre of San José de Apartadó and that led to the displacement of the community from San José de Apartadó so as not to have to live together with these armed actors. That is when they arrived at the La Holandita farmlands. At that time, the community had been running the San José school and when they moved they lost the school. The State did not send teachers to the new settlement and so the Peace Community became interested in alternative educational processes.
The community’s educational philosophy is founded on two theorists: the Brazilian Paulo Freire, and Célestin Freinet from France. This philosophy is based on “what you do as a small-scale farmer and why you do it”. In this case in point, the Community wish to continue to be small-scale farmers; they are not interested in becoming urbanised or in moving to the city. People have the right to be small-scale farmers in the way that they wish. Without the capitalist state coming along and saying to them: “you can be small-scale farmers, but in the way that we say, by being a ranger family for palm oil plantations, or for multinational banana companies”. No, we are small-scale farmers, in the way that we decide to be.
Anyway, based on these two educational philosophers, the Community created four learning strands. The first of these is Technology, that is to say, the development of logical thinking, including mathematics, but also philosophy. The others are Natural Sciences, Community Memory and Language. As you can see it is a wider subject range than is encompassed in traditional school subjects like mathematics, Spanish, biology, social sciences… In Colombia, social sciences are outlawed and have disappeared from the curriculum. And so the educational and training processes in the community are organised around these four strands.
PBI: You have explained a little about the Peace Communities specific educational process. What about the children in the community, what is education like for them? In what ways is it different to mainstream education? Or how can you tell a child has had this different kind of education?
The education in the Peace Community is not only taught by the three women teachers. There is no one who knows nothing and nobody who knows everything. Secondly, nobody is educated on their own, we all learn together as a community. Thirdly, as a teacher has to acquire knowledge in order to teach it, you are also learning, the person who teaches, right? And the words you use are everything. When you are at school, you do not necessarily become a guide, a companion, a provocateur. But here your words are not necessarily the truth, as the teacher you don’t own the truth. That is very interesting.
The “cause and effect” model in Western thought disappears in these processes. More than a school institution, what we have here is an open school, a school that is not a single place, it is plural. You may not come to school for days, but you are in other places, learning. And then you see that a boy or girl here can challenge you, talk to you and interrogate you. They say to you: “I don’t think so”, or, “I think this”, that is how they converse with you. And that is not only the result of the teaching dynamics but also of the community environment. Because it educates the community, the processes are developed by the community itself.
I have been part of the Peace Community; I am a member of it. Over the years I have participated in community life and work, unlike international accompaniers, who due to their principle of non-interference cannot actively participate in the Community. If I do not participate in community processes, how will I contribute educationally? You have to participate, you have to be there, you have to get to know things, and you have to learn. And if you do the opposite, you are wrong. Teachers in other places cannot be wrong; if they are wrong they remove this from their work. That’s terrible! In these processes it’s not like that. It is not about being irresponsible, it is about being humble. In mainstream school everyone is quiet because it is the person that knows who speaks. But you should not learn in silence! You have to discuss things, and the most important aspect is people. It is very interesting, for example, that in traditional schools there is mathematics, on the one hand, science on the other, social and ethical studies on the other. But life is not like that, it is not led according to those divisions. For example, you plan to climb to La Unión at a certain time (a village in San José de Apartadó, two hours away from the main Peace Community settlement). Is it okay to go at that time? You have energy, you have water, so how are you going to do it? How much time are you going to spend? In all this you are applying comprehensive, social knowledge.
PBI: How would you summarise in one sentence, what children learn differently here compared to in public education?
Mariela: They have an identity, they are small-scale farmers, they know who they are and that they are in a process of struggle for land and life. And everything they know, they do or they can do revolves around that identity and being part of a small-scale farming community, or of the rural world. Because in the city we are uprooted. And being uprooted is to be “without roots”. Here there are roots. And they are worth it.
PBI: One final question. In general what do you think of the international accompaniment in the Peace Community?
Mariela: What do I think of it? Let’s see, the international community…the capitalist system wants to break us, not let us feel that we are all the same, the same human beings. They want to take parts of our humanity away from us, such as solidaritywhich is the cornerstone on which international accompaniment is built. They want to take our hope away from us, for the community to be dissolved, but we are not going anywhere. And so I say that accompaniment is mutual. You come to accompany the Peace Community, you offer what you do, and at the same time the Community feeds you, it justifies you. Without the Community, you are not…you are not an accompanier. Like in my case, there is no teacher unless there are people who want to learn from the teacher, and so, if there are no processes to accompany, you are not justified either.
And so this is a joint process in which the community, in this case the Peace Community, has on many occasions made PBI become more courageous. (…) And I also believe that, just as accompaniment offers protection, it is also helpful for people from places where they feel as though their lives are already sorted out. (…) I also believe that it feeds you and offers you other visions and it also gives you reasons for living, to build societies there.
One example is the community’s solidarity network. Its fabric may seem fragile, but in reality it is strong because it has been built and woven, and is not finished. In the West they work to finish things, the unfinished is imperfect. But what does imperfect mean? Is the unfinished imperfect? For goodness sake…these Western ways of thinking are at times meaningless here.
Notas de pie
 PBI Colombia. 2005: The massacre that changed the Peace Community forever. 13 December 2019