A World Without Evil
19 Jul, 2017 | Julie Gaynes
Jesus welcomes readers with open arms on the covers of books teaching Valores in Bolivia. But in practice he is just a familiar face, breathing a message of unity without diminishing other truths. Within the inner layers of Bolivian society, amidst Bolivia's numerous ethnic traditions, lives a depth of faith too vast to capture—or to squelch—with formal education.
Courses on values, spirituality and religion exist in public schools here, even after Bolivia's constitutional declaration in 2009 as a secular state. According to Pedro Apala Flores, Director General of the Plurinational Institute of Languages and Cultures in Santa Cruz, teachings on values and religion are ‘not official, but are part of the country's curriculum in order to create a world without evil.’
In Bolivia, religious education and other sources of spiritual truth are not single-sourced from ‘on high’. Each ethnic group, through their unique worldviews, perceives knowledge in different spheres—some in schools, some in homes, some in faces of nature outsiders might not perceive. This renders it difficult for one ‘voice of truth’ to obscure another.
The traditions of Bolivia's ethnic majorities—Quechua, Aymara and Guarani, for example—hold that truth circulates in three dimensions: externally, internally and alongside. While ordinary Bolivians today don’t parse out these realms as their ancestors did, most still maintain this multitiered perception of reality, allowing for a more inclusive approach to education.
The World Above: Public School & the Church
Before the Spaniards arrived, the ‘world above’ for many Bolivians encompassed the gods of the sun, moon, stars and thunder. Since the reign of the missionaries, the Christian Church has commandeered this realm. Over 75% of Bolivians today identify as Catholic. Until 2009, Roman Catholicism was acknowledged as the sole religion in Bolivia. Today, Catholicism remains as only one spiritual influence in a multidimensional system of belief.
In the years preceding President Evo Morales, the country’s first modern indigenous head of state, Catholic education was more invasive, and religious education was forceful in challenging local views.
‘When I was a student,’ says Epifania Mamani, teacher of Valores at the Unidad Educativa Piloto Adhemar Gehain in La Paz, ‘I was forced to embrace the catechism.’ Now, however, pragmatism is emphasised over that more dogmatic approach.
During her class, Mamani encourages her 36 young students to evaluate the meaning of ‘kindness’. ‘How do you know that my heart is kind?’ she asks them. At the end of class, the students rush from their desks to hug her.
‘Sometimes I work with families who are struggling,’ Mamani says. ‘The children come from different types of homes, all with unique challenges. As a teacher of Valores, I am also a psychologist. Other times a social worker. When the mothers are young, I guide as an older sister.’
Teachings on values range beyond kindness and towards human development. As students grow older, topics become increasingly complex. The content of the curriculum on values, spirituality and religion incorporates everything from nutrition, eating disorders, world religions, multiple intelligences, sexual education, a woman's right to choose, community service and earth appreciation.
The Internal World: Inner Earth, Inner Family
‘There are 500 entrances to the earth's interior, Ukhu Pacha, and that's just in this mountain alone,’ says Soledad, who has worked in Potosi's mining community for 22 years. She places one hand on a centuries-old wooden statue of El Tío, the lord of the underworld. Every morning El Tío’s fingers accept cigarettes, given by miners for his protection. On Fridays his head, arms and penis are splashed with local liquor in gratitude for another week without catastrophe.
‘All the people who come down here are taught to worship El Tío,’ says Soledad. ‘Young, old, women, atheists, Catholics. It's different from how it is out there, with Jesus and Pachamama. Inside the mountain El Tío is king, and we must respect him.’
The family too, can be interpreted as a form of Ukhu Pacha. Religious upbringings inside the home are informal, and often involve some form of Christian worship. They also include indigenous ceremonies: ch’allas in honor of Mother Earth and the burning of palo santo for good luck. A quarter of families in La Paz believe in the power of witchcraft, even if they don't practice it.
Household beliefs are acknowledged and respected among all circles of Bolivian society. These inner teachings are just as strong, if not stronger, than the voices from ‘outside’.
The World Alongside Us: Pachamama and Community
Pachamama, or Mother Earth, controls the middle realm. Even non-religious Bolivians tip glasses to her on important occasions, and in the countryside she receives the first plate of sustenance after a harvest.
Tradition tells us one should thank Pachamama for everything in our plane of existence. Whether one believes in God or an energy, ritual thanks to the earth is necessary appreciation for everyday blessings. Without Pachamama, crops die and disaster falls.
Some Christian authorities still condemn rituals offerings to Pachamama as a form of paganism. But within the curriculum on values, spirituality and religion, she is accepted as inspiration for humility and consciousness of nature.
Fé y Alegría, a popular division of Catholic schools in Bolivia, accepts homage to Pachamama under the understanding that children must learn to accept responsibility towards their God-given cosmos. More importantly, young Bolivians must learn to celebrate differences among their fellow human beings (among Pachamama’s creations) to heal their discrimination-torn country, even if this means lending both ears to another's belief.
‘Our primary goal is justice, social responsibility and equality, not the transmission of occidental values,’ says Rosemarie Sauma Manoz, Fé y Alegría’s national education coordinator.
Teachings of the middle realm, whether they are from Pachamama’s fruits or from formal teachings on community justice, insist that all living things demand respect on a single plane of consciousness, even in the hustle of global meritocracy.
So why still teach religious education in Bolivian schools? The true fear is not that of one faith imposing itself on another. It's the fear of losing communal solidarity, which Bolivia desperately needs in order to mobilise itself for the future. One of the best ways to bolster community is by fostering the spirit.