Territorio Indígena | Living with the Indigenous Cabécar tribe

Two local indigenous girls proudly hold up a member of the families 6 month old baby

Costa Rica has made great advances in recent years to protect their original culture and history; throughout the 1980’s and 90’s the Costa Rican government declared 8 territories protected land. These areas make up 25% of Costa Ricas land surface and are home to 8 indigenous tribes of Costa Rica who have survived in remote mountainous areas of the country since the Spanish conquest and colonisation over 500 years ago.

A straw and wooden construct, functioning as a college classroom with an indigenous Costa Rican man outside.
Don Juanorio* showing me the existing college classrooms. The plastic hanging onto the straw roof barley acts to prevent the flooding during the intense tormentas.

Through work with a non-profit organisation, I received the privilege of living with the Cabécares, one of two indigenous communities situated in the Alto Chirripó Cabécar indigenous territory.

During an initial visit to the community, the spiritual leader of Sharabata kindly provided lodging for myself and two colleagues. Don Juanorio* lives with his wife Camila, 4 daughters, 1 son and 2 grandsons, or nietos as they are fondly called in Spanish. I couldn’t help but admire the strong family bond that was clearly evident upon entering their home. We spent time getting to know the local customs and were introduced to the other community leaders, Don Ricardo* and Don Gonzalo.

A wooden two story outhouse in the Costa Rican jungle
Don Juanorio’s* two story wooden outhouse overlooking the mountains.

Dia de los padres fell during our trip, celebrations commenced at 7 in the wooden church where 60 members of the community congregated.  Special blessings were given to the fathers of the community, I felt extremely privileged to witness and share such an ethereal evening.

In the foreqround their is a hut made from wood and straw with a black piece of plastic on the roof to stop the rain getting in, there is lush greenery around. In the background there is a vibrant orange and red sunset with low clouds between the mountains.
A picturesque sunset over the Talamanca mountains

After spending a few days at the Käpäcläjui Indigenous Training Center, in Grano de Oro, it was time to return to the community. This time the leadership team was accompanied by 16 volunteers and the equipment necessary to build a college.

In the foreground there are hundreds of multi coloured planks of wood stood up and you can see three people walking past to the right of the image. In the background low clouds roll over the lush green mountains.
Three volunteers walking onto the construction site past the vast quantities of maderas carried by the local women up the mountain

Over a period of 19 days the Maestro de Obras taught us how to measure and dig foundations, level the floor using string, a tube and water and build a watertight construction which we would then live in.

A raleigh volunteer and one of the leaders of the construction project measuring the distance between two beams for the construction of classroom walls.
A Nicaraguan Raleigh volunteer and local head of construction working on the classroom walls.

During the project, I was able to spend a significant amount of time talking to members of the local Cabécar community about what the college would mean to them.

The teachers and parents association in the Cabécar community had already constructed a wooden classroom with mud floors and tin roofs for students in 7th – 10th grade. The teachers often commute from nearby towns, walking up to 6 hours every Monday to deliver lessons. During the week they sleep in a small classroom at the primary school.

There is a wooden outdoor classroom with mountains in the background and a beautiful rainbow on the right side of the sky.
The morning following a storm from the beautifully designed Sharabata primary school

The college services 60 people from local villages, some living up to 10 kilometres away. The students leave their house at 3am in the morning to traverse the mountain range and arrive at class by 7am. Prior to the construction of this college, students would barely attend class, the closest high school being located a 6 hour walk away in Chirripó.

Melisa*, a local teenager explained how classes are difficult because the rain leaks through the roof and the sound of the rain is so loud it is impossible to hear the teachers.

Two local indigenous girls proudly hold up a member of the families 6 month old baby
Melisa proudly introduces us to her 6 month old son alongside her sister.

National Standards of Education

Education in Costa Rica is free for the entire population. This includes university tuition and evening education classes for adults who would like to achieve their high school diplomas or degrees. Preschool and general basic education is mandatory yet secondary education coverage is only around 70% nationally. The government has also recognised the importance of safeguarding Costa Rica’s indigenous heritage and many classes in indigenous territories are conducted in local languages, such a Cabécar as well as the national language of Spanish.

A Nicaraguan volunteer wearing a green Raleigh internation tshirt can be seen digging a hole with a shovel for the foundations of a college.
A Nicaraguan Raleigh volunteer digging the college foundations

There is still much room for improvement in the indigenous regions. The average number of years of schooling is very low amongst indigenous groups, standing at only 3.4 years compared to a much higher national average.

By improving access to facilities, we hope the education in the indigenous territories will eventually match the high standards of the rest of the country.

A large wooden structure raised from the ground can be seen in amongst lush green forest
The finished college building, ready for students to move in the following day

*All names in this post have been changed to maintain anonymity.

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Costa Rica has made great advances in recent years to protect their original culture and history; throughout the 1980’s and 90’s the Costa Rican...
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