1325 PeaceWomen
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"My fight is for the recognition, the respect and the recovery of the language and the culture of the indigenous communities of Latin America"

A professor of literature, she belonged to the non-Arabic minority of Algeria due to her Moroccan mother and her Italian father. After the death of her father in the Algerian war for independence, she went to Paris where she became a pied noir (black foot), a derogatory name given to Algerians who had to abandon their country. Later, in Latin America, she was captured by the culture, language and customs of the indigenous populations, and without support from any organization, she decided to dedicate her life to them. Her work has obtained widespread recognition. She has advised the Venezuelan Congress in the writing of laws in favor of indigenous peoples.

“Without a doubt, to have witnessed at such a young age the violence and injustice of a war that forces people into exile has created in me a tortured conscience,” Marie-Claude remembers with some bitterness. “Because of this, I took refuge in my studies, and by chance I found myself in the ‘70’s in Latin America. There, I stumbled upon an unknown reality: that of the ethnic minorities that, in those times, were considered second rate citizens and were despised by their own local authorities.”

“I became close with these communities given my interest in learning something distinct, something that no university could offer me, although I do confess that my first objectives came from my academic nature, such as to write books and articles about the language and culture of these populations. But my closeness to the indigenous world was a personal decision. It didn’t come by means of the support of any organization or team of investigation,” explains Marie-Claude with enthusiasm.

It was a slow process because these indigenous populations were almost completely monolingual. Thus, Marie-Claude had to learn their languages and also teach them some Spanish to achieve any basic dialogue between them.

As she explains, “In Venezuela, there was never an aggressive war front like there was in Algeria. The war in Venezuela was more evasive, more silent, and it showed me another type of injustice. The weapons used were miscommunication, ignorance, indifference, and abuse that generated indifference between the indigenous and Latin populations, especially with some Latifundistas of the area and with the exploitation of the miners.”

She began to seriously question the purpose of her academic investigations and the possible role that she could play in this situation. Her work was not in a strict sense “peace work,” but was more for the recognition, respect and recovery of the language and culture of these indigenous communities; that is, their tales, their myths, their rituals, their socio-economic organization, and their craft industry, among other things. “For me, my work was to promote a better understanding and a mutual recognition between the two sides,” Marie-Claude firmly assures.

Her intention was and continues to be to create adequate teaching material to promote a better education in the indigenous languages and in Spanish. She has dedicated herself to manifesting the value and importance of the indigenous culture to generate a better respect for the indigenous peoples. She acknowledges that her first literacy project was made possible thanks to the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation for Development (AECID), and the Spanish Embassy in Caracas. However, she laments that “the intercultural bilingual program didn’t last due to a lack of money and interest from the Venezuelan authorities of that time.”

This first step, that was intended to encourage the training of bilingual teachers and the elaboration of adequate teaching material, did not have the success that she had imagined. She realized that she needed a “stronger institutional support system.” Despite all of the difficulties that she faced, in 1994 she published the Illustrated Bilingual Dictionary Panare (e’ ñepa)-Spanish.

After ten years, a new indigenous political group came into existence in Venezuela. The “Leadership of Indigenous Education” was created that requested not only bilingual books for schools, but also called for bilingual training for teachers. Now, the Leadership is working to create a television series to bring to light the values of these minority cultures.

Marie-Claude’s work was not limited only to the cultural dimension of the issue, as she also participated in the creation of various laws presented to Commission of Indigenous Peoples of the Congress of the Republic of Venezuela that were passed in the last few years: The Law of Indigenous Education, the Law of Indigenous Languages and the Law of Indigenous Heritage.

“When I first started working with the indigenous people, I felt like I was talking into a desert,” Marie-Claude comments with a smile. “They themselves didn’t understand why I wanted so badly to learn their language, their myths and their sewing techniques. The Latin people of the area also used to ask me why I wanted to learn about these ‘primitive people’. But today, it is the indigenous people who ask me to work for them.  And now I know that my work was not done in vain.”

“The day that I arrived in Caicara del Orinco with a stack of the first copies of the First Book of Literacy in the e’ ñepa language, some of the townspeople looked at it with interest, and the indigenous people wanted to look at it, too. This wouldn’t have been possible a few years earlier,” reflects Marie-Claude with satisfaction.

In the beginning of the nineties, the Institue of Human Ethnology of Andechs in Germany asked Marie-Claude to participate in a project about the yanomami of the Alto Cinco region. As she remembers, “This was another adventure that reinforced my desire to work for these threatened populations.”

“My work with the yanomami has been more intense and more coherent, but different than the work I did with the e’ ñepa. I created a reference manual about the language and culture of the yanomami with many illustrations of their fauna, flowers and daily activities and rituals. Its publication was financed in part by UNESCO,” she comments excitedly.

“As of right now, my main dream is to prepare a health manual for the yanomami and the doctors that work in the area to alleviate the catastrophic sanitary situation. Sicknesses are often the cause of conflicts between the yanomami people, given that, according to their beliefs, sicknesses are given by evil spirits that populate the jungle or by enemy Shamans of other villages,” she explains with a sense of urgency. This creates tension. On top of this, over the last two decades, the health situation has deteriorated due to the emergence of new diseases. “The yanomami are for the most part a monolingual people, and their relations with the doctors of the area are often difficult because they don’t share a language or the same concept of the body or sickness.”

Marie-Claude’s favorite phrase is from Juan-Ramon Jimenez. It goes, “If you learn a language, you acquire a new soul.”