Panama public radio offers native-language instruction to indigenous children

By Ana de Leon

Panama City, Apr 19 (EFE).- “Doggus nued we wagdaradba doddogan anmar iddosimalad,” three colorfully dressed teachers from Panama’s Guna ethnic group say in unison in wishing their preschoolers good morning at the start of a class on public radio.

It’s eight in the morning and time for their four- and five-year-old students to begin their school day. But the children are in their homes, and the teachers are seated in a State Radio and Television System (SERTV) studio in this capital and trying to get used to the microphones, cameras and spotlights around them.

“It’s the first time we’ve been on television and radio. At first we didn’t know how to time manage, but we adapted quickly, and now it seems normal to us. There are lots of Guna children who are listening to us,” Maria Elena Diaz, a 60-year-old teacher with 23 years of experience, told Efe.

Diaz and her colleagues, Ismelda Rojas and Adela Tejada, are taking part in a state-run program that provides distance-learning instruction in the Guna people’s Dulegaya language from Monday to Friday between 8 am and 9 am on Radio Nacional through both the FM and AM signals. The classes are later rebroadcast on social media.

Classes in this modality started in March, with 12 teachers providing instruction to children up to the level of third grade.

The goal of the project is to “bring education to the most remote parts of the country,” SERTV’s deputy radio director, Sara Ruiz, told EFE.

“Students in urban areas of the country have access to television and the Internet, but there are a lot of children and young people in remote areas such as the comarcas (provincial-level indigenous regions) or mountains whose only connection is via radio,” she said.

Since the initial global coronavirus-triggered lockdowns across much of the world in March 2020, Panama has had the fewest days of full-time face-to-face or blended education of any country worldwide, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

That prolonged shutdown, which is expected to end in June, has prompted sharply divergent reactions. While some groups of parents have demanded the resumption of face-to-face classes, others have expressed concern that their children will be exposed to the virus.

All classes – including math, spirituality and Spanish – are taught in the native language of the indigenous people of the Guna Yala region, an indigenous comarca in northeast Panama, and in that way the “children are simultaneously learning their language and Spanish,” Ruiz said.

Although census limitations and poor signal strength in Panama’s indigenous regions make it difficult to know the precise number of children benefiting from the project, Ruiz said the interest is strong and growing.

According to SERTV’s figures, the Facebook broadcast corresponding to the first day of school racked up about 17,288 followers, achieved 4,000 total interactions and 100 comments and was shared more than 100 times.

The numbers were significantly higher on the third day, when there were 13,000 interactions and 400 comments and the broadcast was shared more than 300 times.

Due to the success achieved thus far, the program will be extended to other indigenous languages, Ruiz said.



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