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What It Means to Reclaim Indigenous Knowledge in a University Setting in Bolivia

Alumnos de la Universidad Indígena Boliviana Aymara Tupak Katari. Foto usada con autorización.

Students of the Aymara Indigenous University of Bolivia “Tupak Katari”. Photography used with permission.

This article has been adapted from its original version published on the La Pública website. It is reproduced here as part of a content sharing agreement. The Aymara version can be read here.

In classrooms, they speak about decolonization and respect for Mother Earth. They study food engineering, veterinary medicine, agronomy or textile engineering, while recovering ancient technology and innovating with new natural products. They go on to support the creation of community businesses.

Welcome to the Aymara Indigenous University of Bolivia “Túpac Katari”, also known as Unibol, based in the town of Warisata near La Paz, which brings together indigenous students from Bolivia with the aim of combining formal academic education with traditional knowledge of the indigenous communities.

In the following testimonies, some Indigenous University students share their impressions, experiences, and what it has meant for their personal growth to belong to this educational project. For many of them, studying at the Unibol means recovering ancestral knowledge, enriching a decolonial thinking and developing an inclusive and intercultural mode of knowledge production.

An inclusive education for all

Noemí Campos Yarari, a textile engineering student, says about the university:

Soy de la provincia paceña Muñecas, de la segunda sección Ayata, comunidad Huancarani […] Considero muy buena [la universidad] porque acoge a estudiantes que en su mayoría provienen de las provincias, del campo, de hogares con pocos recursos.

I am from the Muñecas province of La Paz, in the second section Ayata, of the Huancarani community […] I think this is a very good [university] that welcomes students who mostly come from the provinces, the countryside, and the households with few resources.

José Luis Atanacio Maraza, Guido Mendoza Quispe, Maria Apaza Condori and Teodora Yanaguaya Pillco are four Food Engineering students. They talk about the importance of their faculty and review its history:

La Universidad Indígena Boliviana Aymara Tupak Katari existe gracias a la lucha de nuestros abuelos en muchos sentidos, por ejemplo en la siembra de alimentos. Ahora, desde la carrera de Ingeniería de alimentos (las otras tres son Veterinaria, Agronomía e Ingeniería textil), que ya tiene seis años, nos toca recuperar la tecnología ancestral, dar valor agregado a la materia prima e innovar con nuevos productos naturales, así como apoyar en la creación de empresas comunitarias en nuestras comunidades. Todo para el vivir bien de los bolivianos.

La Unibol fue fundada el 2 de agosto de 2008 (DS Nº 29664) en honor de nuestro líder indígena Julián Apaza Nina, alias Tupak Katari. Con su nacimiento se ha salido al paso de la discriminación que había en el país para el ingreso a las universidades.

The Aymara Indigenous University of Bolivia “Tupac Katari” exists thanks to the struggle of our ancestors in many domains, for example in food cultivation. In the food engineering field of study (the other three fields of the university are veterinary medicine, agronomy and textile engineering), which is already six years old, we have to recover the ancient technology, add value to the raw material and innovate with new natural products, and support the creation of community businesses in our communities. Everything for the well-being of the Bolivians.

The Unibol was founded on August 2, 2008 (DS No. 29664) in honor of our indigenous leader Julian Apaza Nina, aka Tupac Katari. Its founding represented a move against the discrimination found in the admission to the universities throughout the country.

Ruben Castillo Quispe, an agronomy student, talks about how he came to Unibol:

Nací en la comunidad de Ispaya Tocoli, en el municipio Ancoraimes de la provincia Omasuyos (La Paz), que se encuentra a orillas del lago Titicaca.

Estudié en la escuelita de la comunidad y tuve que enfrentar la dura caminata diaria de seis horas (ida y vuelta). Era el colegio más cercano a mi comunidad, así que no tuve otra alternativa.

Con todo y dificultades pude terminar el colegio y luego fui a prestar mi servicio militar. Al retornar a mi casa luego de un año, tenía muchas ganas de seguir estudiando. Quería ir a la universidad y sobre todo me gustaba el estudio de lenguas.

Ahora estoy estudiando en la Unibol, donde no hay la carrera de Lingüística; pero avanzo […] y ya estoy en sexto semestre.

I was born in the community of Ispaya Tocoli in the Ancoraimes municipality of the province Omasuyos (La Paz), located on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

I studied at the small community school and daily I had to face the harsh six-hour walk (round trip). It was the closest college to my community, so I had no choice.

Despite all these difficulties, I finished school and then I went to complete my military service. Upon returning home after a year, I really wanted to continue studying. I wanted to go to college and I especially liked the study of languages.

Now I am studying at Unibol, [and despite the fact they don't have] a linguistics faculty […] I make progress […] and I am already in the sixth semester.

Meanwhile, Claudia Colque Aquino, a food engineering student, explains how the studies at Unibol take place:

En la Universidad Túpac Katari se inculcan conocimientos descolonizadores a los estudiantes de las cuatro carreras. Nos enseñan lo que es el trabajo comunitario, el que se practica en las clases para que nosotros que provenimos de grupos con una identidad cultural, un origen aymara, veamos que las prácticas de nuestra formación no siempre requieren de tecnología moderna, también necesitan de instrumentos ancestrales. Al elaborar las tesinas y emprendimientos productivos, se busca y se utiliza alguna técnica ancestral que se podría aplicar a la investigación universitaria. La defensa se hace asimismo con una vestimenta originaria y a los tribunales se les ofrece la hoja de coca.

A los representantes estudiantiles les llamamos irpiris y sullka irpiri y entre nosotros nos llamamos hermanos, tal cual hacemos con los docentes, sean licenciados o ingenieros.

La forma de vestir en la Unibol es también variada y hay quienes portan la ropa que se usa en sus comunidades y provincias. Por todo esto, diría yo, ésta es una universidad distinta de las otras en el país.

At the Tupac Katari University decolonizing knowledge is taught to students in the four faculties. We are taught about community work, which is practiced in classes for those who come from groups with a cultural identity, of Aymara origin, and we see that the methods of our training do not always require modern technology, they also need ancestral tools. In developing the thesis and productive enterprises, an ancient technique is sought and used that could be applied to university research. In courts the defense is also made wearing traditional dress and offering coca leaf.

The student representatives are called ‘irpiris’ and ‘sullka irpiri’ and among us we call them brothers, and the same we call our teachers, graduates or engineers.

The dress style at the Unibol is also varied and there are those who are dressed in the clothing specific to their communities and provinces. This is why, I would say, this is a university different from the others in the country.

The challenges

According to many inside the institution, the project is progressing slowly and needs time and work to expand and grow. However, its students, which are the main energy that sustains the university, consider that there are many possibilities for improvement ahead. In a previous piece, Rising Voices presented other students of the university and their stories.

There have been many challenges for Unibol. The academic traditions, the material problems and the impact of the Indigenous University on its environment have been issues encountered by its students. Felix, a student in the Faculty of Agronomy, highlights the role of professors in the clashes of different university cultures. Through these differences it becomes clear how models promoted by institutions such as the Indigenous University may collide with academic traditions inherited from Europe:

Algunos estudiantes de la carrera de Agronomía de la Unibol aymara tuvieron problemas el anterior semestre con algunos docentes de tiempo completo. [Los profesores] se habían parcializado con unos alumnos que trajeron costumbres de otras universidades [y que menospreciaban] las costumbres del pueblo aymara que son parte de los principios educativos de esta [Universidad]. Gracias a la inteligencia de la Dirección de la carrera se solucionaron los malos entendidos y se pudo seguir.

In the previous semester some agronomy students of the Aymara Unibol had problems with some full-time teachers. [The teachers] were biased towards students who brought the customs of other universities [and disregarded] the traditions of the Aymara people which are part of the educational principles of this [University]. Thanks to the intelligence of the faculty board, the misunderstandings were settled and it was possible to continue.

Gabriel Serrano López, also an agronomy student, talks about the importance of taking care of the Earth, the Pachamama:

Los desechos de plástico y otros derivados del petróleo abundan en los predios de la Unibol. Si bien en las aulas se habla de descolonizar y de respetar a la madre tierra, la Pachamama, los llamados a poner en práctica esos principios son los que contaminan el entorno con productos sintéticos. La basura de este tipo se acumula porque los estudiantes, administrativos y docentes compran refrescos, alimentos y otros productos en envases que se tiran por ahí, que llegan al río y luego llegan al lago Titicaca, agravando su grave contaminación. Ocurre que estamos en la comunidad lacustre de Cuyahuani, municipio Huarina de provincia paceña de Omasuyos.

Plastic waste and other petroleum products are everywhere on the Unibol campus. While speaking in classrooms about decolonization and respect for the Mother Earth, the Pachamama, those responsible to put into practice these principles are also those who pollute the environment with synthetic products. Such trash accumulates because the students, the administrators and the teachers buy soft drinks, food and other products in containers that are thrown out there, they reach the river and then Lake Titicaca, making the pollution worse. We are located in the lakeside community of Cuyahuani, in the Huarina municipality of the Omasuyos province in La Paz.

In a similar way, Emilio Mamani Chino and Ivan Ali, agronomy students, refer to the water shortage and how it affects them:

En la Unibol TK hay problemas con los servicios básicos, especialmente con el agua, que es escasa y a veces se seca del todo. Por eso mismo, tampoco hay duchas y el aseo personal se hace difícil. Así es desde el inicio de las actividades académicas de esta universidad. Creo que es importante que los estudiantes presenten su reclamo y que las autoridades implementen las soluciones.

In the Tupac Katari Unibol there are problems with the basic services, especially water, which is scarce and sometimes the supply dries up completely. For this reason, there are no showers and personal hygiene becomes difficult to maintain. This situation starts at the beginning of the academic activities of the university. I think it is important that students submit their complains and that the authorities implement solutions.

Although the limitations make it difficult, the project is still going on. Similarly, students at the Unibol continue to establish and help the development of an institution based on a philosophy of great singularity. For many of them, these limitations are temporary and will come to an end. Ultimately, as in many other universities that develop and have challenges, what works well will continue and what does not function will change.

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