Christmas Appeal: How the poor are helped to help themselves

Local teachers spearhead charity's drive to resurrect secrets of Inca success, Daniel Howden reports
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Indy Politics

For Felicitas Quispe Pucho the idea that there are not enough hours in the day is not a cliché. A Quechua Indian living high in the Peruvian Andes, she wakes at 4.30am. Careful not to wake her husband or her children, she sets about making enough food for the family of four to get through the day. For most of the rest of the day she won't be around.

Felicitas is a woman in demand. Her skills in animal husbandry, immunisation, construction and, latterly, accounting, take her out on the road almost constantly.

Life in Quechua farming communities around Sicuani is not easy. Although it's only a three-hour drive from the relative affluence of the city of Cusco - the launch pad for treks to the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu - poverty is endemic in Sicuani. Nearly three-quarters of Peruvians live in poverty and, as elsewhere in Latin America, the indigenous people suffer disproportionately. It's against this backdrop that Felicitas has set to work.

The Incas, whose empire had its cradle in these mountains, had a word for someone like her: kamayoq. Despite having no formal system of reading or writing, the Incas mastered mathematics and engineering. Using a system of coloured knotted strings - an equivalent of the abacus - they developed an advanced form of statistics. Those who could decipher the strings were known as kamayoqs.

"The Incas were all-knowing even though they didn't use books or pens," says Felicitas. "We're trying to recapture some of the wisdom of the Incas."

The idea of reviving the ancient role was that of the UK-based aid agency Practical Action - one of the three charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. It has funded individuals such as Felicitas, known in their own community as bright and resourceful, to attend a pioneer kamayoq school in Sicuani. Felicitas graduated recently, with more than 160 others.

The courses at the modern kamayoq school, a humble, concrete hall with a wooden-beamed roof, cover a range of subjects that reflect the hardships of the Andes: animal husbandry and the treating of disease, immunisation, and techniques to improve animal feed and irrigation.

This grounded approach is typical of the initiative taken by Practical Action, a charity that specialises in micro-projects to provide real solutions. With outside aid agency staff facing a language barrier in their dealings with the Quechua, the importance of training a local force of advisers who look, think and talk like the people they are trying to help, is vital.

For farming communities in high and remote areas, getting expert help can be next to impossible - so giving local people the skills to deal with disease and other problems is the only way for people to flourish. The knock-on effect has been to rekindle pride in indigenous ancestry. "We need book-learning," says Felicitas. "We had been losing our culture and this is a way to regain it."

For her friend and fellow graduate Alfredo Montezinos, his kamayoq status is a badge of pride. " The Spanish came and fought off the Incas and some of their knowledge was lost," he says. "They imposed their technologies and methods on us and we lost touch with our real ancestors."

One graduate class alone was given the task of treating and immunising a herd of 48,000 alpaca. This daunting piece of coursework took two-and-a-half months to complete.

Many of the kamayoq have returned to the classroom as teachers in the year-long course. Practical Action offers UK donors the chance to sponsor the training of an individual kamayoq. With climate change altering the pattern of life in the high Andes and modern agricultural methods bringing their mixed blessing of higher yields and environmental pollution, a blend of ancient and modern approaches is vital to the survival of the Quechua.

Alfredo says: "We're not using chemicals any more, we're trying to use natural materials. We need to get back to a better balance between nature and men."

Meanwhile, with her ravenous appetite for learning, Felicitas is helping her community and having an impact on the male-dominated society. "The local elders asked my advice, because they know that I know things," she said.

"They see I can do anything that a man can do."

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