(from: Waldorf Education Worldwide, pp. 170-173, Note the Copyright!)
“Do people in Norway know about Colombia?” The young lad had finally found the word “know” in his dictionary. I saw his smiling sixteen-year-old face with its expression of innocent curiosity and couldn’t think what to say in reply. I could not bring myself to explain that we knew it as the land of cocaine cartels, that we regarded it as a dangerous country and therefore not many of us came to visit it. Trying not to let these thoughts show in my expression I answered cautiously: “Yes.” He nodded, still smiling, and added, “Because there are mucho killers here?”
So I had to admit that this was unfortunately the case. “Yes, they murder for money, and also for clothes,” he said, rubbing thumb and forefinger together and plucking at his T-shirt to underline what he was saying while his mouth and eyes still smiled. Feeling despair rising up in me I merely nodded. He pointed to his eyes as if to say “I’ve seen it myself”, and to the road: “over there”. I was only a few steps from Cartucho, the most dangerous district of Bogotá, the district with the highest crime figures, which is saying something when you realize that Colombia is one of the most violent countries in the world. Even the Colombian police refuse to patrol Cartucho, but I only learned all this later. For the moment all I saw was this youngster with his open expression and effort to tell me what he had experienced.
Colombia has almost no tourists, but it has 25 to 30,000 murders a year and a guerilla force that rules over large tracts of the country, so not many travellers are keen to visit this beautiful land with its high mountains, its huge expanses of unexplored jungle, its museum full of artefacts made out of gold and its stories about that legendary kingdom, El Dorado. Ten percent of all the world’s murders take place in Colombia. Kidnappings are everyday occurrences. Life in the villages has become so dangerous owing to haphazard guerilla actions that many people are migrating to the towns causing the urban population to grow at an explosive rate. Fifty years ago Bogotá had 300,000 inhabitants, now there are 8 to 10 million, though no one knows the true figure. And about one half of all these human beings is inconceivably poor, as I saw with my own eyes while driving around the poverty-stricken southern districts for four hours without even covering every corner (1).
Beginnings of Waldorf Education at Cali
Waldorf Education was started in Colombia by philanthropic entrepreneurs who wanted to work for permanent improvements in their country. One such entrepreneur who had worked his way up from the bottom was Luis Horacio Gomez Escobar. In joining forces with the Spanish psychologist and university professor Andres Sevilla, who had met with Waldorf Education in Europe, he made it possible for the first school to be founded.
The Luis Horacio Gomez Foundation was one of the first charitable organizations to be set up in Colombia. Its aim was to provide grants that would enable Colombian students to study abroad. When this became impossible owing to the student unrest of the 1970s Luis Horacio Gomez and his wife Olga Arango de Gomez decided to donate to the city of Cali an education centre that would transform traditional education methods. Towards the end of his life, teachers at the Waldorf School asked Luis Horacio Gomez why he had promoted the Waldorf impulse at that time. He replied: “Because I cannot bear it when a child is maltreated.”
Translations by Juan Berlin (1913-1987), who had at the time been the only one to translate study material into Spanish, provided the only written material for the teacher training courses. Juan Berlin in Mexico formed the bridge across which Waldorf teachers from Europe and the USA could participate in building up the Waldorf School in Cali. Further support came from the university of the Franciscan community at the centre of the town from which the founding teachers also stemmed.
In 1977 the first Waldorf Kindergarten in Cali opened with two groups of children in a traditional part of the city. The school opened in 1979 and had to move several times. Then, in 1986, the Luis Horacio Gomez Foundation gave it a piece of land with buildings in a rural setting outside the city close to some of the best-known schools in the country. There it has resided ever since, with all the buildings it needs.
Benedikta zur Nieden (1910-1998) was another individual who put her energies behind Waldorf Education in Colombia. Having grown up in Germany, she married a businessman from Antioca: Diego Echev Arria Misas had supported art and culture before being kidnapped and killed. Benedikta zur Nieden acted as adviser to the Cali Waldorf School and founded Colombia’s second one in Medellin in February 1985. Initially her Ayuda Foundation financed the fees. Later a support association was founded through which the parents themselves came up with the money for fees. In addition to the school, the Centro Humanistico Micael, a Waldorf teacher training seminar, was set up.
At Guarne, a small town about 60 km from Medellin, Senior Octavio Mejia, a pensioned teacher, used to instruct 4 to 5 children each day. He wanted to include Rudolf Steiner’s educational principles in his work. Parents around the town heard about this, and soon there was no more room even on the floor of his living room for all the children who wanted to come to him. After much persuasion the town agreed to permit a finca at Guarne to be used which would have room for the first four classes. Work began there in February 1999 with a kindergarten and a pre-school group.
During the 23 years of Waldorf Education in Colombia the country has experienced increasingly difficultpolitical and socio-economic conditions. In the 1970s and 80s the social balance was more or less even, but between the early 1990s and the beginning of the new century polarization increased steadily, and this has led to social violence and political decline.
Most Waldorf parents belong to the middle classes and are suffering greatly under the economic pressure of this socio-political crisis. Nevertheless, everything possible is being done to ensure that the children of parents who have become unemployed can continue to attend the school. Since 1998 the Cali Waldorf School has had a parents’ association that has been able to prevent the departure of a large number of children by means of a solidarity fund. This is just one example of the way Colombia’s civil society works to provide mutual support. Similar support is also given to people driven from their homes by violence, to the homeless and those suffering from AIDS and terminal cancer, to widows, orphans and the disabled.
During their last visit to the Waldorf School, the Education Ministry’s school inspectors stated that experiences gathered in Waldorf Education should be made more widely available to people in Cali than had hitherto been the case. This was their way of expressing their admiration for the educational achievements of Cali’s Waldorf School.
Eight classes have meanwhile departed after passing their school-leaving examinations at the Cali school, so the voices of former pupils are also worth listening to. For example: “Perseverance is what I developed at the Waldorf School, but perhaps I lack academic knowledge. However, I can go to any bookshop for books that can give me that, but the human education I received at the school cannot be derived from books...” Interestingly, parents give similar answers when asked why they sent their child to the Waldorf School.
Social work in Bogotá
The project Extra Muros has existed in Bogotá since the early 1990s. Social workers work with a few of the many thousands of street children, all under the age of 10, trying to gain their confidence and open up future prospects for them. The feelings these children have about life can be described as follows: Born into utter poverty as though into nothingness. Growing up in surroundings of ever-present violence: bloody assault on soul and body leading to estrangement from oneself and from other people, no self-confidence, no self-awareness, no awareness of others. Thrown out aged about 3, life in a “gallada” (child gang), becoming brutalized through absolute power in the hands of those who are strongest. Living by theft, secrecy and murder surrounded by zero interest in anything, ignorance and lethargy. Living in the here and now: I don’t know what tomorrow will bring and anyway I might not be here any more (2).
Since 1997 Extra Muros has been caring for a resettlement project which began when the city authorities wanted to pull down a makeshift settlement at the side of a railway embankment. After long negotiations with social workers from Extra Muros the authorities agreed to create a settlement for the families who would lose the roof over their heads on account of the planned redevelopment.
Since then every family in this settlement has its own simple living quarters. Job-creation measures ensure that rent is paid, and several times a week the children can attend craft and theatre sessions and receive extra lessons and help with their homework. They can even earn a bit of pocket money by selling the objects they make. Parents receive instruction in hygiene, family planning and health education in the evenings. Extra Muros is working to give the poorest of the poor in Bogatá some future prospects in their lives.
Susana Rubia, who trained as a Waldorf teacher in Stuttgart, Germany, runs a Waldorf Kindergarten for some of the poorest children.
Cali: child labour and education
Cali also has a large population of street children and others who rise early to work and earn a few cents. They are much in demand at the city’s four large markets. They get up at 5 in the morning and go off to hump boxes of vegetables and help put up stalls. Work comes first, so there is no time for regular school attendance, and anyway, where would they find the clean clothes they need to fit in with other children?
Rubiela Prado, who taught for 13 years at the Cali Waldorf School, has taken these “market children” under her wing and now works with 260 of them, aged from 7 to 13. For two years she went to the markets every day and chatted with the children. Gradually she gained their trust and invited them to play games or paint, and taught them reading and writing. As their parents also gained confidence in her, the children found an empty restaurant which now houses the Market School.
Angelina Pineda, another “lone fighter”, works at the little village of Villa Rica about 50 km outside Cali. She works with young girls who have borne children at 13, 14 or 15, showing them how to breast-feed and put on nappies, and teaching them how to talk to their babies and play with them, and what hygiene measures are needed to keep them healthy. This is her way of trying to prevent violence by laying down the foundations of mutual understanding in earliest childhood by means of healthy development and learning how to play together.
1 This eyewitness account was written by Astrid Bjönness, Waldorf teacher from Tonsberg, Norway, who visited Colombia in June/July 2000.
2 Helmut von Loebell from Salzburg, Austria, has been involved with the Extra Muros project for many years.
Studied education science. Waldorf teacher and responsible for publicity work at the Medellin Waldorf School.
Studied special education. Trained Waldorf Kindergarten teacher. For 10 years teacher at the Medellin Kindergarten.