“My boyfriend was not accepted by my parents because they thought that him and his family would not give me a good future. They were forcing me to leave him and follow the tradition that teenage girls should marry to ensure a future”, confesses Rosmery Riviera Epiayu. Rosmery, who in confidence prefers to be called Ros, is a 20 years old Wayuu girl, the indigenous community inhabiting the complex region of Colombia, La Guajira, at the border with Venezuela, the northernmost tip of South America. The Wayuu is the largest indigenous group nationwide, counting for 48% of the population only in the region. “As a self-conscious girl and having understood the key role of education, I knew I could have worked for a good future by myself. So I ran away from home. A girl needs to decide what to do with her future”, Ros explains, referring to her firm decision to fight for her choices and not pursue the same pattern of her mother and grandmother.
Ros was born in Poromana, a Wayuu community just a few kilometers from Riohacha, the coastal capital of La Guajira, on the road to Maicao, the other major city in the region. She recalls her childhood with cheerful nostalgia. “Being part of a community has been one of the most beautiful things I have lived, we always played with my brothers”, Ros, the only girl in the family, continues the story and enthusiastically goes into detail about some experiences shared by many Wayuu children. “In La Guajira there is a lot of drought, and I remember that every time it rained I would go outside, feeling its freshness, and use the mud to make Wayunkerras (Wayuu dolls). Rain reminds me of freedom, which is why with my family it was natural to go out and dance the Yonna (typical Wayuu ritual)”.
Everything changed with the coming of puberty. “When I was 13 years old my body was transforming, I had no idea what was happening to me. My mother told me I was ready to be locked up. They put me in an elevated Chinchorro (hammock), in a dark room, with my view facing only the roof. They then gave me rice water, chicha (Colombian traditional fermented beverage) without sugar, and less heavy food”. With ease and a very clear memory, Ros explains probably the most sudden moment of change in her life. From her words it is understood that this is a practice that many Wayuu girls go through.
Ros refers to the “encierro (confinement) Wayuu”, a controversial tradition concerning the pubertal development of girls. A tradition that has always existed and although it has undergone changes over the years, it is still a practice that supposes to prepare young girls to become women.
Isolation, which can last for up to five to six years, has two main purposes. The first is for the girl to fully understand the physical and emotional development and role she has as a woman, given the importance that females have in La Guajira and Wayuu culture. The second, on the other hand, wants the Wayuu tradition to be fully preserved so as to ensure that the young girl develops a competence for her future. In this case, the ‘confined’ girl enters in harmony with the wisest and ‘purest’ family member, in many cases the grandmother, with the aim of learning a profession, such as weaving, an art and guarantee of an economic income for the tradition.
“I lasted a week locked up”, explains Ros, recalling this rebellious choice of her with admiration, but also with some trepidation for having rowed against tradition.
For Ros, education was the key to her emancipation and the driving force that has allowed her to live today with the partner she loves. To have Larius, her wanted son now 8 months old, after losing her first baby, Darius, in 2021, just after the death of her father. Ros now has a clear vision of her life and priorities: “Right now I dedicate myself to being a mum, studying to bring my son up, educate him, teach him good things, give him a stable future, one where he doesn’t have to go through the things I went through.” It is striking how education changed her mindset, she continues “I would like to go on studying to be able to strengthen my knowledge, teach other children and young people that education is essential, as we are part of change and we need to show a good role and what better to do through learning”.
Origin Learning Fund a Colombian and United States-based non-governmental organization that started its mandate in La Guajira, by a young woman originally from there, Tania Rosas, to facilitate access to quality education and empowering opportunities for underrepresented youth, has played an important role in Ros’ growth and regard for learning. Since 2018, Ros and many other youth from Wayuu communities have been part of training and tailored education programs implemented by Origin Learning Fund.
Powered by their own-developed technology, O-lab App, and personalized scheme of digital and in-person mentoring, Origin Learning Fund provides vulnerable youth with quality education to build STEAM and 21st century skills required to thrive in the modern economy, fostering community sustainable development, and favoring employability and realization of vocational projects. By partnering with companies, international organizations, and educational institutions, Origin Learning Fund has been co-creating a wide range of interactive, fully-personalized, and animated digital learning experiences reaching over 10,000 vulnerable young people. In purpose-built eco sustainable spaces, participants have been developing projects based on community needs. Among others, they set up hydroponic systems, solar panels with local resources, sanitary towels with recyclable material, sustainable tourism business, while studying math, science, engineering, and arts. In 2020, Origin Learning Fund went global, scaling up its solution in México, Perù, Paraguay, Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, and South Africa.
“The foundation has been like a home, they welcomed me, and financially supported my studies. I met incredible people capable of making me bring out all the potential that is in me. Their platform, O-lab, has been very useful to discover the knowledge of each young person, to be able to realize their ideas and to show what they are capable of”, says Ros, referring to how youth can learn and create their own entrepreneurial or vocational project guided by O-lab App. She adds that “it has been useful to reinforce what I should learn and apply from things that are around us. I am sure the Organization will reach many more young people who yearn to get their ideas and be able to realize them”.
Since this year, Ros’ engagement with the foundation has gone to the next level. After having been part of a sustainable tourism business in Poromana, she is now employed as project assistant. Among her responsibilities, she interprets content from Spanish to Wayuu for the O-lab offline platform, being the web/mobile application adaptable to any language in the world. This activity is of paramount importance to make educational activities in La Guajira much more inclusive. Many Wayuu children and adolescents do not know Spanish and are often excluded from quality education because of this. Origin Learning Fund translates all the content of its digital laboratories into the local indigenous tongue, a mostly oral language, which is why the classes will be uploaded to the platform via audios.
“I love this job, I feel loved, supported, I have people who are there for me to motivate me to be better at what I do, I want to achieve many things with this opportunity they are giving me. It is an immense chance for me not only to get ahead but also to reinforce my knowledge about my culture, about my language, and allow more young Wayuu girls to benefit from knowledge they are often deprived of and let education be a core part of their lives”. Ros has now been able to side a job that is exciting for her and allows for financial independence to her graduate studies in ethno-education.
Ros is part of the 500 girls in La Guajira that Origin Learning Fund is supporting through a project sponsored by the Obama Foundation and the Girls Opportunity Alliance. The initiative, named “Get Her There”, will provide 500 indigenous and migrant young women and girls from La Guajira with access to quality, digital, STEAM education, the tools and tailored mentorship to develop social entrepreneurship and sustainable solutions for community issues. For this project, Origin Learning Fund will build a eco-sustainable community center in the Poromana community where Ros, like many other girls, will use as a safe space and a springboard to develop their ambitions and lay the foundations to become inspiring new leaders for the next generations.
There are many ways, however, to increase means, resources and support to improve the quality of education for girls and young people in La Guajira, like the countless remote areas in the Global South. With this in mind, the Origin Learning Fund is always open to new alliances, strategies and collaborations to break the barriers of learning together. “We are the Origin”.