UG to open ‘Maoka Taawa’ campus at Aishalton

The content originally appeared on: INews Guyana

See full statement from the University of Guyana:

(University of Guyana/Turkeyen Campus/ June 25, 2024/ University of Guyana’s- Maoka Taawa University of the Forests Campus in Aishalton)

It will stand before the majestic and mystical Paint Mountain. A one-of-a-kind, a marvel, a monument to intelligence and a testament to the persistent and persevering knowledge of a people…Our people, Maoka Taawa University of the Forests.

In a series of three simple but highly significant events in the indigenous village of Aishalton, a sixteen-year-old dream of our indigenous brothers and sisters in the South Rupununi made a massive step to becoming a reality. Seven of nine Village Toshao, along with a number of high level officials from the 21 Villages of the South Rupununi District, regions, as well as officials from the University of Guyana’s oldest campus in Turkeyen Georgetown, gathered to witness the signing of a historic and monumental document and the turning of the sod which officially brought into legal life, the agreement to create the University of Guyana’s “Maoka Taawa University of the Forests” Campus.

This blended campus of the University will serve the 21 communities of the South Rupununi, which is closer to the Brazilian border than Georgetown, as well as other indigenous communities in proximity.

The joint venture between the University of Guyana, the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC)and Aishalton Village Council is a landmark action since it vests equal but diverse responsibilities for the resourcing, management and sustainability of the project in all three signatories.

Maoka Taawa University of the Forests is likely to be one of the few, if not the only, entity of this type and scope in Guyana, the region and possibly globally since it is situated on Indigenous titled lands.

Maoka Taawa University of the Forests Campus penetrates an underserved and difficult to reach area with an indigenous population of over 11,000 in 21 villages over a vast and highly dispersed territory. Collectively, the South produces over 600 secondary school graduates a year but less than 5% move on to higher education. Those who do must often leave their territory for long periods often never to fully return. The geographic location and other social conditions have presented a challenge to higher education and training until now. Environmental layouts are enabling many of these communities’ prior plans to become a reality.

Initially, Maoka Taawa University of the Forests will offer courses designed around the specific needs and interests of the residents of the communities. Decisions are guided by data collected from the communities in the South Rupununi, from structured surveys, qualitative interfaces and observational exercises. Based on this data, seven disciplines have been prioritised for early delivery. These are; education, agriculture, environmental sciences, sustainable tourism, medical sciences, sustainable engineering, construction and infrastructure, business, indigenous knowledges, entrepreneurship and accounting. Additionally, one hundred and fifty students will be accepted from the 254 who have indicated early interest.

The phased model which is being developed is based on a small physical footprint and an innovative incremental micro credit academic structure. Initial focus will be upon both professions and vocations for livelihoods. Creating opportunities for a better life through education and training of their people is a key part of the project.

Michael Thomas, Former Toshao of Aishalton Village who chaired the proceedings on Saturday, told the packed Village Benab that the SRDC had created a key place for education in its Village Development Plans since 2008 but “had not gotten much traction until about a year ago when a delegation of 5 Toshaos travelled to UG’s Turkeyen Campus to float their idea to the University.”

Thomas, Kid James, Toshao Ronald, young UG graduate and now ToshaoTimoty Williams along with two other Toshao were integral to the recent year-long negotiations with the University through the office of the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Paloma Mohamed Martin.

Vice-Chancellor Prof. Paloma Mohamed Martin said, “When they showed up in my office, I could not imagine what five (5) Toshaos could want, but it soon became evident that they were clear. My main contribution was to listen and then to ask one question- “Why a field station, why not a campus?” And that was it. They basically drove it from there, very fast, through all the processes of navigating village consensus, legal and titling issues. To my team it was a Godsent opportunity to really enable UG’s aspirational goal of at least one graduate per household. This is a massively important moment for many reasons. It is one of the universally powerful projects. Minimalist but much good. We will do the best we can for them with the little we have.”

The UG Investigating Task Force for University of the Forests included Vice-Chancellor Prof. Paloma Mohamed Martin, Dr Gyanpriya Maharaj, former Director of UG Centre for Biological Diversity; Calvin Bernard – Director for UG’s Institute for Marine and River Ecologies and Economies; Shevion Sears, Tara Smith, Shomari Williams and Monica Hugh. They were joined by Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Finance and Administration Dr. Diana Gobin and Dr. Malcolm Williams, Director of UG’s Tactical Online Services Unit.

Toshao of the Aishalton, Timoty Williams, said his entire “energy and focus over the past year was to help make this happen along with other key persons. Education is what we have yearned for, we know it’s the key to everything. This is a historic and proud moment for us. I am privileged to be part of it.”