'We're ignorant': Illiteracy haunts isolated Venezuelan village

OLOGÁ, VENEZUELA (AFP) – Desks at the only school in the impoverished Venezuelan fishing village of Ologa are piled one on top of the other in a dark and dusty room.

It has been four years since the classroom doors last opened at this remote school on the shores of Lake Maracaibo in the country’s western Zulia state, and now the paint is peeling off the walls.

And while the government has announced the reopening of schools closed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ologa’s will remain shut.

“Of my eight (adult) children, only one knows how to read and write, we are all ignorant,” fisherman Angel Villasmil, 58, told AFP before flinging his net into the water.

According to Unesco, literacy in Venezuela is over 97 per cent but Ologa, home to 40 families, suffers from isolation.

Eight years of economic crisis, including four years of hyperinflation, has decimated Venezuela’s crucial oil production industry. And in oil-rich Zulia, fuel shortages have led to the collapse of public services and the increasing decline of villages like Ologa.

“Children aren’t going to school because they closed,” said Villasmil as he laid out his catch while some of his 20 grandchildren played with oil-covered plastic debris on the lake’s shore.

Although the school was open during his youth, Villasmil never studied. Now he sets out every day on his fishing boat hoping to catch something to sell or feed his family with.

Many school teachers used to travel to work by hitching free rides on fishing or tourist boats, but the fuel shortages made that impossible. The last remaining school teacher “stopped going because of the fuel problem,” said another local teacher on the condition of anonymity.

Before then, teachers had to make do on salaries of less than US$5 (S$6.80) a month.

Andrea, 12, remembers a time when she used to attend school on the crescent-shaped islet covered with mangroves and where the sounds of wild animals, such as tigrillos – small jungle cats – were constant.

What she misses the most is playing with her classmates. They used to play on a swing they made from rope and wood and hung between fruit trees. “I didn’t learn to read,” she says.

Desks are seen stacked at a classroom at the only school in Ologa, Venezuela, on Sept 6, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Villasmil’s daughter Maria, remembers her school years fondly. “The teacher taught me many things, writing, reading,” said the 21-year-old mother. “I want my daughter to also learn. There are a lot of children here that want to study and can’t do so because there’s no school,” she added, referring to her three-year-old Sheira.

In Ologa, a village where aging houses are built on stilts, the closed school is far from its main problem.

“We don’t have electricity, we drink water when it rains, for the rest we have to take water from the river,” said Francisco Romero, 67.

In Ologa, a village where aging houses are built on stilts, the closed school is far from its main problem. PHOTO: AFP

That water is highly polluted and often covered by a coat of oil that escapes from the extraction centers in the north east of the lake.

“Life has been tough recently” for Romero and his nine family members living in a small house above the water. The house is filled with smoke of wood burned for cooking due to the lack of gas.

“Our lungs hurt … we have failures on every side. Fuel, electricity, water.” The only fuel they ever see is occasionally when merchants arrive and try to exchange it for fish, rice or corn flour.

Many inhabitants left the area so they could “put their children in school,” but the national crisis forced them to come back, said Romero. “Life inland is not the same to here where you can fish and eat. Inland, if you don’t have money, you don’t eat.”

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