A friend of mine said: “It’s too bad that many people have a tough time identifying with something if it’s far and foreign.” She said that as we were discussing trends and news vis-à-vis some of the issues faced by the communities that I meet with through OYOW prior to my most recent departure to Nicaragua. I wasn’t surprised of course, merely reminded…
We all know that’s generally the case. “If it doesn’t affect me directly, why should I care?” I know, it’s a 101 in journalism school, I’ve been there. Yes, I travel to meet with communities far removed from the world of those who I hope will one day care if they don’t already. Why? Well, because I believe that we should all care.
According to the United Nations, 90 percent of the world’s languages will disappear within a century. The majority, if not all, of those languages are spoken by indigenous peoples. Languages that, more often than not, are spoken only by a handful of people. In the case of the Rama language, it is estimated that there are only 15 native speakers of the language remaining in the world. Two of them live on Rama Cay off the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. I travelled there to meet Walter Ortiz Ruiz…
I fell in love with a book that was given to me a few years ago…titled: “The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages” by renowned linguist, K. David Harrison. I think I actually wrote to him at some point, but I never heard back. Point being, his writings resinated with me profoundly, perhaps because of what I so strongly believe in, and have always believed in since I was a child. Culture and, as Harrison focuses on, language, contain a huge wealth of information, knowledge that provides us with the foundation, the building blocks, and the empirical and theoretical data for what allows us to evolve as human beings and to better understand our world. It is in fact, why I do, what I do. When I heard that there were only 24 speakers of the Rama language remaining, my heart skipped a beat…several to be exact.
Languages, Harrison writes, “are more endangered than species” with more than 80 percent not yet adequately documented “so we don’t even know exactly what it is that we are losing.” I, for one, have always feared that. The world has learned to do what it can to prevent the extinction of animal and plant species (clearly though, with a lot of room for improvement in the case of the Amazon, and the world’s oceans – those of course, are but two of many, many examples), activism around that is loud and clear for good reason, we’ve all heard it, and seen it…so why is the world still struggling to do the same with respect to the extinction of cultures and languages? “Because we evolve as humans”…yes, I’ve heard that. But it is the “how” that to me in some cases, if not most, becomes problematic.
There is a question that arises with respect to all the communities that I have met with thus far… Is a community’s shift away from traditional culture, lifestyle, language, and beliefs a natural evolution? Or, it is a forced one? So far…you be the judge (Embera/Panama, Guaymi/Costa Rica, Waorani/Ecuador…and now adding to that list, Rama/Nicaragua).
I travelled to Nicaragua to meet with one of the last speakers native of the Rama language, for a reason. Not because the Rama language would be handy for me to learn in order to use in my daily North American (or globe-trekking) life, but because I recognize the race against time…to save a wealth of knowledge embodied within it, one which ultimately defines a community’s linguistic and cultural identity. Please allow me to introduce you to Walter Ortis Ruiz, one of only two living speakers of the Rama language on Rama Cay, a tiny island off the eastern coast of Nicaragua. Here’s Part I of his story…
“The Last Speakers: Walter Ortiz Ruiz”
By: Maggie Padlewska / One Year One World
MORE TO COME SHORTLY.
A SPECIAL AND PROFOUND THANK YOU TO: Rafal Padlewski, Joya, Patrick Gleason, and Everyone who donated to this journey!