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Higher Education on Nicaragua’s Multicultural Atlantic Coast


The University of the Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua (URACCAN) is a pluri-ethnic university located in the Caribbean region of Nicaragua. The university provides higher education to some of the country’s most marginalized peoples, including the indigenous Miskitu, Mayanga, and Rama, and the Afro-Caribbean Creole and Garífuna, all of whom live in the eastern half of the country. While comprising only four percent of Nicaragua’s total population, these coastal groups represent most of the country’s cultural and linguistic diversity.


The idea for creating the university came about during an organizational meeting of young Caribbean Coast leaders in 1978, attended by most of the region’s college graduates. A major topic of discussion was the idealistic dream of a regional university. In the 1970s, most costeños, or Caribbean coastal peoples, had little access to higher education because their only option was to travel far to the west to the universities of Hispanic Nicaragua.


It was not until after the war years of the 1980s that the dream could be realized. URACCAN was founded in the early 1990s, and in 1995 was recognized by the Nicaraguan National Council of Universities (CNU), the council that regulates higher education. A year later, the university began receiving government funding. The university continues, however, to compete with older, more established universities in Hispanic Nicaragua to obtain a fair share of national funding. The university is located in a poor region where tuition is extremely low (U.S. $12 per semester). Even so, a large share of the university budget is devoted to student scholarships. Outside funding sources are important to the university’s success. For example, a National Conference of URACCAN Supporters and Support Groups met in Chicago in the 1990s to raise money for the university, but most of the university's external funding comes from European universities and organizations.


Serving a Diverse Population


URACCAN is designed to serve all of costeños and to emphasize the region’s multicultural heritage. The mestizo population of 117,143 is growing rapidly through immigration from the western, Hispanic part of Nicaragua. It threatens to overwhelm the other groups, thus underlining the importance of URACCAN’s focus on diversity.


The major languages spoken at URACCAN are Spanish, Creole English, Miskitu, and Mayanga. Signs on the university walls are written in all four languages. Miskitu has been a written language since Moravian missionaries, who arrived on the coast in 1849, recorded it in writing and translated the Bible and other religious documents (Helms 1971). The missionaries also trained local lay preachers, or sasmalkra, who preached from texts in their own language. Today various competing groups, including the Church of God, the Catholic Church, and the Seventh Day Adventists, all work on the coast. Nevertheless, in many ways the Moravian Church remains the central religious authority in the region. Moravians have recently established their own university, the Bluefield Indian and Caribbean University (BICU), which now occupies the old Moravian hospital building in Bilwi. BICU is privately funded and thus provides a second option for higher education. Costeño leaders hope that the presence of URACCAN and BICU will encourage the most capable young people to earn degrees on the coast, and remain afterward to contribute their talents to the region’s growth.


URACCAN opened its first three branches in Bilwi, Bluefields, and Siuna, and now has extension courses in La Rosita, Bonanza, Waspam, Pearl Lagoon, Orinoco, and Nueva Guinea. Today, about 2,500 students attend the university, with 200 professors teaching courses. Continuing education and technical training courses are offered, as well as courses leading to bachelor’s degrees in sociology, agro-forestry, business administration, and education.


The university also has four research institutes—the Institute for Linguistic Research and Cultural Recovery, the Natural Resource and Environment Institute, the Institute for Promotion and Study of Autonomy, and the Institute for Traditional Medicine and Community Development.


The Traditional Medicine Institute maintains a medicinal plant garden at Krabu Tingni, in a beautiful rainforest location midway between Bilwi and Waspam. A Miskitu medicinal healer is in charge of the gardens, to which other healers also have access. The resident healer demonstrates plant medicines to students and other visitors.


During his Fulbright grant from 1999 to 2000, Philip Dennis worked closely with the institute. In 1999, an outbreak of grisi siknis, a dramatic culture-bound syndrome, occurred at the Luxembourg Teachers College in Bilwi, causing a crisis in which many of the college students left after 10 young women were possessed by evil spirits. The institute hired a well-known traditional healer who treated the young women successfully with prayer and medicinal herbs, while Dennis and the healer’s husband served as assistants. Two physicians were also involved in the treatment, which constituted a remarkable example of collaboration between biomedical and traditional practitioners.


URACCAN relies on visiting professors to teach many courses. During the 1999-2000 academic year, Dennis taught an anthropology of health course in URACCAN’s first graduate program, an intercultural master’s degree in public health (MSPI). Thirty-eight graduate students participated in the course, of whom about two-thirds were physicians and nurses. Other participants included a nutritionist, a dentist, a psychologist, and a community development worker. Most of the graduate students were mestizos from western Nicaragua, but there were also a number of Creole and Miskitu health professionals. The master’s of public health degree (MPH) is an important credential for anyone involved in health matters in Central America, as it is in the United States. In Nicaragua, the traditional MPH degree is given by the National School of Public Health (CIES) in Managua. But URACCAN organized the intercultural MSPI degree for the Caribbean Coast, in recognition of the region’s multicultural nature and the particular health concerns it presents. The MSPI degree is accredited by the CIES, and coursework covers all the material in a traditional MPH program, plus cross-cultural material relevant to the coast. Dennis' course was an important part of the MSPI's multicultural perspective.


Most of the other courses in the new MSPI program were taught in intensive one- or two-week blocks by mestizo professors from CIES who flew to Bilwi to give lectures. Because Dennis planned to live in his research community, Awastara, to the north of Bilwi, he was able to teach his course over an 11-month period, holding classes one week each month. The MSPI students turned out to be hard-working and interested in the material, and responded enthusiastically to the fieldwork projects.


The university is developing a new master’s degree in socio-cultural anthropology in order to train Native anthropologists on the Atlantic Coast. Drawing from her extensive field experience among the Miskitu peoples of Honduras, Laura Hobson Herlihy will teach a graduate course on ethnographic field methods at URACAAN-Bilwi in spring 2004, also supported by a Fulbright grant. URACCAN’s first rector, Myrna Cunningham, said that the course will be part of the core curriculum of the new master’s program, which will be coordinated by Georg Grunberg and emphasize the region’s autonomy. Students will work with Herlihy both in the classroom and in the field, doing ethnographic research in local communities. Herlihy and Dennis both hope to keep the U.S.–URACCAN connection strong through future Fulbright exchanges.


The URACCAN was organized by and for local peoples, and tries to give voice to all the ethnic groups on the Coast. Large numbers of Miskitu students attend URACCAN-Kambla, and Creole students are prominent at URACCAN-Bluefields. However, there has been little Miskitu representation in the university administration. During his year at URACCAN, Dennis suggested that Miskitu intellectuals such as Ana Rosa Fagoth and Avelino Cox be invited to participate more in university activities, and that academic courses be offered using Miskitu as a language of instruction. In part, the limited participation of Miskitu scholars simply reflects the limited number of Miskitu people with university training. In addition, the Moravian Church-supported BICU may attract Miskitu people interested in faith-based education. Nevertheless, it seems ironic that the colonial languages, Spanish and English, continue to dominate, and that indigenous language and worldview remain underrepresented in university activities and administration. Indigenous peoples are lowest in the scale of interethnic relations on the coast, and to some extent this situation is paralleled in the university. It seems clear that to be successful as a multilingual, multicultural institution, URACCAN must invite more participation by leaders from all the region's ethnic groups.


Miskitu people have a complex set of ideas about health and illness, and traditional healers provide a large share of the health care in the region. Historically, biomedical professionals from the United States and from the western, Hispanic region of Nicaragua have viewed local beliefs with skepticism, and have not taken traditional healers seriously. Given this context, some Creole administrators predicted the mestizo physicians in Dennis’ class would be narrow-minded and the most difficult group to work with. In reality, they asked the most perceptive questions and showed the most interest in the intercultural perspective presented. When Dennis invited traditional Miskitu healers to the class to explain Miskitu concepts of health and to demonstrate curing techniques, the mestizo physicians were the first to volunteer to help in the demonstration.


International Collaboration


Library holdings at URACCAN-Bilwi are modest indeed—one room of books. This lack of reading materials for students is a serious problem, and by necessity many classes use Xerox copies of articles or book chapters for reading assignments. For his anthropology of health course, Dennis brought textbooks from the United States, including a thick reader of medical anthropology articles in Spanish and the Spanish-language editions of Where There is No Doctor and Helping Health Workers Learn from the Hesperian Foundation. Dennis hoped that these texts would serve as useful future reference sources for the health care professionals taking the course.


Dennis also organized a large book drive at Texas Tech University, during which many colleagues in different fields donated basic texts and other books for the URACCAN library. Of course, most of these books were in English and may be of limited use to URACCAN students and faculty. But where books are available, one can hope they will eventually be of use to an aspiring scholar. Unfortunately, due to changes in U.S. Postal Service regulations, the last carton of books sent in 2003 cost about $75. At this price, it will be impossible to continue the book donation program.


Despite financial problems, URACCAN has been successful at forming national, regional, and international ties. Besides having a press office, a Web site, and a liaison office in Managua, the university has bilateral agreements with two Canadian universities, four U.S. universities, and three universities in Spain. Almost 30 URACCAN professors are pursuing advanced degrees in York, Canada, and Girona, Spain. One anthropologist colleague, Miguel González, former rector at URACCAN-Bluefields, is now completing his doctorate degree in political science at York University in Toronto.


The university also has ties with a vast array of non-governmental organizations, institutes, and foundations. Among them are Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbelt of Germany, Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigaciones y Enseñanza in Costa Rica; and the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation in Guatemala. These ties allow URACCAN to lead several important regional and continental initiatives, “especially regarding Indigenous, educational, health, and human rights networks,” reports the URUCCAN Update in 1998.


URACCAN and Autonomy


The Atlantic Coast region won constitutional autonomy in 1987 during the Sandinista revolutionary decade. The Nicaraguan government established two autonomous regions on the Caribbean Coast, the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). The RAAN and RAAS make up over 50 percent of Nicaragua’s territory. The RAAN regional government is located in Bilwi and the RAAS regional government is in Bluefields. URACCAN’s Bilwi-Kambla campus thus serves a large Miskitu population, and the Bluefields campus serves the Creole population.


URACCAN’s new vision of indigenous education is not only to provide life-long education to costeños, but, according to the URACCAN Update, “to help fortify the autonomy process on the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast through training and professionalizing of human resources.” The university, for example, offers many outreach or short-term courses to improve the working populations’ technical skills. These courses have a community-based and participatory focus, and provide costeños with a way to contribute to their own self-empowerment. The goal is to no longer be dependent upon mestizos from western Nicaragua. Rather, through higher education, costeños hope to be able to control their own development process in the future.


Constitutional recognition was also given to minority languages in the autonomous regions. Since then, URACCAN has played a central role in developing the Intercultural Bilingual Education Program (PEBI) on the coast. Linguists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and from Europe worked with Terra Nuova, an Italian development organization, to develop new bilingual (Miskitu and Spanish) textbooks for grades one through four. These textbooks are now being used in a number of schools in the RAAN.


Unfortunately, the bilingual program has not been supported by conservative central governments in Managua in recent years. Teachers continue, however, to train at URACCAN.


The URACCAN main campus is in the town of Kambla, seven kilometers west of Bilwi. A breezy coastal city, Bilwi is the intellectual, economic, and political capital for the Miskitu people. Here, Miskitu culture is popular culture. One hears the Miskitu language spoken on the radio and television, as well as in discos, buses, and marketplaces. Due to its proximity to Bilwi, URACCAN’s main Kambla campus is strikingly dominated by Miskitu culture and language.


Transportation by bus is provided to Kambla-Bilwi students, along the red dirt road linking the campus and the city. Indeed, just getting to class is a challenge during the rainy season. The campus is remotely situated for a reason: it sits on land formerly used by the Sandinista army. The classrooms, administrative offices, and small library are in one-story buildings that formerly functioned as Sandinista military barracks. Pleasant and attractive, the campus is surrounded by pine trees with green grass and cement social spaces between buildings. The gym and auditorium buildings loom the largest on campus.


In 1998, Herlihy attended a conference for Central American indigenous people on URACCAN’s Kambla-Bilwi campus. The conference, “Central American Workshop on Territorial Rights and the Legalization of Indigenous Territories,” was sponsored by Native Lands, Centro Skoki, and URACCAN. Much of the workshop focused on the International Labor Organization’s convention 169, which deals specifically with indigenous peoples’rights. Indigenous representatives came from all the Central American countries, and from Peru and Mexico. A majority of the representatives and attendees were Miskitu, since the conference was held in their homeland. Miskitu participants in the meeting spoke first in their own language, and their statements were then translated into Spanish. The main topic of discussion among Miskitu participants was autonomy, or klauna, for the Atlantic Coast.


URACCAN’s concept of autonomy does not imply separatism. Rather, it emphasizes improving the quality of life for all costeños through education. Through inter-cultural higher education, the university aspires to build a better Atlantic Coast and a better Nicaragua. This university has so far been quite successful, especially given that the Atlantic Coast is a marginalized region in one of the poorest countries in Central America. Watching the crowds of students and faculty boarding the bus for Kambla, one cannot help but be infected by their spirit of enthusiasm and optimism. These young people see higher education as opening doors to the future.


Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Nicaragua and the Atlantic Coast


The 110,000 Miskitu constitute the largest indigenous population in Nicaragua. They live in rainforest and coastal-lagoon terrain from the Rio Coco border with Honduras to just south of the Pearl Lagoon area. This mixed group speak the Miskitu language, a member of the Misumalpan language family, and trace their ancestry to an Amerindian group that intermarried with African and European populations, starting in the 17th century (Helms 1971). While other Latin American indigenous groups experienced assimilation and culture loss due to the colonial encounter, the Miskitu have grown in population, expanded their territory, and developed a strong ethnic identity. Today, the Miskitu are the major indigenous group on the coast. They became internationally known for their struggle against the Sandinista government in the 1980s.


Mary W. Helms did ground-breaking ethnography among Miskitu people, and her ethnography of the community of Asang, on the Río Coco, has become a classic. Helms suggests that the success of the Miskitu is closely related to their relations with outsiders who have come to the coast. Indeed, the Miskitu have continually expanded their population and established their identity through their interactions with the British, North Americans, and other foreigners. The colonial Miskitu, called “Zambos-Mosquitos,” dominated other indigenous groups on the Miskitu Coast. Through their alliances with the British, they acquired firearms, which they used to build a successful economy based on raiding and trade. In the last 200 years, the Miskitu have been residents of a British Protectorate, evangelized by the Moravian missionaries, and employed by North American and other foreign companies. The companies extracted local resources including gold, bananas, sea turtles, and most recently, shrimp, conch, and lobsters. The interconnectedness of global and local social identities is not new to the Miskitu, who have participated in what Helms (1969) calls a “purchase society” since colonial times. The Nicaraguan Miskitu seem to have refashioned their social identities into new practices that have empowered them in a globalized world. The Miskitu response to global economic and geopolitical forces provides an interesting lesson in survival and adaptation.


The Mayanga (previously known as Sumu) occupied the largest land area in eastern Nicaragua before European contact, but their numbers and territory have been much reduced. The modern Mayanga peoples, with a population of 13,204, have three surviving linguistic groups: the Panamaka, the Twahka, and the Ulwa. These languages also belong to the larger Misumalpan family. Traditionally swidden farmers and hunters, the Mayanga recently have become involved in monetized economies as wage-earners. They continue to live along the upper reaches and headwaters of Nicaragua’s northeastern rivers, particularly in the large Bosawas Reserve. The Mayanga share similar cultural and linguistic traits with the Miskitu, to whom they are closely related. The indigenous Rama people lived on the Miskitu Coast before contact and spoke Voto, a Chibchan language of South American origin. The Rama, like the Mayanga, also fell victim to Miskitu expansion during the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, their reduced population of 1,023 is centered on Rama Cay, a small island in Bluefields Lagoon. The Rama people have all but lost their language, and now speak their own version of Creole English (Barrett 1992). Atlantic Coast Creoles are descendants of British colonists and African slaves who have lived on the coast since the 17th century. They speak Creole English and practice Protestantism, and their population center is in the cities of Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas (called Bilwi in Miskitu). During the colonial era, Creole society included free blacks who acquired higher status and prestige than the indigenous groups on the Miskitu Coast, mainly because they were perceived as being more Europeanized. After the British formally left the coast in 1787, the Creoles stayed behind and became the dominant ethnic group, eventually displacing the Miskitu in the socio-economic hierarchy of the Caribbean Coast (Gordon 1998). Today, the Creoles number 50,000.


The Garífuna trace their ancestry to Island Caribs on St. Vincent of the Lesser Antilles. Here, the Caribs inter-married with African slaves and were later deported to Honduras in 1797. The Garífuna people’s Afro-Caribbean culture and their Arawakian language, called Garífuna, thrive along the coast in Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, but in Nicaragua are now represented by only two communities. Coming from Honduras in the late 1800s, the Garífuna settled on the western side of Pearl Lagoon and now have a population of 3,068 people. Their two villages are an enclave that remains cut off from the rest of the Garífuna culture area (Davidson 1979). Although the Nicaraguan Garífuna now speak Creole English, they still maintain strong beliefs in ancestor spirits and a distinct Garífuna identity (Barrett 1992). Some young Garífuna have embraced a racialized identity as Latin American Blacks and see themselves as part of the African American diaspora.


Philip A. Dennis is a professor of anthropology at Texas Tech University. He received a doctorate from Cornell University, and has done fieldwork among Zapotec people in Oaxaca, Mexico, and among the Miskitu of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. He is the author of Intervillage Conflict in Oaxaca, and the translator of Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla's book México Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization. Dennis' new book, The Miskitu People of Awastara, will be published by the University of Texas Press in spring 2004. Laura Hobson Herlihy is a lecturer at the University of Kansas’ Center of Latin American Studies. She received a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Kansas in 2002, and has done fieldwork among the Miskitu peoples in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, Honduras, and with other indigenous and ethnic groups in Honduras and Panama. As a doctoral student at Kansas University, Herlihy also taught cultural anthropology at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.


References and further reading


Barrett, B. (1992).The Syringe and the Rooster Dance: Medical Anthropology on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison.


Dennis, P.A. (1985). Grisi Siknis in Miskito Culture. In The Culture-Bound Syndromes. Simons, R.C., & Hughes, C.C., Eds. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Co. pp. 289-306.


Dennis, P.A. (1999). Grisi siknis entre los Miskitos and Grisi siknis miskito nani tilara. Wani: Revista del Caribe Nicaragüense 24, pp 5-21.


Davidson, W.V. (1979). Dispersal of the Garifuna in the Western Caribbean. Actes of the Forty-Secon ICA 6, pp 467-474.


Gordon, E.T. (1998). Disparate Diasporas: Identity and Politics in an African-Nicaraguan Community. Austin: University of Texas Press.


Helms, M.W. (1969). The Purchase Society: Adaptation to Economic Frontiers. Anthropological Quarterly 42, pp 325-342.


Helms, M.W. (1971). Asang; Adaptation to Culture Contact in a Miskito Community. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.


Herlihy, L.H. (1996). Empowering Native Women in Central America. Abya Yala News 10:1, pp 14-15.

Herlihy, L.H. (2003). Miskitu Identity in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve. Indigenous Nations Studies Journal 3:2, pp 3-20.


Maybury-Lewis, D., Ed. Identities in Conflict: Relations between Indigenous Peoples and Contemporary States in Latin America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.


Nietschmann, B. Protecting Indigenous Coral Reefs and Sea Territories, Miskito Coast, RAAN, Nicaragua. In Conservation through Cultural Survival: Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas. Stevens, S., Ed. Washington D.C.: Island Press. Pp. 193-224.


URACCAN. (1998, July 12). URACCAN Update. Stuart, F., Ed. July 12.

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