Five years after she set up a nomadic school in south-eastern Siberia, French anthropologist Alexandra Lavrillier has changed life for many young Evenk people, helping to ensure that their ancestral culture will survive for many generations.

Thanks to the nomadic school, largely funded by Lavrillier’s 2006 Rolex Award, 50 children between the ages of 4 and 13 have been able to stay with their families in the taiga for most of the year, unlike previous generations who had to spend month after month at boarding-school.

Inside a tent belonging to the nomadic school, pupils gather around their teacher during a lesson. Their education brings together the standard Russian curriculum and traditional Evenk culture. © Rolex / Marc Latzel

As the French anthropologist, who pays frequent visits to these hunter-breeders to study their traditions, notes: “These children have been able to speak their own language, learn to look after reindeer herds and hunt sable with their parents, while at the same time following the Russian school curriculum and being introduced to English and computers.”

With the funding from her Rolex Award, Lavrillier took on 15 university graduates (all Evenks) as teachers, who spend several months of the year, moving from one camp to another in the Tynda region, along the Olekma River or in the Stanovoy Range.

Pupils in the cafeteria of a school in Tynda. Before Lavrillier set up the nomadic school, young Evenk children were sent to schools like this for the whole academic year. Now, they can spend most of the year travelling with their families while studying in the mobile school. © Rolex / Marc Latzel

Up to the age of 13, the nomadic pupils spend one term a year in the village schools of Ust-Njukzha or Iengra. This allows them to experience the settled life and gives the local primary-school teachers a chance to assess the pupils’ progress. For the rest of the year, the youngsters travel with their families and are educated at the nomadic school. Once the children are over 13, the local authorities insist on the children attending one of the village schools full-time in order to complete their education.

Evenk children learn how to make a reindeer fur cap, one of the practical exercises at the nomadic school. © Rolex / Marc Latzel

This nomadic school’s approach has proved very productive. A 2009 study on the educational effectiveness of the nomadic school, carried out by the regional Ministry of Education and the National Institute for Vocational Training, gave a very positive verdict: “The committee was most impressed by the children’s levels, both in the subjects on the national programme and computers and in traditional Evenk techniques,” Lavrillier explains.

Pupils at the nomadic school learn to clean a bear skin, as their ancestors have done for many generations. © Rolex / Marc Latzel

In 2010, the school, which had been previously officially classified as “experimental”, was incorporated into the official education system of the Tynda region.

But, for the Rolex Laureate, the school’s success goes beyond academic results. “It’s very noticeable that these pupils have a distinctly better psycho-social equilibrium and greater self-confidence,” says Lavrillier, for whom the project’s main aim is to ensure that they “don’t have to choose between the nomadic life and city life.”

Some of the first pupils from the nomadic school are now living in Ust-Njukzha to continue their schooling. Yura, aged 16, spends his school holidays in the taiga and takes care of the computerized accounts of the reindeer-breeding cooperative set up by his grandmother, which he plans to manage one day. Vitia, who is 13, speaks Evenk fluently and can hunt, but he has also joined a comedy drama group in Ust-Njukzha, where 60 per cent of the villagers are Russian.

An Evenk child walks through the snow to the nomadic school. © Rolex / Marc Latzel

The whole community can see the benefits of the school. Even though the Evenk people are nomads, living in groups that are widely dispersed, they now play an active role in defending the nomadic school vis-à-vis the local authorities, and also in their children’s success at school. “Their success has strengthened the cohesion within their community,” says Lavrillier.

The school is managed by the Evenks themselves. Seven jobs for coordinators and childcare workers have been created to support the teachers, and in addition, two young mothers have started a correspondence training course for primary-school teachers. Lavrillier comments: “These are encouraging results in a minority that is not a priority for the local authorities in the poorest region of Siberia.”

Other Evenk communities in the Amur region (which includes Tynda) – and also on the other side of the border, in neighbouring China – have shown an interest in replicating the project. “But we haven’t enough teachers or funds to help them,” Lavrillier explains. “Although the Ministry of Education pays a third of our annual budget, the money arrives in dribs and drabs, so we’re trying to raise funds abroad, as that’s the only way we can secure the future of the nomadic school.” If new sources of funding are not found, she adds, the school’s fate will be at risk in the long term.

Recently appointed Researcher-Lecturer of Anthropology and Siberian Studies at the European Centre for the Arctic at the Université de Versailles (Paris), Alexandra Lavrillier will continue to support the nomadic school project, which she describes as “a successful example of ‘applied anthropology’, where the study of a culture leads to concrete help for the communities involved.”

To contact Alexandra Lavrillier or to find out more about the nomadic school project, email: associationsekalan@gmail.com.

Learn more about Alexandra Lavrillier

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