Phone games put Colombia's indigenous cultures in palm of children's hands
In a simple wooden hut on a Caribbean beach, a young girl sits at the feet of her grandmother, who is crotcheting a brightly coloured shoulder bag whose intricate design draws on the mythology of the Wayuu people.
It’s the opening scene from a smartphone game that seeks to educate Colombian children about their country’s endangered indigenous cultures.
Some 3.4% of the Colombia’s population belong to 87 different indigenous groups that speak 71 languages.
But experts warn that these diverse cultures are at risk of dying out, threatened by climate change and violent armed groups operating in isolated regions the state has not reached. The National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (Onic) estimates that 35 ethnic groups are at risk of physical and cultural extermination.
“We are dying – literally and culturally,” said Rosita Iguarán, a leader of a Wayuu community in La Guajira, a dusty peninsula on the Caribbean coast, where three children die every week of malnutrition.
“We have been abandoned by the government,” said Iguarán. “Maybe a game like this will help people understand more about us – maybe it can even bring some tourists.”
The games, available for iOS and Android devices, challenge players to learn the languages and cultures of the country’s indigenous groups, which vary from farming communities in the northern Darién jungle to nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Amazon.
Known collectively as Ancient Wisdom, the games were designed by Colombia Games, a Bogotá-based developer, with the input of a team of anthropologists and environmental scientists.
The games, narrate indigenous creation stories, and players must solve puzzles and draw the wild animals that populate indigenous myths.
“From one day to another these cultures could be lost,” said Juan Nates, the CEO of Colombia Games, which designed and recently relaunched the games. “When we started this project I assumed there were three or four indigenous tribes; it was a shock to know how many there are – and how little we know about them.”
The project was funded by the Sura Foundation, an educational subsidiary of the Sura banking group. The Sura Foundation has also sent some 200 teachers to schools to educate children about endangered cultures – though Iguarán observes that the games are unavailable to many indigenous children as most do not own smartphones.
For Nates, raising awareness is key to preserving at-risk indigenous cultures. “People can’t worry about something, can’t do something, if they don’t know about it,” he said. “It feels good to help with that.”