a former boarder, separated from his indigenous family since childhood, denounces “forced acculturation”

A group of academics and Guyanese wish to bring to light the truth about the eight Indian boarding schools in the French department, which existed for decades. They are calling for the creation of a commission to investigate.



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What happened in the eight Indian boarding schools in Guyana, the last of which closed in 2023?  (illustrative photo) (PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP)

Did the French state deprive some 2,000 children in Guyana of their indigenous culture throughout the second half of the 20th century? A collective of academics and Guyanese people want to bring to light the truth about what happened in the eight Indian boarding schools in the French department, which existed for decades. They are therefore asking the State to set up a “truth and reconciliation commission” to bring justice and reparation to these children from Native American families, who were totally isolated from their families.

Sylvestre Waya was five years old when he entered the Iracoubo boarding school, between Cayenne and Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, in 1961. “My parents had no opinion to oppose, he remembers, it was done like that”, because the territory became a French department. Sylvestre, who was born into the Kali’na culture (of the Indians of Guyana), is then imposed a new identity. “You had to speak French, you had to sing the Marseillaise, you had to learn the Song of the Partisans”he says.

“I have to translate into French to understand my family”

Sylvestre’s identity becomes French and Catholic. Boarding schools are financed by the state and managed by the Church. “The day began with In the Name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Why did we have to be baptized? I had my own beliefs, underlines Sylvestre. It became this forced acculturation which was an uprooting for me.”

He, who is 67 years old today, has never really been able to find his native language: “I still have my mother and my brothers and sisters who are alive, who speak to me in Kali’na, my mother tongue. I have to translate into French to understand what my brothers and sisters and mother are saying to me. And I am very unhappy about it”, Sylvestre laments.

“Can you imagine? I’m 67 years old and I’ve been separated from my culture, my origins for 62 years.”

Sylvestre Waya, former intern at the Catholic boarding school of Iracoubo

at franceinfo

The isolation desired by the authorities at the time was total. Interned in this “Indian home” for eight years, a few kilometers from his village, Sylvestre only sees his family again during the summer holidays. “We had no contact with the outside world, we were not allowed to go out. My parents were never allowed to visit their children at the Indian home,” the former resident is indignant.

“We are really in the colonial perspective”

Public law professor Jean-Pierre Massias was able to gather around a hundred stories like Sylvestre’s to carry out his investigation, with the French-speaking Institute for Justice and Democracy (IFJD). He identified cases of physical violence in certain boarding schools, as well as two direct accounts of sexual abuse.

Jean-Pierre Massias expresses today the wish to see the State provide justice to these indigenous children: “At the time, we considered these children as people to be civilized in any case and the Church had carte blanche to civilize them. We are really in the colonial perspective.” He is therefore asking for a “truth and reparation” commission for Sylvestre and the 2,000 Indian children from Guyana who passed through these Catholic boarding schools, the last of which closed only a year ago.

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