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Hope in the hinterlands of Guyana

Rose James may be just 11, but she has her sights set on the future.

Rose and classmates, above, and a pupil and a man on horseback carry the Queen's Baton    Photograph: UNICEF 2014
Rose and classmates, above, and a pupil and a man on horseback carry the Queen's Baton Photograph: UNICEF 2014

At night, she reads maths books at a wooden table by a bare bulb in her village home in the remote savannah region of Guyana. At her school desk, under a corrugated iron roof, this little girl, dreams of one day being a teacher, and changing the lives of other children just as her's has been changed through education.

But travelling to school can be a difficult task for primary school children in Aishalton, one of the most far-flung villages in Guyana. Some pupils as young as five face a walk of seven miles each day, there and back.

In the rainy season, when the dirt roads of the savannah become flooded, the journey gets even more arduous - particularly for those children whose families are unable to afford shoes.

Tucked away in an area known as the Hinterlands, Aishalton is the biggest village in the deep south of Guyana, which is on the north coast of South America but part of the Caribbean. Aishalton has a population of just 890 people - mostly from the Wapishana tribe, one of nine tribes of the Amerindian indigenous people of Guyana.

Last Tuesday the village was out in force to welcome the Queen's Baton Relay for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. As the small propeller plane carrying the baton touched down on the dirt gravel track used as a runway, it was welcomed by local schoolchildren and villagers in traditional feather head-dresses and elaborately beaded clothes.

Along the route of the relay locals demonstrated bow and arrow skills, weaving fabrics, panning for gold, and processing Cassava - a starchy root used to make breads, grains and syrups. It ended at Aishalton Primary School with an hour-long programme of songs, traditional dance and poems performed by villagers, who summed their home up as "a beautiful place of peace, natural beauty and quietness".

Much of the village of Aishalton comprises of small huts made of clay bricks with roofs traditionally thatched with palm trees, and open fires used for cooking can often be seen outside. Some of the more modern buildings, such as the primary school have replaced thatch with corrugated-iron roofs. The main road in the village is a circular red dirt track, around which collections of buildings are sparsely scattered. The wide open grassy landscape of the savannah is a sharp contrast to the dense rainforest which covers much of the rest of Guyana.

Life is also undoubtedly tough. There are signs of modernity - cows and horses graze around a recently built mobile phone base which has allowed villagers to swap radios for mobiles as the main means of communication, while trucks and motorbikes as well as horses and bicycles are used for transport. But around 70% of the population still ekes out a living from the land as subsistence farmers. Most of the basic homes thatched with palm leaves have no electricity and wells are used for water supplies. Visiting the nearest town Lethem, means a difficult four-hour drive over a rutted dirt track, while the capital of Guyana, Georgetown, is a day and half day away by road.

The lack of electricity was one of the biggest problems which used to face Aishalton Primary School, according to headteacher Clara Boston. But around 10 years ago, children's charity Unicef supplied a solar panel, which means the school enjoys a relatively steady supply of electricity to help with lessons.

Boston says: "There is a radio programme which is an interactive programme for mathematics, for example. With the availability of solar panels we are able to run it. "We also have one computer and that is a really great help for us, and if there is a shortage of textbooks, we can make photocopies if we have one book.

"The one difficulty with that is the funding of it - because we have to keep buying ink and papers and so on. Parents are willing, but it is often not something that is easy for them to contribute."

Unicef has also supported other basic improvements to make Aishalton Primary - which has 198 pupils and nine teachers - a "child-friendly" school.

In 2001, age-appropriate toilets were introduced - which are pit latrines of a suitable height and size for different ages of children.

It makes it easier for children to use the toilets and means teachers do not have to assist them. Running water was also installed four years ago. Before then, Boston says, they had to rely on neighbouring houses to provide drinking water.

Boston has a long wish-list of improvements which she would still like to see happen at the school - including furniture to replace now ageing and rickety wooden tables and chairs, and a separate dining hall so pupils do not have to eat in their classrooms.

She says they have been trying to educate the children on what the Commonwealth Games is about as part of the preparations for the arrival of the Queen's Baton. But when it comes to their own sporting activities, the lack of facilities means opportunities are limited.

Boston says: "They just have a few balls to play with. At the moment there is nothing else."

Rose James is one of the pupils at Aishalton Primary. She likes maths and wants to become a teacher when she grows up. At her home - one of the few in the village which has a solar panel to provide electricity - she spends much of her free time reading books or studying at a wooden table lit by one bulb.

"She keeps asking when will I get to secondary school," says her father Regis James. He is determined to encourage her to succeed in her efforts to gain opportunities which he was denied. When he was growing up in the area in the 1970s there was no secondary school in the area. Despite achieving excellent grades and winning a scholarship, his parents could not afford it. "I never had a secondary education," he says. He now works as a consultant with a Canadian mining company and can afford the fees of CXC exams which are taken at the end of secondary school, equivalent to the UK's GCSEs.

But he points out that many others in the area are not able to do so. Across Guyana, statistics show that on average only 74% of children attend secondary school and 79% attend primary school.

James is pleased with the changes made at Aishalton Primary School, which also includes a government-run feeding programme to provide children in the Hinterlands with a hot lunch and snacks.

"We now have running water and we also have a feeding programme," he says. "That helps to develop learning because many children wouldn't have sufficient food at all, so it helps them.

"The relationship with parents and teachers is also developing - the parents get to understand now that they will have to meet the teachers so they can work together more.

"I know this school is moving forward."

Unicef also provided solar panels for Aishalton's community education resource centre, which was built in 2006 and is used for remedial classes for pupils, parent teacher association meetings, community gatherings and teacher training. The provision of lights means activities can take place in the evenings, with darkness falling around 6pm.

Around 15 trainee teachers from region nine - the local government area which includes Aishalton - are currently studying at the centre. Johnson Boston, education officer at the centre, says: "Before the trainee teachers used to have to go to Georgetown for training."

A shortage of trained teachers is an issue for the area, acknowledges Marilyn Joseph, the acting regional education officer for region 9, which has 82 schools in total - 31 nursery schools, 47 primary schools and four secondary schools.

Joseph, who took up her role seven months ago, says. "It is only recently I managed to put head teachers into all the secondary schools. Previously we only had one head teacher."

She acknowledges that the schools also need additional play equipment, but says the size and remoteness of the area leaves finances tight.

"We do have a budget and so on, but the area is so vast, a lot of money is spent on going to the locations and transportation," she says.

"To do supervisory visits you need at least two or three vehicles. We have one vehicle that is assigned now and then, but we have schools up north which are very far away ... It is one of the biggest challenges - transportation to these locations." Among the welcoming party for the baton last Tuesday was Sara White, 18, from Girvan, Ayrshire, who is a teaching assistant at Aishalton Primary School volunteering with Project Trust, a charity based on the Isle of Coll which arranges educational placements abroad for school leavers.

She says there is a noticeable lack of resources compared to schools back home in Scotland, although she believes Aishalton is one of the better schools in the area.

"The kids want to do better, they want to go to university and they want to get to a better place to get out of here really," she says.

"There is just nothing here for them, it is just farming for the basic staples they use and eat.

"When you ask the kids what they want to be when they are older, they say a pilot or a nurse or a doctor.

"The problem is the kids do have talent and could go places. But there is a lack of support to help them get out of the villages.

"They are really smart and really good but just don't have the money to go anywhere."

To donate, you can send a cheque or postal order to UNICEF Children of the Commonwealth Appeal, Freepost RTCU-SJSX-KCXA, UNICEF House, 30a Great Sutton Street, London, England, EC1V 0DU, call 0800 044 5777, visit unicef.org.uk/herald or text 'CHILD' to 70111 to give £3.

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