In 2020 Marian Brosschot travelled to Patagonia in Argentina to teach Welsh in Y Wladfa. The adventure of a lifetime took a new turn when Covid-19 gripped the world.
I had always been vaguely aware of a faraway place called Patagonia and a story of a ship called the Mimosa that sailed away looking for new lands, but it never caught my attention as much as it did two years ago, when I heard an interview about a project that was looking for Welsh tutors to work with adults in Patagonia.
The prospect of working with young children in primary schools had never appealed to me as much as working with adults and older teens, and here was an opportunity to do just that on the other side of the world. At the time I was working as a Welsh tutor in North Wales and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next.
The flexible and everchanging nature of the work was one thing that caught my attention before I decided to apply. It seemed like exactly what I needed; a new culture, a new people, a new job, but something I already knew how to do and a language I was already teaching. It was also an opportunity to learn more about the history of Welsh emigration to Patagonia over 150 years ago, something I knew relatively little about at the time.
The Welsh Language project and teaching Welsh in Patagonia
The project I became part of was the Welsh Language Project, organised and financed by British Council Wales and the Welsh Government. Since 1997 the project has sent teachers and education professionals to the schools and communities in Y Wladfa (the areas of Patagonia where Welsh is spoken).
Over the years the schools have grown and now three bilingual primary schools hire teachers from Wales each year. The Gaiman’s secondary school, Coleg Camwy, also teaches Welsh as a second language. Ysgol yr Hendre in Trelew opened its doors as a primary school in 2006 and now has 160 students. Ysgol Gymraeg y Gaiman received official primary school status in 2015 and had Year 6 leavers for the first-time last year. Four hundred miles across the paith (the steppe) in Trevelin, at the foot of the magnificent Andes, stands the newly built Ysgol y Cwm, opened in 2016 and with space to grow to welcome up to 200 students.
The language promotion group, Menter Patagonia, organises social events and activities for people to come together to use their Welsh. Other cities like Puerto Madryn and Comodoro, which lies 200 miles to the south, also have Welsh language classes and activities.
A modern, vibrant people, big cities, and wide streets
I had travelled extensively in Europe and already spoke Spanish, but I had never turned my eyes towards such distant horizons as South America. I had no idea what it would be like to live and work in Patagonia, a huge region covering the south of Argentina and Chile, to hear people speak Welsh and learn Welsh and talk about Wales so fondly far away from my home country. I started buying into the romantic image of old ladies and gentlemen freshly off the Mimosa wandering the dusty desert. Instead (of course) I was met with a modern, vibrant people, big cities and wide streets, fast cars, noise, laughter, good food and a community of people who cherished their history and heritage and spoke Welsh as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Y Wladfa however is not Wales, and the Welsh spoken here is not from any specific part of Wales, and neither are the people Welsh, they are proudly Argentinian. Many of their grandparents and great grandparents came from Wales, but they were born and raised in Argentina. This is their land and Welsh is their language, it belongs here in the valley, the mountains, the rivers, the irrigation systems, and channels that the first Welsh pioneers built to enable crops to grow and villages and towns to form. Welsh belongs to the people who choose to learn it and the children who grow up using it.
Trelew, a city of around 100, 000 inhabitants, was my home. My Spanish adapted quickly. I wanted to fit in and use the Argentinian castellano as naturally as I could. People where kind, open and interested. The openness of the culture was a breath of fresh air: there was less planning and more enjoying! I found myself feeling very much at home. It was a wonderful experience to live completely in Welsh and Spanish with hardly any need for English.
The flip side of finding yourself in such an open, live-in-the-moment society is that it can be hard to plan and schedule things far ahead as I would have done in Wales. But you can’t force people to do something and be somewhere at a certain time; you can only invite them. With a tendency for things to be changed at the last minute, flexibility was key.
Adapting to the pandemic
Adapting to a global pandemic took ‘being flexible’ to a new level. When mid-March, a mere four weeks after arriving, brought with it extreme rules, strict quarantine, and high levels of uncertainty in a country where we were just about finding our feet, it was more than a little daunting imagining what this year would bring.
Throughout the ups and downs of adapting to a constantly changing situation, Garyn Pritchard, project consultant at British Council Wales and Clare Vaughan, project co-ordinator in Argentina, were two pillars of support and constancy. Last year saw eight experienced teachers fly out to work during the school year, which runs from March to December, but as many teachers decided to return to Wales on a charter flight organised by the British Embassy in May, no-one was quite sure what would happen. But it because obvious that the Project’s structure could not only withstand a pandemic but adapt and grow with it.
Everything quickly took shape online. All classes, from adult courses and schools, to children’s groups and social activities, moved online, and those who had returned to Wales continued to work online even with the four-hour time difference. As is usually done with the Project, classes were shared between a local teacher and a teacher from Wales. This worked very well in the new virtual world that was growing around us and a close relationship was cultivated among the teachers, on both sides of the globe, with weekly meetings and video calls.
‘Paned a Sgwrs’ moved online
Planning social events online seemed like a daunting task at first, given that we hadn’t met most people face to face before travel was restricted. But people joined just the same, and enthusiastically so. Paned a Sgwrs (cuppa and chat) mornings were arranged (and beer and wine evenings for balance!) plus quizzes, word games and Noson Lawen (music and entertainment evening). One-to-one classes to help those who couldn’t make it to lessons and reading groups for different ability levels were also offered. Suddenly technology opened doors we didn’t know existed and ‘zooming’ became the new thing.
But technology only works as well as your wi-fi connection. In areas where connection is poor it is frustrating and disheartening: students disappear, meetings are disrupted and sometimes a whole afternoon goes by before you can re-connect. Many households share a computer, have little or no internet, or often have clashing timetables between members of the same family. However, people learnt to live with and adapt to this disruption, and it seemed that adapting to everyday problems was second nature to many people.
‘Galés con Marian’ on YouTube
In July I designed and filmed ‘Un mes de galés’, a short course of 25 videos of around 10 minutes each, through the medium of Spanish, which went some way towards addressing this problem. The videos didn’t need to be watched live and could be downloaded on any device when and where connection was available. We uploaded them on Menter Patagonia’s new YouTube channel and shared them on social media every day for a month. We received wonderful feedback both in comments and in the local press and on the radio. In October 2020 I released a sequel, ‘Otro mes de galés’. Since then I’ve made more YouTube videos on different aspect of learning Welsh, all through the medium of Spanish. This means that anyone, anywhere learning Welsh (in Spanish) can access and enjoy these videos. The channel is called Galés con Marian (Welsh with Marian).
Suddenly we had students in Buenos Aires, Mexico, Uruguay and France
Online lessons made it possible for all kinds of people, who normally wouldn’t be able to make it to a classroom, to learn Welsh for the first time. Two new groups were started in August, which would be taught exclusively online, even if classes returned to the classroom. As over 50 people registered for the Mynediad level course (A1), the students were split into two groups and taught twice a week, once with a local teacher and once with a teacher from Wales. Suddenly we had students in Mendoza, Buenos Aires, La Plata, Salta, even as far as Mexico, Uruguay and France. For many this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to connect to their roots, something that was obviously very important to them. There was so much passion for learning!
The coming year will be difficult. There will be fewer teachers and even less travelling, and there’s more of an understanding of how long the pandemic and its effects might last. But the enthusiasm, creativity and willingness to adapt by the teachers, the students and everyone involved with the Project will carry everyone through another successful year.
After ten months in Trelew I returned to Wales to spend time with my family over Christmas. Unfortunately, travelling back to Patagonia was impossible due to new strains of the virus halting travel and closing borders. But once it is safe again to do so, I will be on the first flight back to Trelew!