In Iskonawa, one of the estimated 300 languages spoken in the Amazon, a secret can start with a bahehi, a verb that means to whisper, to talk in the ear.
Rainforests are constantly engaged in bahehi. Insects buzz, birds chirp, mammals scuttle, and leaves ruffle in the wind—a natural symphony that Nelita Campos (Nawa Nika), an Iskonawa woman from Peru, has heard many times.
Campos is the last lucid speaker of Iskonawa. For the past decade, she has been meeting with Roberto Zariquiey, a linguistics professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, to share the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of one of the world’s most endangered languages.
Their encounters are fueled by jokes, myths, Spanish, and Iskonawa. With a grant from the Pulitzer Center Rainforest Journalism Fund, writer Simeon Tegel and photographer Florence Goupil documented for The Washington Post how the duo works to preserve the language closest to their hearts.
It’s not an easy task. Around the globe, researchers are racing against the clock trying to save the world’s linguistic diversity. Optimistic predictions say that half the estimated 5,000 languages spoken today could vanish by the end of the century. This is worrying because, according to some linguists, when a language disappears, so do ways of thinking: Vital clues to unlocking mysteries of human creativity, evolution, neurology, and even medical science can be lost.
“[...] It gives me such happiness when I hear the recordings of my voice and see that the children want to learn,” says Campos. She refers to an Iskonawa vocabulary app created by Zariquiey, who also started a language school, where during his monthly visits, he teaches spellbound children basic phrases from their ancestral tongue.
All efforts—in the form of games, art, and linguistics lessons—are driven by the desire to preserve the unique culture and irreplaceable knowledge that Iskonawa contains. It’s an act of service for future generations, but also an act of noia, an act of love.
Four Pulitzer Center-supported projects and a Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow have been recognized as finalists in the 2023 Covering Climate Now Journalism Awards. The winners will be announced in September 2023.
- In the photography category, grantee Loren Holmes photographs the journey of snow crab fishers into the Bering Sea in Into the Ice: "A Crab Boat’s Quest for Snow Crab in a Bering Sea Upended by Climate Change."
- In the multimedia category, for the story “The Illegal Airstrips Bringing Toxic Mining to Brazil’s Indigenous Land,” RIN Fellow Manuela Andreoni and RJF grantee Victor Moriyama identified and mapped over 1,200 illegal airstrips that fuel illicit mining activity and contaminate local resources.
- In the engagement category, RIN Fellow Elisângela Mendonça and RJF Amazon grantee Fábio Zuker are finalists for their story “What Does Your Food Have To Do With the Invasion of Indigenous Land?”, which documents how cattle ranchers are illegally encroaching on Mỹky Indigenous territory in Brazil, driving deforestation.
- RJF grantee Patrick Vanier’s documentary video, Amazonia, the Sunken Archipelago, is a finalist in the long-form video category, documenting the slow erosion of the Bailique archipelago at the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil.
- Christian Elliott, a 2022 Pulitzer Center Climate Science Reporting Fellow, is a finalist for CCNow’s Student Journalist of the Year. Elliott’s project followed paleoclimatologists as they attempted to find the Earth’s oldest ice.
This message first appeared in the July 21, 2023, edition of the Pulitzer Center's weekly newsletter. Subscribe today.
Click here to read the full newsletter.