Page last updated at 10:01 GMT, Saturday, 26 April 2008 11:01 UK

Pioneer community looks to future

Grahame Davies
Editor, BBC Wales news website

Pupils and staff at Ysgol yr Hendre, Trelew's recently-established Welsh-medium school.

It looks like the barn-raising scene from the movie 'Witness'.

Under the hot Argentine sun, the men are erecting the frame of a building, working with the willing speed and ready smiles that tell you they're all volunteers.

As we drive past, my shaky Spanish is just good enough to read the sign that shows this is going to be a new church for the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Getting back to the house of my host in Gaiman in Patagonia that night, we find a phone message from that very church.

They need some help. A translation for their new sign. They want it to be bilingual.

No, not Spanish and English. Spanish and Welsh.

Because this is Welsh Patagonia, the place where, in 1865, emigrants came from Wales seeking a refuge where they could speak their own language and practise their nonconformist religion in peace.

Glan Alaw chapel
Glan Alaw chapel near Gaiman is one of many in the area.

It retains a Welsh presence to this day, as represented by people like my host, Luned Gonzalez, descended from one of the settlement's founders, and a mainstay of the area's Welsh community.

When they arrived in the 19th Century, the Welsh were welcomed by the Argentine government, keen to get European colonists to settle in the inhospitable Patagonian desert, and so cement Buenos Aires' claim to the area.

The Welsh obliged, making the desert bloom, and creating, for a few decades, a society of their own: self-governing, self-sufficient, and self-assured.

Over 140 years later, their descendants are still there. A minority now, of course, as successive waves of European emigration have turned the language of the province overwhelmingly to Spanish. But they are surviving, with their eisteddfodau, their traditional tea houses, and, of course, their chapels.

Tacsi / Taxi sign
A bilingual sign, just like Wales, but this is in Gaiman, 8,000 miles away

And more than surviving. On my first visit to Patagonia in 2001, helping a British Council internet link with Welsh learners, I saw some of the first signs that this community was determined to have a future. On this latest visit, I found that this process has advanced further than I could have hoped.

It's a combination of the community's own resources, and an increasing amount of help from the homeland.

Since 1997, up to three teachers a year have worked in Chubut province, Argentina, teaching Welsh to groups of keen learners, on a project paid for by the Assembly and managed by the British Council.

And this week, James Williams, 27, from Cardiff, and Dyfed Sin, 37, from Aberaeron, begin a 10-month placement in the province working for Menter Patagonia, a southern-hemisphere extension of the language ventures which have been successful in promoting the use of Welsh around Wales.

The Patagonia venture is funded with a variety of public, private and voluntary money, and it will be building on some promising foundations.

Already, there is a thriving Welsh-medium nursery school in Gaiman in the lower Chubut Valley, the traditional heartland of Welsh Patagonia. It's now in its 10th year. There are Welsh classes too at local high school Colegio Camwy (motto 'Gorau arf, arf dysg' - 'learning is the best weapon').

Ffarm Fach guest house sign
Many local businesses, like this farm guest house, have Welsh names

A few miles away is the regional town, Trelew (Welsh for 'Lewis's Town', and named after one of the colony's founding fathers, Lewis Jones). Here too there is a Welsh school, Ysgol yr Hendre, now in its second year, and supported not just by volunteers but by the local authorities.

It's the same story 400 miles westwards across the desert, in the foothills of the Andes, in the town of Esquel and the nearby village of Trevelin (Welsh for 'Mill Town'), a community which was founded as an offshoot of the original Welsh colony in the Chubut valley.

Here too there are thriving Welsh classes, and a new school and community centre in the middle of the town, where teacher Gill Stephen is introducing the language to new generations.

There are even plans to run Welsh courses in Trevelin and Esquel for learners from outside Argentina.

It's a challenge, of course. These communities 8,000 miles from Wales don't have the advantages of the buoyant population figures and extensive state support that underpin the revival of Welsh in Wales.

But with a determination worthy of their pioneer forebears, and with the help of supporters in Wales and in wider Argentine society, the Welsh in Patagonia are showing that this community with a 19th Century past is intent on having a 21st Century future

Patagonian fire team's help plea
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01 Aug 07 |  Mid Wales

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