Learning to read
Late last year, we asked artisan groups if there were any other skills they wanted to learn besides basket weaving that we might be able to help with. Most of the artisans wanted to learn other skills which would directly lead to higher income, such as soap-making, tailoring, or animal rearing. One group surprised us with their answer though. “We’d like to at least be able to sign our names,” they said.
This led to our literacy project, in which our production assistant and one of our interns have been visiting two artisan groups weekly to help them get to this goal and perhaps a little bit further. Today I sat in on the class for the first time, and I have to say it was a pretty amazing experience.
It was the final day of the 12 week session (except for the exam, which will be next week). As usual, the class was held in the group’s production center, which in this case is an open air shelter with a thatch roof. Inside the small structure are two benches, 26 pieces of cardboard with each of the letters of the alphabet pasted on them strung across one wall, and a make-shift blackboard (piece of plywood painted black) leaning up against another wall.
The class began with each of the 11 students reading off the letters of the alphabet one by one while the rest of the class repeated them. The class is in Kiswahili, so the letters have slightly different names (say: “ah,” “bay,” “chay” instead of “ay,” “bee,” “see”). In this particular group of artisans, however, about half of the students don’t really speak Kiswahili, because they are former refugees from Burundi, where the official languages are Kirundi and French. So for many, they are learning a new skill and a new language at the same time.
It was awe-inspiring to say the least, to see the progress the women had made over the past several weeks. People who did not recognize one single letter of the alphabet could now recognize full words, like “baba” (father). They could also write their names, recognize names of other group members, and sound out words. The women in the group seem to have gained a huge amount of confidence throughout the process. Since they were all at roughly the same level to begin with, no one is shy about learning to read and write, and instead they work as a team to support each other and teach each other.
This is an example of why development projects succeed when the beneficiaries are the ones to come up with the project idea. Looking at the needs of a community like this, I would never have picked adult literacy as the most urgent need. Yet, because these women wanted to learn basic literacy skills, and because they spoke up about it, they have now empowered themselves in a way that a huge, donor-funded water or electricity project never could have.
Pictures from the project can be found on our new Facebook page.