Sunday, July 14, 2013

Literacy and Illiteracy

As an elementary teacher and Curriculum Coach, I spent a lot of time thinking about literacy.  What is it?  How do children learn to read and write?  Now, you think about it for a minute.  In order to read, you have to be able to see clearly, recognize all the letters in a word, all of the possible sounds they make, which sound is needed in a particular word, and how to put the sounds together to form a word.  You also have to recognize where one word stops and another starts and what to do with punctuation marks.  At the same time, you must know to read from left to right (for English anyway) and top to bottom.  Meanwhile, while handling this entire cognitive load, you also have to make sense of the words that you read.  It is amazing that any of us can read, yet the vast majority of us in the USA do – and many even like to do it! 

As I work in the Central African Republic and Cameroon, I am thinking more about illiteracy.  Yes, we have people in the USA who can’t read or can’t read much. (Those we call functional illiterates who can read only enough to get by on basic tasks.)  Here though, there are many more who have never had a chance to go to school.  They are intelligent people who speak multiple languages, but can’t read or write in any of them. 

UNICEF says, “Education is a fundamental human right: Every girl and boy in every country is entitled to it. Quality education is critical to development both of societies and of individuals, and it helps pave the way to a successful and productive future” (  Here are some other revealing 2011 statistics from their website.

% of literate people
% of literate youth (15-24), male
% of literate youth (15-24), female
Net primary school enrollment (%)
Life expectance at birth     2011
% of people with mobile phones
% of people who use the internet
% HIV positive
* During the height of recent insecurity, only about 25% attended primary school. 
  (For most of that time, all 20 of the EEL-RCA Village Schools operated!)

Yesterday I was fortunate to be invited to a seminar for district animateurs (community developers) working for literacy.  It was organized by Pastor Gilbert who is the chaplain at the Protestant Hospital in Garoua Boulai and was recently named regional animateur for literacy.  It was an all-day workshop, but I could only attend through lunch.
To start the day, people introduced themselves.  The first couple people talked in French (I am sure mostly for my benefit.)  When it was my turn, I spoke in Gbaya – reading an introduction and thank you that I had prepared with help from my Gbaya teacher.  I am not sure how well I pronounced words, but they understood (I could hear appropriate responses to what I said) and appreciated the effort.  The question then came up as to which language should be used for the sessions.  I said that they should use Gbaya since it was their common language.  Pastor Gilbert sat beside me to help me with the main ideas.  (I understood about 20% of what was said.  Encouraging for my Gbaya learning, but frustrating because that is not enough to understand what is said!)  After the break, the session was in French.  Here’s some of what I learned.

Churches in Cameroon have created 16 literature centers in the country.  These centers work on translating materials such as the bible and literacy-learning books into local languages.  Once such center, located in Meiganga, focus on the Gbaya language.  The Bible has been translated; in fact, the new version was just dedicated about a year ago.  They also have three books for teaching (mostly adults) to read and two to teach basic math.  Unfortunately, many of these books are not currently in circulation.  They need to be printed which means finding funding… 

The literacy program here is divided into levels.  (Note:  in French literacy is alphabetisation.  I like that name because it is linked to the alphabet. On the other hand, I find it hard to pronounce!  Analphabetisation – illiteracy – is even harder to say!)  The top level is the national church.  Then each Literature Center has an Animateur General. Under him are some regional animateurs (four for the Gbaya region) who are responsible for district animatuers (10 for the Gbaya region) who are, in turn, responsible for literacy programs in congregations.  At one time every Lutheran Church had a literacy program.  Now, some have functional programs and others do not.  This seminar is part of an effort to reactivate literacy programs since there is a great need for them.  Literacy programs run for six months after which participants get a certificate of participation or diploma. 
The Animateur General for the Gbaya region, HAMADOU Samson, led the workshop.  Not all the district animateurs could be there, but those who came including us “extras” (the catechist from the host church, the leader of the Women’s Group from that church who teaches a literacy program, a few others, and me) learned a lot about reasons to run a literacy program, organization of the national program, roles and responsibilities of regional and district animateurs, and how to organize training sessions for teachers (called moniteurs here).  There was also time for district animateurs to voice questions that the Animateur General answered.  The sessions continued in the afternoon although I could not be there.

To announce the beginning of sessions and breaks, a man rang the church “bell.”  This is what they use to call worshipers on Sunday morning, too.  It is very loud! 

As is the custom here, participants eat well during a seminar.  To start there was bread, coffee, and tea.  At the 10:00 break there was coffee, tea, bread, beignets (small round donuts), and peanuts.  Then at 1:00 we were served lunch:  meat in a sauce with rice and boule (a starch made from yams and formed into a ball).  Different groups took responsibility for the food which was served in the catechist’s living room.  As in many homes in the US, each time we went into the living room, the television was turned on.  Why do people do this???  I find it distracting, even annoying, but many feel the need to have the background noise.  Maybe here, too, it is to show that they have a television!  Who knows?  (Note:  I don’t have a television and rarely have the chance to watch one, but I don’t miss it.  I have borrowed DVDs that I watch on my computer sometimes.) 

I was pleased to attend this seminar.  At some point EEL-RCA needs to consider restarting its currently-defunct literacy program.  When that time comes, I hope we can work with this program that is much further along. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Susan, my name is Mai Abehche, a Masters II student of Peace Journalism and strategic communication at the protestant university of central Africa(UPAC). I am a Cameroonian based in Cameroon. Based on my masters thesis, i will be researching on the impact that the media has on border crisis. and i have chosen Cameroon-CAR for my case study.
    Is it possible that you write to me at so that i get to write to you to find out some specific information about the are, some contacts. I will be very grateful to read from you.