I wondered why the group of adult literacy students were so motivated to come to class at the end of their busy day. They are mainly working women who are single mothers, too. They come three afternoons a week to enthusiastically join in lessons in a dim, hot primary school classroom on a hard wooden benches that sit low to the ground.
Babies share the space with their mothers, quietly nursing or getting passed around to fellow students to hold for a while. Small children play outside, waiting for their mothers to finish. Lessons go from 4:30pm until 6:00pm when it’s getting too dark to read in the unlit classroom in Rotifunk, a small rural town in Sierra Leone with no electricity. Day after day, week after week they come, filling two classrooms.
After spending time with them, I found there was a gift they received that went beyond learning to read and write. A special gift.
This day’s lesson for the level one class was two letter words. At, to, in, on, by. They drilled on spelling each word, then using it in a sentence. Each student took their turn standing at the chalk board with a pointer reciting and spelling each word. If anyone stumbled on a word, their fellow students encouraged her on. It was support group as much as it was classroom.
After classes, I interviewed each adult student. I had told them I wanted to talk with each of them and hear their personal story. They came willingly, and spoke candidly about their lives and personal situations. In fact, they followed me around town if they had missed class, stopping me to have their interview.
Many were abandoned by boyfriends and husbands after having one or more children. This often came after dropping out of primary school years before because their father had died or left, or because the family just couldn’t pay for school. Without money, teenaged girls often get involved with an older man (older than them with a little money) and become pregnant. More likely than not, the man doesn’t stay with them for long. Or perhaps they have a husband who dies. Then it’s repeated again with another man.
To care for and feed their families, the women become market traders, buying rice or palm oil or vegetables from village farms to re-sell in bigger town markets. Or food vendors, selling food they cooked. These are some of the only options available to an illiterate woman. They make up the informal economy, where people buy and sell just enough to scrape by, never managing to get ahead. They have to eat most of the day’s profits.
Some of those who had husbands were the wives of teachers, one of the only paying jobs in town. Once they became mothers, they never managed to pursue or finish an education because there was no option for adults.
Whether fifteen or fifty years old, the women had similar stories. So, why go through this extra effort of starting school now. Some students were learning the alphabet for the first time, the teacher’s hand held over theirs, guiding them as they repeatedly traced four letters at a time, A – B – C – D.
They told me they were coming to school to learn to read and write and learn numbers so they could get a job. Or, so they could better manage their market business. If their daughter was sent to sell the donuts they made, they needed to better keep inventory. They wanted to count how many they gave them, and were any lost and unaccounted for at the end of the day. They wanted to count change accurately, and know they weren’t cheated.
Importantly, they wanted to follow their children’s progress in school and check that their lessons were done. Or help tutor them when needed.
But after thirty five interviews, something more became apparent to me. Another theme emerged that was a big underlying factor in motivating these adult students to come to school.
By coming to school, they were gaining self esteem.
The lowest person in society’s informal caste system is the illiterate woman. Illiterate men may find jobs as farmers and laborers, and by virtue of being paid, their stature goes up a notch. Uneducated men can be village leaders. But no one is lower in stature than an uneducated, illiterate woman.
I heard stories repeatedly of men leaving them, often for a woman with some education. An educated woman likely contributes to the family in a bigger way – perhaps by finding a paying job, or by better building their own farm or market business. They have knowledge to better bring up their children, taking care of their health and monitoring their school work.
And an educated woman has more self esteem. It’s unspoken, but you can see it. They think better of themselves, they hold their heads higher, and men find that attractive.
Women who have been told directly and indirectly that when they can’t read and write they are lacking and worth less than others, are ashamed of themselves. And that shows in how they conduct themselves. They let themselves be taken advantage of, and are discarded for someone the man perceives as better.
In the Adult Literacy classes, the women were being shown they are worth something and that they have a future in front of them. The teachers encourage them and invest their time in them. Their fellow students support them. This American woman (this white woman) is taking an interest in them, and “sponsoring” them to learn.
And week by week, they can see they are learning things. Things that make them proud and encourage them to learn more.
One lesson the students seemed to get into was greeting people in English. Hello, my name is Lucy. How are you? I hope you are well today. Each student got up and practiced her greetings in front of the class. They laughed and joked, and made sure each person had their turn.
When I asked Lucy after class what she learned that day, she broke into a huge smile. I learned to give greetings in English, she said, and I felt civilized. I can give a speech – in English. This made me proud!
This response felt priceless to me. So, what was the actual cost of building this kind of self esteem in forty five women and five men? A few hundred dollars to buy exercise books and pens for each student to copy the day’s lesson, and to run off copies of lessons and tests for the advanced class like math problems.
Fortunately, the teachers at the Center for Empowerment & Transformation continue to volunteer their time for the Adult Literacy program. They are the heroes of this story. The teachers come to patiently teach again at the end of their long school day to help develop their sisters and brothers, as they call them. It’s reinforced by students who really want to learn.
I was seeing empowerment take place right in front of me, and the transformation in these adult students was visible. It was palpable. This really was priceless.
Sherbro Foundation is proud to have contributed the cost of exercise books and learning materials to launch the Adult Literacy program.