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Giving African women a voice and a future

The life-changing force of learning to read and write

“The life of an illiterate person is pathetic. You’re outside all new technology that has come to our villages. You remain ignorant,” says Maria Makusa, a tomato farmer who never went to school because her family was too poor.

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Now aged 37, Maria is finally learning to read and write. After working in the fields in the morning, she comes home and studies the alphabet and practises writing letters.

“When I was illiterate, I felt myself a bad person.” – Joy Adam

Maria was one of a group of women in Yao villages in Malawi who were able to join a pilot programme of the Literacy for Women in Africa project last year. Bible Society Australia is part of this massive collaborative project, extending Bible-based literacy to women from 16 ethnic minorities in Malawi, Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania. The aim is to empower 20,000 women who have been denied basic education by equipping them with functional literacy by 2020.

Becoming literate is considered the key to providing women and girls in these communities with a voice, improving their pre- and postnatal health and family’s nutrition, and enhancing their self-esteem. Learning to read in their mother tongue will also make the Scriptures available to them for the first time. All of the 16 languages chosen have either had a New Testament or Bible recently published or one is nearing publication.

“After finishing this course, I will share what I have learned with those who are still illiterate,” Maria vows.

“I will encourage my children in every way to go to school, so that they will learn to read and write.

“My husband is a farmer as well, but he can read and write. My husband encourages me to come to the literacy classes. He is very happy about my enthusiasm for studying. One day I will be like him – literate.”

Joy Adam, a 34-year-old single parent, is another member of the Yao community who is feeling a lot better about herself since joining the literacy class.

“When I was illiterate, I felt myself a bad person. Literate people despised me, looked down on me. I feel that their attitude has changed, now that I am studying. Some people ask why I go to the class. I answer that I want to learn to read and write in Yao, my language.”

“I don’t know what the future will bring, but I’m happy with the studying.” – Joy Adam

Since her husband left her last year to marry a woman from the neighbouring village, Joy has been living alone with her six children, supporting them by farming in other people’s fields.

“I don’t have a job all the time. I have never gone to school. My parents were poor and they didn’t have the money to pay for the school, because the school was not free.

“Three of my children go to school, but the other three don’t because they don’t have a school uniform. When a child is registered in the school, they have to have a uniform.”

Joy says she has already learned different letters and how they are formed into a word. She can also write her own name.

“For my children, I hope they would finish their school. That is what I hope.” – Joy Adam

“The hardest part is learning to hold a pencil and to write with it, but it’s getting easier and easier with time,” she says.

“I don’t know what the future will bring, but I’m happy with the studying. I have a plan that when I have learned to read and write properly, if possible I will start a business and provide for my family in that way. For my children, I hope they would finish their school. That is what I hope.”

Willie Beaton, Literacy Coordinator for the Bible Society of Malawi, says one of the challenges literacy teachers face is dealing with the children who accompany their mothers to class and distract them. Nevertheless, the women in the literacy classes have gained more self-confidence.

“I can remember one village chief, who said, ‘Brother, my wife was four years in school, but learned nothing, not even to write her name. Now she’s already 60 years old. In the literacy class she has learned to write her name and even other things after learning for only two and a half months. How much will she learn by the end of the course?’”

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