Defining education within a grassroots literacy movement
The questions of why and how to develop so-called literacy programs, which usually focus on adults and are often in a language without a long written tradition, is part of an on-going international debate. This article gives a voice to a group of new literates in a Senegalese language, Pulaar, who are sandwiched between the national debate over continuing to use an international language in the local school system, and the public policy debate over allocating funds for non-formal education.The official language of Senegal, both in the administration and in education, is French. There are twenty-two national languages, six of which have been officially recognized but which are not used in the educational system. Approximately 58% of school age children enter the public French-language school system; but of these, roughly 80% fail to finish primary school. The pyramid of Senegal's educational system looks like a sharp needle standing up-right on a flat surface, and getting ever narrower as the educational years go by. As a result, Senegal's official illiteracy rate is 67% by the latest World Bank statistics.
In the face of such dismal statistics, individuals motivated to learn are turning, as adults, to a non-formal, community-based form of education in Senegalese languages.
The most dramatic and dynamic of these grassroots movements is unquestionably that of the Pulaar language. Pulaar is a language used by roughly one third of Senegal's 9,000,000 citizens, but it is spoken by some 25,000,000 people speaking mutually intelligible dialects across the Sahel to the borders of eastern Sudan.
Educators and policy makers can learn some important lessons from this language community. This article highlights the salient points of this grassroots movement, from exploring the motivations of individual learners to reviewing the socio-historical events which have contributed to converting a literacy program into a cause. Few elements of this literacy movement are more important than the link which has been established between cultural identity and literacy. In an interview with a group of voluntary literacy teachers living on the outskirts of the Senegalese capital, the person conducting the interview was told, ..we must try to revitalize our culture, and literacy in the Pulaar language is one instrument for reaching that goal. (Madden, 1990, p. 18)
The personal impact: Studying Pulaar woke me up
It is difficult to present a neat definition of the cognitive skills which people feel
they gain by becoming literate. They speak more in terms of generally being more aware. When new literates write, very few of them talk about their efforts in terms of literacy or illiteracy (known as humambinnaagal in Pulaar). To describe their
experience with learning to read and write, almost all consistantly use the term
jande (whose meaning is much closer to studies). As one woman said, Studying made me literate, not Because I'm literate I can now start to study. This phrase captures the sense of participating in a learning process which is perceived as a wake up call.
All new literates claim that becoming literate brought them pinal, from the verbal root fin- meaning to wake up. The noun pinal is used in to mean culture, values,
awareness - that is, being awake. Kuenzi reports this same metaphor in her evaluation report:
Many respondents expressed the idea that literacy training had allowed them to explore and get to know themselves. They also spoke of being generally more aware and conscious than they had been previous to their literacy training. Interestingly, the metaphor of sleeping was frequently used by many when asked about the impact of literacy. In describing the effects of literacy on villagers, one respondent commented, They are now more awake. They are able to document things, they are aware of everything that is happening in the world. The others are sleeping. (Kuenzi, 1996, p.14)
Amongst the things which people say about the personal aspects, both cognitive
and empowering, of becoming literate and studying are:
- Studying opened up my intelligence.
- Now I can take notes of all my thoughts.
- I can now listen to things and make a choice.
- It is only through studying that a person can change.
- At first, I didn't even know how to write my name. Now I know what I should do with my life.
- I now know my own mind, and refuse to be tricked.
- From now on, everything that I do, I will stop first to think about it, to get information about whether it is a good or bad action.
- Studying woke me up, gave me knowledge, and improved my behavior and patience.
- What has changed in my life is that now I have become a more humble and forgiving person.
Oxenham presents these same thoughts in a more elegant form:
....the technology of literacy has served not simply the intended practical purposes of storing and communicating information. Vastly more important, it seems to have enabled the growth and development of the human reason and its power to combine different sources of information to produce even more understanding and inspiration. It has been potent, too, in the growth of self-consciousness and self-understanding. (Oxenham, 1980, p. 43)
One particularily articulate respondant with only one year of Pulaar literacy training and no formal schooling in French shared the following reflection in the Kuenzi evaluation:
The fact that I have pursued literacy has helped me in my work. It has given me
courage to go all the way with things, to be more rigorous and curious. I used to
do things by routine. Before, I couldn't give the dates of your visit. I didn't
have memory, precision or observation. Writing has been the most important
thing because I can fix firmly on something. (Kuenzi, 1996, p. 15)
Kuenzi views the often repeated theme of writing letters and keeping secrets not
as a trivial use of literacy, but as a sign of the increased empowerment of those
who are able to do so:
Overall, the respondents seemed to feel empowered by their experience with
literacy.... Many of the respondent's replies pertained to issues of personal
efficacy and independence. Numerous respondents note that, after literacy training, they were able to read and write their own letters. Many respondents stressed that being able to do so allowed them to keep their secrets. While some might dismiss these often heard remarks as trivial in light of the magnitude of the problems facing villagers and their communities, one would be in error to do so. The sheer frequency with which respondents recounted this new found ability indicates that it represents something important to people. Indeed, being able to read and write one's own letters appears to be associated with the ideas of being able to protect one's interests, keep one's personal business to oneself and thereby maintain control over self. Throughout all of the topics discussed with respondents who participated in a literacy program, the theme of no longer needing an intermediary was emphasized. (Kuenzi, 1996, p. 13)
In other words, individuals are fully aware of the numerous ways in which literacy has affected them. This is largely expressed in terms of personal capacities to think and plan.
The social impact: I now dare work in a group
Because of the issue of empowerment, it is difficult to separate most comments by those which show either a personal or a social impact. The juncture between the two is perhaps best expressed by the use of the verb to dare, which appears in the vast majority of letters. Daring starts from a sense of personal empowerment, but implies a social action as well. Ong captures the dialectic between the heightened sense of self generated by participation in a literacy program, and the heightened sense of sociability, when he writes, Writing ... intensified the sense of self and fosters more conscious interaction between persons. (Ong, 1991, p. 179) Canieso-Doronila points out that the participation in literacy classes increases an awareness of how to act in a group through learning the communication skills of discussion, facilitation, synthesizing, public speaking, bargaining, negotiation. (Canieso-Doronila, 1996, p. 125)
As Kuenzi reports:
At the same time that the idea of getting to know oneself was stressed,
respondents also strongly emphasized that they had become more social as
a result of the training. Many of the same themes regarding changes
in demeanor and an openness to the outside emerged in these interviews.
(Kuenzi, 1996, p. 14)
The issue of change in public behavior is well expressed in the following excerpts from letters:
- Studying gave me the courage to stand in the middle of people and speak the truth.
- Now when I enter a group, first I listen to what the others have to say, I try to understand, and then I respectfully add whatever I can, based on the technique of good listening.
- What has changed in my life is that now I dare sit with the elders, something which I couldn't do before.
- Whether the person be old or young, a man or a woman, I now know how we can be together as equals.
- Studying taught me a lot about people.
- Studying improved my social relationships.
- What we've seen in studying is that men and women are equal in work.
Clearly, personal empowerment and new skills have led these participants into the social arena, where they can act as both leaders and resource persons to the larger community to which they are attached.
Conclusion: What can we learn from the Pulaar experience?
A good deal has been written about the relative merits of the autonomous and ideological models for supporting literacy. The Pulaar model demonstrates an integration of the two. New literates can very clearly identify both the cognitive and the social gains they have made through becoming literate. Furthermore, these gains are realized both on a personal level, and on the level of the entire community. But the Pulaar model also emphasizes the importance of a cultural dimension in which becoming literate becomes a media both for knowing better one's own culture, as well as for supporting that culture in a time of rapid social change. While some of the gains of literacy are seen as having access to what is new and from the outside, somehow new literates have also transformed literacy in Pulaar into a tool to discover and transmit the soul or core of their own culture.
The Response of a Senegalese Community to the Question of
Why Become Literate
By Dr. Sonja Fagerberg-Diallo
Associates in Research & Education for Development (ARED)
Centre Ahmadou Malick Gaye (Bopp)