STRUGGLING TOWARDS LITERACY IN WAR-TORN ETHIOPIA
Helena Janes, Ph.D
California State University, Stanislaus
Introduction: Problems for world adult literacy
In recent years, there has been a growing disillusion with adult literacy work: literacy research and resources are increasingly focused in other areas. One of the most perplexing problems facing researchers is the retention issue in adult literacy projects. According to recent world-wide estimates, 50% of adults who enroll in literacy class drop out within a few weeks. Of those staying in the program, 50% fail to complete the program with success. Further, of those who do complete the program, about 50% lose their new skills within a year because of lack of opportunity to use them (Wagner, 1993; Verspoor, 1989). Economic distress, war, famine, disease, imposition of dominant language literacy and suppression of indigenous languages, displacement and civil unrest are all factors which disrupt literacy efforts in third-world countries and contribute to the continued existence of a permanent underclass living at subsistence levels. The field of adult literacy requires some innovative models, which address these realities in the lives of those struggling for literacy in unstable regions.
Freire (1972, 1985),.the Brazilian educator, believed that education should not be a 'banking" process, where students are filled with teacher-determined content, and are then asked to reproduce it. He believed that students of literacy, at whatever stage of lean-ting, are capable of conscientization, of reading the world and breaking the "culture of silence" in order to create their own instructional agenda. Conscientization starts to engage learners in a real dialogue and effects radical changes in their "peasant" or "underclass" status. This Freireian mandate has been widely accepted over the last two decades and has informed most recent literacy work (Hall, 1986; Richmond, 1986). In fact, many primers designed for developing populations are ostensibly based on Freireian principles. But even the most sensitive and locally-produced primer is an imposition from outside, and may not necessarily reflect the interests and concerns of the local participants. [Often in primers] ..."there is no link to local issues, local development or social change" (Archer & Cottingham, 1996). Sometimes there are no channels for the transformation of conscientization into productive effects and sometimes conscientization merely results in unfocused generalized resentment against the system. Primers are often eloquent statements of local ethnic or linguistic solidarity and can efficiently reach large numbers of people: however, they are rarely sufficient in themselves for the establishment and maintenance of literacy.
Nontraditional approaches: Inviting dialogue
New interpretations of the Freireian Participatory model during the last decade have focused less on primers and more on customized literacy "kits" tailored to individual communities' situations (Marshall, 1991; Richmond, 1986; Hesser, 1988). Many researchers stress the importance of post-primer literacy continuity and provision of opportunity to practice literacy in local workplace situations or local health and agriculture-based initiatives (Arrien, 1990; Wagner, 1993). Studies in
Freire-based Participatory Research (Hall, 1986; Mtonga, 1986; Marika et al, 1988) indicate that progress in developing nations and groups occurs most frequently when people have a voice in decisions affecting their often difficult lives, and dialogic across-group principles are endorsed. But how is the people's voice to be heard, especially when the population under question cannot read and write? Questionnaires and surveys may be alien and directive. Observation is time consuming and sometimes unnerving for participants. One promising solution is the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) Model of Chambers (1983, 1993), drawing on Freireian principles as well as Action Research (Australia) and Community Development theory, which starts from the premise that poor, subsistence economy rural dwellers have an existing wealth of social and technical knowledge about their local environment and political realities which can be built upon. Based on this innovative PRA approach, The REFLECT Mother Manual (ACTIONAID, London, 1996), not a manual per se but a set of guidelines and examples for producing locally relevant literacy learning agendas, has been influential in the design of many third world literacy campaigns, including that in Tigray, Ethiopia, in 1997. Incorporating emancipatory and interactive pedagogical principles, the REFLECT program includes small and large group work, dramatic presentation and role- play, ongoing feedback, gender- and age- sensitivity, and focus on women's issues. Literacy facilitators are taught to include local materials, patterns of communication, icons, authority systems, and even local loyalties in their literacy curricula.
Literacy in Tigray: The effects of war
Adult literacy initiatives are not a new phenomenon in the National Regional State of Tigray in Northern Ethiopia. Literacy rates in Tigray, especially among rural inhabitants and women, are among the lowest in Africa, and, indeed, in the world. Unfortunately, for a variety of war-related reasons the initiatives of the last decades were generally unable to sustain their limited successes. Programs initiated by the Derg, the prewar military r6gime, became vehicles for propaganda; attendance was coerced; instructional objectives and methods were centralized,- top-down program objectives were not linked to local concerns; funding evaporated; and finally war, displacement, famine-relief and disease-prevention took precedence, as they continue to do in 1999. Quite possibly, a major cause of failure of these literacy projects is that they were not relevant to locally identified concerns, needs and goals. Specifically, few previous campaigns used the local language, Tigrinya, as a vehicle for literacy.
As soon as the civil war with all its desolation and loss ended in 1992, literacy became one of the first and most urgent items on the peacetime agenda in Tigray. Tigrayans, highly motivated and hardworking people, were and are eager to restore planned progress to their devastated countryside and decimated population. The tithing of paltry salaries is common practice in the post-war rehabilitation effort. However, severe limitations of manpower and resources, and constraints on mobility, time and communications in the early post-war years resulted in a sadly familiar narrative: isolation and lack of contact with literacy projects in other areas and other countries; recycled and uncoordinated curricula, methods and materials; underqualiAeo literacy trainers and trainer instructors; under enrollment of rural
women; inadequate and out-dated training and evaluation procedures; inattention to emergent- and post-literacy needs in Tigrinya; lack of intersectoral collaboration; and literacy as a tool for government propaganda. The consequence once more was high learner attrition (Abebe, 1994).
Interweaving practices: The Tigray Native Language Literacy Program
CSU has served since 1992 as to provide assistance in the postwar rebuilding of Ethiopia. Working with the Tigray Development Association, a local nongovern-mental agency, CSU has led the effort to bring enhanced human and technological resources to bear on Ethiopia"s current situation, while at the same time expanding international perspectives at participating CSU campuses. CSU faculty members, students and administrators have served as volunteers, founding members and consultants to several Etl-dopian projects.
In 1997, CSU participated in the initiation and funding campaign for The Tigray Native Language Literacy Program, which aimed to address an of the literacy provision problems outlined above. The model outlined below could be generalized to other developing communities worldwide. The target population included but was not limited to: non-literate refugee returnees and other displaced persons, single woman heads of households (including war widows), farmers living below subsistence level, unemployed youths, and demobilized soldiers. The project was initiated in two waredas (geographical areas) of Tigray Province where these groups are especially numerous, and is anticipated to expand to others in future years.
Year One Program Implementation
Facilitator Training in Native Language Literacy
The key factor involved in the planning of the Literacy project was the
mobilization of many existing organizational structures in the Tigray community.
1) In consultation with the team of literacy, planning and
health/ environmental consultants from CSU, the TDA planned and organized a
series of Training Workshops for over 520 rural literacy providers (called
2) These 520 literacy facilitators were nominated and selected by local branches of
the National Literacy Committee and all met specific minimal 4th grade-level
requirements. They were usually the most literate members of the kushet or tabia
(village, hamlet) and included local administrators, teachers and priests.
Approximately 30% were women, predominantly high-school students.
3) Two 40-hour intensive Facilitator Training Workshops were run by community
high-school and adult education instructors assisted by CSU personnel. The
Workshops adopted the new participatory and community-based approach to adult
literacy provision, based on the Freireian REFLECT methods. Group discussions,
group presentations, feedback and problem-posing procedures were favored over
4) The facilitators, after training, ran regular literacy sessions in Tigrinya for local
literacy learners, in over 300 rural rural sites. They used adult emergent-literacy and
post-literacy materials in Tigrinya, which were locally developed, printed and
distributed, and reflected state-mandated curricula including reading and writing,
mathematics and health/ environment issues.
5) Facilitators were encouraged to make and/or compose their own literacy
materials from local resources and to record learners' oral literacy productions (eg.
declarative poems, henkuhenkulitay - riddles, songs, and stories) for purposes of
instruction and for preservation and use in local reading rooms.
Outreach and orientation
1) Radio broadcasting from Tigray capital Mekele's radio station assisted
dissemination of these literacy materials and methods over a wide area of
2) Women's enrollment was strongly encouraged by a sharp increase in the number
of small neighborhood literacy centers and by the provision of daycare by local
Womer~s Associations for learners" children.
3) On-going training-of-trainer sessions for Workshop Instructors, in-service
seminars for literacy facilitators, and orientations for local agency consortia based on
participatory and problem-posing methodologies were implemented.
4) Ongoing opportunities were given to project staff and Facilitator Workshop
Instructors to study, discuss, and most importantly to experience and practice the
new Freireian REFLECT-based learner-centered, multisectoral methodologies and
approaches to adult learning.
Assessment and dissemination
1) Program evaluation was undertaken by three groups: a) representatives of
the local Literacy Committee;
b) a team of trained TDA evaluators; c) CSU consultants attending the two Facilitator Workshons.
2) Information was gathered, shared and coordinated with other Participatory
Literacy Projects in and outside of Ethiopia.
3) Methods for assessment of outcomes were established using data-collections
of program participants' recorded involvement in health, agriculture, income
generating, or environmental-protection projects supported by their local
communities [see Results, below].
Year One Results: Beginnings
In the 1997 between-harvest cycle, 520 literacy facilitators served 10, 254 participants. The national goal for the region is 50% literacy for the Tigray population of 3 million within five years. If the Year One progress were to be maintained and extended to other waredas as planned, that goal will be reached. Furthermore, in this project literacy learners learned not only to read and write but also to articulate, record and address issues affecting their daily lives and the future of their local environment. Additionally, participants were learning to examine their own roles and relationships in their newly democratic society and to set their own agendas for learning and for using their new knowledge. Baseline data collection is planned for Year One learners' lifestyle changes, including: 1) incremental changes in health maintenance procedures (eg. disease prevention and control - including IJFV, family spacing, breast feeding);
2) understanding of and involvement in agricultural project (eg. reforestation,
soil erosion control, Permaculture - initiatives using natural environmental
3) water use and conservation (eg. microdam/canal-construction and waste
Literacy learners are able to collect a substantial proportion of this information themselves, using a self-reflective record-keeping method and template introduced by the REFLECT program and accessible to low-literacy participants.
Short-term outcomes: Problematization (Reading the world in Tigray)
Many years of harsh conditions of drought, famine and war have devastated the Northern Ethiopian environment. Presently new technology is limited and unfamiliar; regional infrastructure is very basic; the economv is subsistence-level; and the recurring border conflict consumes scarce resources. However, because of its abundance of mineral wealth, scenic beauty, and human resources and motivation, the Tigray Province of Ethiopia represents great potential for development, especially in the context of Ethiopia's new openness to the West. If development is to happen in Northern Ethiopia in ways that optimally benefit the region and the environment, rural inhabitants, especially women, must have a voice in community decisions, planning and goal-setting. Progress must be based on what communities consider to be problems, not on outside educators' blueprints.
This project is firmly based on such participatory principles, and supported by a network of strong links to other sectors within the society. Establishment of Tigrinya as the official language of the area is a key symbolic goal that has been accomplished. Year One participants have been provided with opportunities not only to learn the skills needed for a technological society, but also to use these skills to engage in those community rebuilding projects that are crucial to them, and to identify and support common short- and long-term goals. Their enhanced literacy levels result in an effective increase in their eligibility for employment in health/ environmental initiatives and greater understanding of what available technology can offer to improve traditional labor-intensive agricultural practices. Even more importantly, resources and organizational structures traditionally used to mobilize for military action and defense were put to new use, for a period~, in the struggle towards a universal literacy.
Long-range goals: After peace, emancipation
Articulating local environmental problems (codification) and negotiating ways
to address them (decodification) is a first step towards solving th ' em. It has become
apparent during the last 12 months since the Border War has erupted how difficult
it is to implement further evaluation without access to the Tigray, which is
currently an area under strict US Consular Warning. However, a comprehensive
program evaluation conducted with the participation of CSUS personnel has been
funded and scheduled for summer of 1999, pending cessation of hostilities. During
this phase, this project aims to take the REFLECT model one step further.
Communities will now also be encouraged to become actively involved in specific,
Systematic and incremental long-range planning. They will also have
opportunities to become involved in the monitoring and assessment of their
community's ability to achieve its goals. Thus significant secondary outcomes are
expected in the following categories:
1) Level of local quality-of-life. Kushets' and tabias' achievements in the areas
they have selected for improvement (eg. school attendance and retention' water
conservation and purification, AIDS and infant mortality reduction) will be
measured and compared with regional and national statistics.
2) Level of involvement in local health/ environmental/ agricultural
development organizations. Individual participants' achievements will be
measured in terms of their subsequent employment in jobs requiring literacy,
increased knowledge base, understanding of new materials in content areas and/or
procedures relating to beneficial health and environment management.
Outcomes will be tightly linked to goals and measurable by documented participant involvement in solution-oriented local initiatives. Thus communities can move the process of conscientization through the stage of problematization and codification/ decodification, and into the liberating stage of proactive self-advocacy. Principles of participatory education, across-group and inter-agency dialogue, and a pragmatic intersectoral focus will continue to guide this effort. Ethiopia's northern peoples are confidently asserting a linguistic identity and a regional and national presence in heroic efforts of self-assessment, reconstruction and collaboration, in a political climate that is even now still far from stable. Tigrayan women have held national rallies for peace and progress in the States and in the Tigray: May their voices finally be heard!
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