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How do you feel when you are confronted with the nonsense above? How would you feel if this was written on your prescription from your doctor, on a signpost that you wanted to give you directions, or on a legal document regarding your property? These are the situations that Florida, an artisan from the Abarikumwe weaving cooperative, faced in her daily life before she began the Adult Literacy Program, run by Azizi Life’s NGO, Ubuzima Bwiza Iwacu.
We sat on bare benches under the welcome shade of a tree, sheltered from the fierce afternoon sun of dry season. Before participating in this program, Florida was only able to read and write a few simple words.
“I was embarrassed and ashamed” she told me. Oddly, her beaming smile belied the sentiment of what she was saying. She explained the mixture of emotions that she felt in everyday situations, from the frustration of not being able to help her children with homework, to the anger towards her parents for not sending her to school when she was younger. “They could not afford uniforms and school materials though” she acknowledged, perching lightly on the edge of the bench.
While literacy is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as a plethora of other key international declarations, the adult literacy rate in Rwanda, as last estimated in 2016, was 71%. This means that around 1.97 million adults in Rwanda cannot read or write a short, simple sentence on their everyday life.
Smiling through every word, Florida told me that since participating in the Adult Literacy Program, she can fill in forms with confidence, understand written prescriptions and legal documents regarding banking and property, as well as participate more freely in local politics.
The late afternoon sun slanted through the leaves above us and illuminated her hair, giving it an almost ethereal glow, as she exclaimed with gusto that she hopes to be a community leader with her newfound abilities. In the past, this role was simply not open to her.
She spoke of her past dependency on others to read and write for her, and therefore interpret information on her behalf. It put her in a potentially vulnerable position, as the meaning of what was conveyed to her by others, or what she intended to convey to others, could be misconstrued, whether deliberately on accidentally. At that point, another lady from the same cooperative chimed in, laughing that she can now understand what she’s signing when completing forms.
Restoude is an unassuming lady with a wise face and gentle, broad smile. Her ability to plan and organise has improved significantly, which in turn has benefited her work and home life. From writing down orders for her cooperative and expenditure for materials from the market, to writing shopping lists for the home, life can now move forward with greater ease. She is now the President of her cooperative and an active participant in local community ‘umudugudu’ meetings.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of both of these ladies’ newfound literacy is the fact that whereas before, they were dependent on other people to write text messages and letters for them, they can now do it themselves. This has created a more private social space in which to express themselves and engage with others.
Their relaxed demeanours spoke volumes. I was reminded of the African-American abolitiontist, Frederick Douglass, who opined: ‘once you learn to read, you will be forever free’. While poverty seems dehumanising as it is debilitating, the two women sat in front of me exuded self-worth and held themselves with pride.
A more literate society can only be a more imaginative, constructive, informed and empowered society. As we wound up our conversation, I thought of what I would read to my children that evening, and what possible worlds would open up for them, both now and in the future.