Imagine for a moment that you couldn’t read street signs, use a computer, send a text message, fill out a form, read instructions for your child’s medication prescription, or simply, read your child a story.
Well, that’s the situation of nearly two million Rwandans.
According to Espérance Muziganyi, the in-charge of adult education at the Ministry of Education, there are nearly two million adults in Rwanda struggling with literacy capabilities.
“Currently, 73 per cent of people from the age of 15 have the required literacies. With the different approaches, we will reduce the number of illiterate adults,” she says.
Education researchers say that adults without literacy capabilities have difficulty in getting employment and experience problems in their everyday lives because they cannot read and write.
They are excluded from leadership positions, unable to read vital information, have to ask other people to read letters for them and often lack confidence in themselves.
In light of this, a number of initiatives have come up with the aim of fighting adult illiteracy.
One of these includes a literacy programme run by ‘Ready for Reading’ (RfR), a local non-governmental organisation in Rwinkwavu, Kayonza District, Eastern Province.
The programme is bringing change to the lives of many adults by availing adult literacy classes.
With its vision ‘literacy becomes the expectation, not the exception’, the programme is serving the community and the surrounding districts and villages by equipping illiterate adults with reading and writing skills.
Just like with a number of beneficiaries for this programme, 67-year-old Cecilia Dusabeyezu says shame always kept her from getting the help she needed.
However, with this programme, she says the urge to learn overcame her shame as she had witnessed positive changes RfR programmes was making in the lives of those benefiting from it.
She attests that she witnessed some of her neighbours who benefited from the programme getting jobs as community health workers, starting up small businesses, getting ahead as members of women’s co-operatives and micro-finance initiatives.
“This was all because they could read and write, and it was this that helped me swallow my pride and enroll for adult literacy classes two years ago. Because of my age, I was ashamed and at the same time considered myself too old to be in class,” she says.
“Before I could neither read nor write, today, I can read books, read posts everywhere I go but most importantly, I no longer ask people for directions, especially if it's clearly indicated on signposts,” she adds.
Aside from just learning how to read and write, Dusabeyezu says she is also equipped with other skills, such as how to run and manage a small business.
Alongside literacy classes, Dusabeyezu has been able to engage in co-curricular activities such as drumming and playing basketball, which are some of the activities offered by the programme.
Currently, Dusabeyezu is in a savings association with the position of vice president. She says she managed to secure this because of her skills in reading and writing.
Beatrice Mukabihoyiki, another beneficiary, says she can now help her primary kid with homework, a milestone she is very proud of.
“Before I could see my elder child struggle with homework and there was nothing I could do to help. This has changed, however, and the younger child is happy because she enjoys doing it with me —she says it’s much easier than when she is doing it alone,” she says.
Mukabihoyiki recalls the daily struggles she had to go through because of her illiteracy. “It was so bad that even reading and responding to a text required me to look for someone who could help me out. But this has all changed.”
Currently, Mukabihoyiki has joined two savings associations where she mostly deals with finances.
“I have also gained skills in saving, setting up kitchen gardens, among others, which are helpful as far as my social-economic life is concerned,” she adds.
According to Jean Marie Habimana, director of operations and partnership at RfR, the organisation also has the Kinyarwanda literacy programme which is open to anyone over the age of 18.
They have a one-year-long curriculum where the participants get all the knowledge necessary to be able to read write and do basic mathematical operations (numeracy).
So far, he says, 526 adults have graduated from the programme since it started and currently, 58 have already enrolled in the 2019 intake.
Protais Turatsinze, one of the teachers who train beneficiaries of the programme, says a third of the students are women.
“We use an approach called functional literacy where we offer knowledge through practices. We start with conversations about programmes such as family planning, saving culture, kitchen gardens and then we select words from them which they learn how to read and write,” he explains.
After classes, he says, they also do a follow up on the beneficiaries to find out if they really put what they have learned into practice.
Research by the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR-Rwanda), a research organisation based in Rwanda, commends the ‘social practices approach to adult literacies.’
It adds that the teaching methods need to be designed to enable learners to develop literacy practices that will be useful in their everyday lives.
The research goes on to point out the benefits of adult learning, noting that adult learners work together on projects and research — for example, on how to prevent their children from becoming stunted by improving hygiene in the home and giving their babies and infants an appropriate diet.
Some learning groups have set up and run their own savings and loan clubs, thanks to this approach.
Last month, ‘Ready for Reading’ was recognised as one of 15 United States Library of Congress ‘Best Practices Honourees’, from an international pool of applicants.
Betsy Dickey, RfR founder, attended the conference at the Library of Congress in Washington DC where the event brought together a remarkable group of organisations doing their part worldwide to combat illiteracy and lack of educational resources and opportunities to those in vulnerable communities.
“It was truly an honour to be representing ‘Ready for Reading’ in a room full of so many passionate promoters of literacy and reading. I am so proud of the hard work and dedication of our RfR Team for making this award possible,” Dickey says.
“Literacy is the ticket to learning, opportunity, and empowerment on a global scale,” said Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden.
“Through the generosity of David M. Rubenstein, the Library of Congress is proud to honour and celebrate the achievements of these extraordinary organisations in their efforts to advance reading levels and give people the foundation for a better life,” Hayden added.