Learning by other means
By Sophie Alal
We opened a new Community Micro Library to commemorate the 2014 Day of the African Child. The intended recipients are the families living in the Acholi Quarter area of Banda. Our pilot in the Kireka area of Acholi Quarter is in the house of Mr. Joseph Oloya and his wife Ms Jackline Akello. The first batch of books were handed over on Wednesday 11 June.
In the afternoon, colourful strings of lacquered paper beads were drying in long strings under the eaves of houses. A kitchen garden with bushes of indigenous cherry tomatoes laden with unripe fruit and spinach sat beside the house. Jackline had cooked a delicious lunch of beans and posho which was served by Mr Owili John, her nephew.
Along the sides of the hill are stone quarries where men women and children break quartz and granite rocks for construction companies and private buyers. Less than one hundred metres from the quarry is a community centre where children play. However, there are no books or scholastic materials in sight.
The 2013 Uwezo East Africa Learning Assessment Report shows that children from poorer households consistently achieve lower competency levels, on all tests and across all ages. Basic literacy and numeracy in Uganda is also at dismal levels. The report states that, “In Primary 3 only one out of ten have Primary 2 level literacy and numeracy skills and even by the time they reach Primary 7, two out of ten children have not mastered these skills.”
Reading to positively enhance the quality of life in a marginalised area can offer up many challenges. Due to poverty and the legacy of displacement, the resulting social problems include substance abuse, under-age sex work, domestic violence and exploitation by self serving people who take advantage of those who are desperate for help.
Community Micro Libraries attempt to find meaningful solutions informed by the social realities of learners in their own communities. In the absence of books and inadequate formal education, family and neighbours offer the only meaningful education for a child, if they cannot afford school fees.
According to UNICEF, 30 million children in Sub Saharan Africa don’t attend school. Independent studies indicate that 68% of children are unable to complete primary school, and over 10% will repeat at least one year of studies. Surely if these inequalities are to continue, then human progress could be even worse.
A clearly better option is to find alternative ways to make access to reading materials easier. And while being able to read and write should not be ends in themselves, reasonable progress can begin by introducing young children to reading.
Our books are free of charge but the family hosting the micro library must be able to help with advice and practical matters of book curating. We expect this to happen at the convenience of Joseph, who fears that some naughty children might damage the books if not stored appropriately.
“I’ll keep the books safely, until I can build a shelf on one of the walls inside the house. We shall identify children of school going age and invite those who are interested to come and read from here,” he says.
Mr. Owili John is Joseph’s nephew. He is currently living with his aunt and uncle and their two small children. He has just finished his secondary school exams and hopes to pursue a diploma or a certificate course in Kampala. He says that his favourite subject is Mathematics, but he loves reading folk tales too.
“These tales are much more enjoyable when told around a fireplace,” says John.
Across their modest two room house is a playing field and a green house. Next to it, middle aged women sell bags of charcoal. Jackline gives John a wry look.
“Here, there is no space to tell folk tales,” says Jackline.
Jackline believes that although a lot can be learned from folk tales, it is impractical to do it like it is done back in their villages. So books that are sensitive to indigenous culture would be valuable. For now they have only one such book and are looking for titles like Acoli Macon, Acam Too Na by JP Ociti.
Communities that live in a peripheral context benefit a lot by being literate. If they can read and write, then it is possible to make informed decisions and take part in dialogue across cultures. And if communities are to thrive and live in dignity, education should be informed by values that are meaningful to the community.
1.Schooling for Millions of Children Jeopardised by Reductions in Aid. UNESCO
2.The Valorisation of African Languages and Policies in the African Education Systems: A Case of Uganda. Study.
3. Are Our Children learning? Report.