When we first moved to Cameroon, I was introduced to the machete which is all so common in daily life here. It is used to kill snakes, cut fingernails, slice vegetables, clear a field in the bush, plant seeds; it is used for absolutely everything. And yet, I had never known life with a machete, so I frankly didn’t see the immediate value of it (that has since changed). If “my people” have survived for generations without a machete, is it really that important?
This is exactly the same question that is often asked among illiterate people when being introduced to the idea of reading and writing. Just as I couldn’t see the immediate usefulness of a machete, so many minority language groups cannot see the immediate usefulness of writing silly little symbols on pieces of paper. And just as there is some sweat involved in learning to properly wield a machete, so is there in learning to read and write. Why labor for something that isn’t very useful?
This question is one of the greatest hurdles in getting people in minority language groups to learn to read and write in their language. This is such an issue that one author has said:
“The first task of the literacy teacher is to help adults to acquire a new motivation – the motivation to become literate. The second task is to help adults actually to learn to read and write. Once the first task is accomplished, then the second will be easy.”
– Bhola A Sourcebook for Literacy Work, 44.
And so, the literacy worker’s passion for the correct use of the comma is to take second place to his/her calling to sell people on the importance of literacy.
Although we have done work to convince people of the importance of literacy, I would say that in our case, our time has been spent more on helping people with their commas rather than trying to persuade them to come to literacy class. We have been praying for years that the Lord would work in the hearts of the Kwakum a great desire to learn to read and write in their language. Without a doubt, he has. I know this isn’t normal; it is simply God’s grace.
So far, we have done one complete “Transitional Literacy” class. This is where we take a group of people who already read French and teach them how to read and write in Kwakum by comparing and contrasting the two languages. We did three weekends, Fridays and Saturdays for 8 hours a day. I was nervous to teach because it would be 8 hours of teaching in Kwakum a day…which it is still my third language.
However, each day in class, I would pray that the Lord would give me the grace to communicate clearly and give the students the grace to read and write clearly. Their weakness in reading and writing and mine in speaking put us on level ground and there was nothing but encouragement between the students and me. I think that messing up my words here and there made them less intimidated to “do school.”
The content of what was being taught was very technical. We started with the letters of the alphabet, but then we got into more technical subjects like verbal auxiliaries, the genitive construction, and punctuation. Most people in the class did not know what a sentence or period were. Nevertheless, they persevered through hours upon hours of study and then even studied in the evenings.
By the end of the class, they were able to write out their own stories and read them to the class. I honestly could not believe it! The writing system isn’t perfect, but I think it works. Last weekend, we had people listen to the recording of the Fall narrative and write it into Kwakum. I graded their papers this week and was beaming with joy. They are writing between 77-95% accuracy. They are dividing their words correctly, spelling words right, and are (slowly) beginning to begin their sentences with capital letters.
One guy, Koo, doesn’t read French at all but is currently living in the literacy and translation center. He attends every class and now knows how to read one syllable words in Kwakum. Just last night he said that he has already mastered all that I have given him and wants more stuff to read and work on. I cannot produce materials fast enough for him. When I told him that we were going to start a beginners literacy class in January, he was giddy and so was I.
Another heartwarming story is that of a teenage girl named Maggie. She had polio when she was young and now walks bent over with her arms dragging on the ground. Since she lives next door to the Kwakum literacy and translation center, I invited her to come to our meetings. To my surprise she declined saying that she was too embarrassed to walk in front of all the people who were coming. I told her that I would open the doors early and she could come into the center before anyone arrived. She agreed and has come to every literacy class and Oral Bible Storying workshop since then. Not only is she coming, but I have officially asked her to be our illustrator for children’s books. She sits all day coloring pictures so that I can make books for her and children like her. Her grandmother told me the other day to not waste my time trying to teach her to read and write because she wasn’t capable of learning to read. “Oh, she will learn to read” I said (in a very culturally appropriate way). Reading, and especially the reading of the Word of God, is not for the elite but it is for everyone – crippled, poor, and forgotten.
When I sit back and look at all the little books we are producing, when I receive notes from people in my village, when I see people going into the literacy center “just to study”, when people I have never met before come up to me and tell me that they are reading books that we have produced, when people call me “teacher” in the streets, when I watch the Kwakum writing down Bible stories, I feel abundant joy and abundant pride in the success of my students.
You know, honestly, when we came to Cameroon, I would not have said: “I am here to teach people to read.” If anything, I saw literacy as a means to an end, and I was hoping someone else would do it. I see now that God made our minds (no matter how uneducated, sick, or unpracticed) to learn. And seeing the eager desire for knowledge in our neighbor’s eyes has been truly thrilling. Reading is really just a means to an end. We read to learn, to relax, to empathize…not just to read. But what a fantastic, underrecognized, God-given means. I am glad to be a part of such joy coming to the Kwakum people. I am thankful to the Lord for giving them this thirst, and praying that he would draw many to him through this means.