3 Literacy Surprises

On Saturday we finished our first Kwakum literacy course (we have worked through the material with some people, but this was the first official class). We went to a village called Sibita every weekend for 4 weeks. The group varied between 4 adults to 20 adults, depending on the week. We explicitly said this class was for adults, but there were always 10-20 kids there too. The kids participated and learned probably more quickly than the adults.

Being that it was our first official literacy class, there were some things that surprised me. Here are three:

1. No Abstract Categories

I am going to give you a list of four objects, decide in your mind which of the four does not belong:

Hammer | Shovel | 2×4 | Saw

So which one does not belong? If your brain in wired like mine, you have an abstract category called ‘Tools’. Every word above belongs to this category except ‘2×4.’ So, that is the word I would have said does not belong. Without fail, when I have asked my Cameroonian neighbors and colleagues this question, they have responded: Shovel. Why? Because rather than an abstract category, these friends think about practical tasks. A hammer and a saw work with a 2×4, but a shovel does not. Therefore, the shovel is the odd one out. 

How does this apply to literacy? Well, in discussing spelling in Kwakum, even though everyone in the class could read at least some in French, no one could tell me what a vowel or a consonant was. None of them could categorize words as nouns or verbs. These are all abstract categories which are very helpful in learning how to spell correctly, but completely foreign concepts to those in the class. This is not because they are uneducated, it is just a different way of categorizing that they are not used to.

2. Competitiveness!

I kid you not, I had 80 year old Kwakum women trying to knock me down to get to the matching game cards first. There were elbows thrown, BINGO beans knocked on the ground, and nearly every declaration of a winner challenged and debated. Mind you these were all educational games, and there were no prizes. Not a single person in the room was willing to lose. 

We had heard that games were an important part of the literacy process. It was exciting to see older men and women that were almost asleep during some of the lecture times come alive. What’s more, I believe that these games really helped them to nail the letters and words that were the most difficult. God used silly games and intense competitiveness to fuel knowledge acquisition. But I had to keep a sharp eye on those grandmas. They were not above cheating to win!

3. Pride and Joy

At the end of the day, the most exciting thing for me was to see the ‘lightbulb come on’ for our students. Cameroon was under the colonization of first Germany (starting in 1884), then England and France (up until 1960-61). One thing that was made clear to them during this time was that their languages were not ‘civilized’ or valuable. They were whipped for speaking their languages in school and even today many believe that French is a better language. 

But over these last few weeks I saw so much joy in the eyes of these Kwakum people. They were able to read silly stories, write about their experiences, and even read parts of the Bible in Kwakum. One thing I love about the French language is that it distinguishes between fierté and orgueil. The later is the pride that is sinful, thinking of yourself more highly than you ought. The first is the kind of pride that you have when you see your kid work really hard and accomplish a huge task. There is nothing sinful about that. I saw great fierté in our students. They were proud that they were able for the first time to express themselves in writing in their heart language. They were proud to see children writing Kwakum words on the chalkboard. They were so proud that they could pick up a book that was written in Kwakum and they could read and understand. 

This was only the beginning, of course. There are 20 villages among the Kwakum and thousands of people. Of all the people that came and went during this class, only 4 were able to pass the exam at the end. There is still so much to do. But I am proud to be a part of this beginning. I am proud to be able to tell the Kwakum people that they are created in the image of God. And I am excited to have 3 Bible stories printed in Kwakum and more on the way. May God use all of these labors for his glory and for the salvation of the Kwakum people.

Last day of class, we had a 10-page exam. Simon made sure everyone was spread out so there was no cheating!
Simon (standing) was our co-teacher and the director of the Kwakum literacy program.

Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.