Following the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, one of the first priorities of the new government was to launch a massive literacy campaign throughout the cities and countryside. Political empowerment of the poor majority demanded the ability to read and write, and volunteers from throughout the world came to help. Run by a Jesuit priest, the program was a rousing success. Yet it also served as an alarm bell in Washington, where policy makers were nervous about increasingly restless natives to the south.
Literacy is subversive. That’s why in some settings, such as Argentina during the dictatorship, it was OK if you carried the version of the Bible known as the Reina Valera, a sort of King James in Spanish. But if you got caught reading from one of the modern, more easily understood versions of Scripture, you were marked as someone who needed watching by the security forces. All that wonderfully subversive material in the Bible is safe from the eyes of the poor as long as it in unintelligible. But make it easy to understand, and let the poor learn to read, then you’ve got a problem.
The Bible isn’t the only thing that’s subversive. I once wrote about a Methodist congregation that was built on the grounds of a giant coffee plantation in the highlands of Guatemala. The church had been built by the owner of the plantation in a classic effort to use religion to anesthesize the masses against the anguish of exploitation. Yet when word got back to the owner of the finca, who would fly in occasionally by helicopter from the capital, that the church was conducting a literacy program among the workers, he was bothered. Inquiring further, he was livid when he heard that the workers were reading the Bible and the Constitution of Guatemala. “They’re not allowed to read the Constitution. You can get in trouble for reading the Constitution,” he told the pastor who served the church.
Despite resistance from those who fear the empowerment of the poor, literacy programs continue, and I witness them in every corner of the globe. This blog post is in praise of literacy workers everywhere. People like Carlione (left), a Methodist Bible Woman in the village of Bharathiyar Nagar, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, who teaches basic literacy skills to other women in her village.
I love the facial expressions in this next image, where United Methodist Pastor Leslie Dela Cruz, right, helps Janet Tamtan, an Aetna indigenous woman in the Philippine village of Camachile, make basic vowel sounds. It’s part of the church’s pastoral presence among Aetnas who were displaced by the eruption of Mt Pinatubo.
Being a literacy teacher is about love. Look at how Angali, the teacher of a literacy class in Nandambakkam, a tribal village in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu, helps other women learn to hold the pencil to form their letters.
Literacy classes take place in all sorts of settings, often in simple homes or community buildings. Here’s the class in Nandambakkam, which takes place outside. Then women in Mwitobwe, a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, learn basic literacy skills in a workshop supported by United Methodist Women. And then there’s a class in a community building in Kahayag, on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao.
There’s a lot of emotion in learning to read. Look at the determination in the face of a woman as, while holding her baby, she writes on the blackboard as she participates in an adult literacy class in the village of Magsaysay, in the typhoon-ravaged Compostela Valley on Mindanao Island in the southern Philippines. Then another woman in the same program is obviously having fun as she practices writing on the blackboard. And in an adult literacy class for Roma adults in the Zemun Polje neighborhood of Belgrade, Serbia, participants were almost falling out of their chairs with laughter.
As an allegedly old person myself, I know how difficult it can be to learn new tricks. So I deeply admire the dedication of people learning to read. Peple like Giltena Duda, who studies for her basic literacy class while her husband, Ismet Sabanaj, watches television with three of their six children. The family lives in the Zemun Polje Roma neighborhood of Belgrade, Serbia. Ms. Duda is pregnant with her seventh child. They are Roma refugees from Kosovo, and thus legally marginalized in Serbia. They built their home on unregistered land and pirate their electrical hookup. Without legal residency, their children can’t attend a regular school, and they have difficulties getting formal employment. Yet both adults participate in a literacy program sponsored by the Branko Pesic School, where their children attend classes. The school is supported by Church World Service. And then there’s another photo of Giltena studying in her home, and then one of women participating in a literacy class alongside their daughters in Inopawan, in Compostela Valley of Mindanao.
The empowerment that comes with learning how to read can’t be overestimated. Look at 65-year old Lupita Terante, who has learned how to write her own name in a Catholic Church-sponsored program in Tandawan, also in Mindanao. Or Giltena Duda again, looking self-assured. Or Katherine Chimoteo, a woman in Riimenze, South Sudan, who says she is “about 70.” Here she is reading for the first time in years after finding some used glasses that worked for her. She’s reading aloud from “Where Women Have No Doctor”. And the next image shows her trying on the glasses with help from Sister Joana Mai Hla Kyi, a member from Myanmar of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions. The nun is a member of Solidarity with South Sudan, a pastoral and teaching presence of Catholic priests, sisters and brothers from around the world.
Literacy is about more than just words and numbers, it’s about understanding the world, as Suzana Aleksic helps her students do. She’s using a globe to teach geography to participants in a basic literacy class for Roma adults in the Branko Pesic School in Belgrade.
As that world changes, people move. And some people come here to the U.S. who may already know how to read and write, but they’ve got to figure out how to do it in English. Fortunately they’ve got people like Christian Jensen to help them. He’s a tutor at the Tacoma Community House, and here he is teaching an English as a Second Language Class. In the first image, he’s helping Viktor Marmazyuk, an immigrant from Ukraine. To Jensen and so many literacy teachers around the globe, please know that the change you are weaving in people’s lives is intrinsically and wonderfully subversive. Yes we can!