The African Stories

“African women today face many of the same problems they struggled with centuries ago,” said the minister from Guinea-Bissau during a recent meeting at UNESCO.  Women’s status has changed little over the past several hundred years.  And on this score, the usual dichotomy of urban versus rural does not apply: women in urban areas continue to live in much the same way as their rural counterparts.  Women’s lives revolve around fetching water and fuel, cooking, cleaning and looking after the young and the aged.  In addition, they work the field.

Technology that could make their lives easier is simply not available.  All over Africa, women are the major producers of the basic foodstuffs that keep their families alive.  Yet they continue to use traditional methods of sowing, tending and reaping the harvest.  They suffer droughts and pests in the same ways their mothers did.

Gertrude Mongella, Secretary-General of the 1995 World Conference on Women, links this lack of progress to the exceptionally high rate of illiteracy among African women.  In Burkina Faso, for example, ninety per cent of women are unable to read or write.  Illiteracy among women, she contends, remains one of the most worrisome issues for African development. 

This view is confirmed by reports from UNESCO scientists that development projects in Africa are frequently hampered by the inability of women to read and follow written instructions.  Two examples of the important scientific knowledge that could be integrated into literacy activities for women are water management and farming technology.


Political leaders and development specialists in Africa have also recognised that illiteracy – among women in particular – is a major stumbling block for their education and development efforts.  Many believe there is an urgent need to examine the nature of literacy programmes. 

Increasingly, people are calling for literacy programmes and materials that will help to change the prevailing negative attitudes about women, their status and their work.  Ivory Coast’s Anna Manouan maintains that education of all kinds must focus on empowering women; not maintaining the stereotypes and status quo inherited from years of colonialism.  Experts in the field agree that women’s education falls short of its objective because it does not take into account the importance of building self-confidence and self-esteem among women.

At a workshop organised by UNESCO in Arusha in 1977, participants helped to generate a list of the most pressing needs of women in their countries.  Above all, they concluded that women need skills and training that will enable them to earn a better living. They also need access to economic assets: land for farming, and loans and credit to start small businesses or finance agricultural projects.  As they become better at producing salable goods, women need a working knowledge of basic market principles and help finding alternative markets for their products.

In addition, women need transportation and health care.  HIV/AIDS and other health-related issues like guinea worms, clean drinking water, child spacing and goiters were placed high on the list of priorities.  Last but not least, the men and women participating in this workshop agreed on the significance of rights-related issues such as access to education for women and girls, domestic violence, child marriage, the exploitation of young girls as domestic servants and property rights. 

Getting men to share the burden of domestic work with women will also be necessary.  Attempts to educate women and girls, whether well or poorly conceived, will fail if members of the target group are too busy, too physically exhausted or too emotionally downtrodden to attend classes.  Unfortunately, social norms, traditions and superstitions make this extremely difficult.  Villagers in Tanzania, for example, believe that cooking by men is  “evil before God.”  Even if a man wanted to help his wife with “women’s work,” he would risk the ridicule of his peers who would accuse him of letting his wife “sit on his head.”

Literacy programmes will succeed only if they address these issues.  To ensure that its efforts are responsive to local needs, to foster community ownership of literacy programmes and to promote collaborative efforts among natural partners at the local and regional level, UNESCO has developed a two-pronged approach.

The first effort takes place at the regional level.  There, literacy workers and radio producers from various countries are gathered for an intensive, two-week “training of trainers.”  They learn to organise and implement literacy education programmes that are relevant, empowering and gender-sensitive.  Over the course of these workshops, participants write and illustrate short booklets, or produce scripts for radio shows, which they will use in their daily work.

At the Arusha workshop, for example, participants developed a series of 14 booklets that are already being used in education programmes that have been organised since.  Based on the real-life experiences of the men and women who wrote them, the “African stories” are poignant and relevant exposés of the issues that confront women and girls in some of the world’s most needy nations.  From Kenya, for example, consider Priscilla’s story…

Priscilla remembers well the terrible fear she experienced when, at the age of five, she stopped to play with other children on the way home from a trip to fetch water.  Because of her small size, Priscilla’s vessel was small and round.  It didn’t rest solidly on the ground where the bigger girls had left their cans.  Before long, the vessel tipped over.  All the way home, Priscilla fretted and worried: would she get a beating for coming home empty-handed.

Thirty years later, because water fetching continues to be a major pre-occupation of women in African rural life, Priscilla’s story, “... And the Women Had A Break,” still strikes a chord.  In this booklet, the young girl says to her mother, ‘Mama, mama, I’m tired.  This can is so heavy, why do I have to carry it all the time?  I should be carried instead!’

In the words of a child, the truth rings loud.  A child of five still wants to be carried, and at that age, the work of water fetching is too strenuous.  And when, one might ask, does this child have time to play?  Girls throughout rural Africa know what it means to walk many kilometres for water, usually several times a day.  And the situation is threatening to get worse.  Environmental experts predict that as deforestation spreads, women will have to walk even farther to fetch the water and firewood they need.

Gambia’s Amy Joof chose to write about her experience as a child bride.  This custom, a common practice in countries throughout Africa, has been recognised as being extremely detrimental to girls’ physical and psychological well being.  Yet, many people deny that it continues to occur, or that the practice is as bad as it sounds.

Amy dispelled both myths when she announced to her fellow workshop participants, “I was a victim of child marriage myself.  What you’re reading is what transpired between my mother and me.”  Stunned, they accepted the contents of the booklet with no further questions.

As in developing countries around the world, Africa has its share of exploitation of children as domestic servants.  At a UNESCO workshop in Cote d’Ivoire, a man called Aka wrote about Yaba in the booklet entitled “Yaba’s Dream.”  Encouraged by her aunt to start “earning her way,” and lured by the glitz of the capital city of Abidjan, fifteen-year old Yaba follows other village girls into the city to work as a domestic servant.  But the work is hard and her aunt confiscates her earnings.  Yaba is always tired, and she feels homesick and depressed.  After awhile, her boss decides that Yaba is not working hard enough and chases her away.

Alone in the big city, Yaba meets another ex-servant who shows her how to survive.  By day, they sell fruit and at night, their bodies.  When a village friend discovers her, Yaba breaks down and asks for help.  She is ashamed and decides to return to her village.  But all is not lost.  There, she uses the marketing skills she learned in the city to start a profitable, new venture.  In the end of the story, Yaba is running a co-operative of young people from several nearby villages which sells oranges and other fruits to the city.

In the booklet “Death of the Century” written for young women and men in Rodrigues Island, Mauritius, a young man named Colo contracts AIDS from a prostitute and uses his experience to educate others about the dangers of unprotected sex.  In the story, Colo is usually careful to use protection when he goes to visit his favourite local prostitute, Fefine.  One day, however, he meets her unexpectedly and they have sex without using a condom.  Several years later, by then a married man, he becomes ill and is diagnosed with AIDS. Colo’s story tells the reader about the threat of AIDS and the importance of using protection for every sexual encounter in a straightforward, non-judgemental way.

“Stop This Violence” confronts the issue of domestic violence, a widespread phenomenon that destroys women’s self-esteem and undermines family success.  In the story, Tope squanders his earnings on drinks at the local bar, goes home drunk and empty-handed, then picks a fight with his wife to deflect her criticism.  This time, however, when he starts hitting, Bi Tope fights back.  Sick of worrying about money, working like a slave and taking Tope’s abuse, she, too, loses control.  While they fight, their children cry and beg them to stop.  When Tope knocks their mother unconscious, everyone fears she is dead.

Fortunately, she recovers, but the village chief warns Tope that the next time, he’ll go to jail.  He helps the couple to discuss their problems, and Tope realises how difficult life would be without Bi Tope.  He realises he has been a poor husband and father, and decides to change.  Bi Tope also wants to change: she wants to learn to read and write and start earning money to help support the family.  Tope agrees to let her join the literacy class, and to lend her the money to start a small vegetable stand.  In the end of the story, the Tope family has a successful small business, plenty of money and harmony in their home.

“From Tears to Cheers,” by Dixon and Muwana of Zambia tells about Mrope, who also drinks and beats his wife on a regular basis.  Miserble, she finds herself in church one Sunday when the Minister is talking about a literacy class and the credits and loans available to women entrepreneurs.  She gathers the courage to ask Mrope if he will take care of the baby so she can attend the class.  Out of the question, he insists; Mrope will not do woman’s work.  But his wife persists, trying again and again to persuade him to free her for class.

Finally, in a weak moment, he reluctantly agrees.  In fact, Mrope doesn’t really mind watching the baby, but he fears he might be discovered by his neighbours and ridiculed for letting his wife “sit on his head.”  But when she learns to make smokeless stoves and starts earning money by selling them to others in the village, Mrope begins to see value in his wife and in her endeavours.  He starts to help her in the stove-making business before and after work each day and stops drinking so much.  Being productive makes him feel better about himself, and his violent outbreaks become less and less frequent.  In the end of the story, Mrope is full of pride for his “clever” wife.  In the evenings, she reads with him, helping him to remenber the words he has has forgotten.

These simple stories tell of the lives of common people in Africa in the language that common people can understand.  Free of difficult and confusing technical terms, full of idioms, anecdotes and local humour, they stand a good chance of being read.  Their primary purpose is to facilitate the development of literacy skills.  But the corollary benefits derived from these booklets, as well as from the process through which they are obtained, are perhaps even more important.

Above all, these stories are candid and empowering.  They are gender-sensitive, free of myth and superstition, and relevant for readers of both sexes.  In the first round of field testing, the materials were well received by men and women alike.  It is not too much to say that these simple stories have the potential to change social norms and attitudes that prevent individuals and societies from achieving their full development potential.

On another level, just by increasing the collection of books available, the booklets promote reading and therefore the retention and improvement of individuals’ literacy skills.  This is especially important for African youth, who are known to be at risk of relapsing into illiteracy after they leave school.  And for people in remote areas, where seasonal festivities are often the only source of recreation, the booklets provide precious entertainment.

Fundamentally, these booklets help women and men reflect on situations they face in their daily lives.  They deal with complex and serious issues in simple and straightforward ways.  They don’t pretend to offer pat answers or solutions where none exist, but rather encourage the reader to think about issues they would otherwise take for granted, and explore alternative ways of doing things in order to make improvements in their everyday lives.

The stories about the housemaids, for example, will probably not stop young girls from leaving impoverished farms to look for work in the city.  They might, however, help them make the decision to move with greater understanding of the realities they will confront when they get there.

The story about water carrying encourages both women and men to acknowledge the tremendous burden that water fetching places on women and girls.  In addition, it suggests that members of a community should work together to find solutions that benefit everyone.  In the end, the fictional characters in this story decide to pool their resources to buy a mule for carrying water.  In reality, this scheme has already been successfully used in several parts of Africa.

Prior experience in literacy campaigns in many parts of the world has demonstrated that partnerships between radio and educational programme services can be very effective.  It is for this reason that media specialists are invited to the regional workshops.  Radio is an extremely important channel of communication in developing countries.  Because they share the same audience, there is enormous synergistic potential in collaboration among educators and the media.

So far, a variety of formats have been used to translate the messages in the booklets to radio format, including story-telling, dramatisations, interviews with local people or experts, question and answer sessions, etc.  Because it is live, the cassettes are often even more heart-rending than the booklets.

For example, on a programme aired in S. Africa called “The Education of Women,” the radio show host interviews Nantonbi, a young mother of three who becomes a literacy worker following her own experience as an illiterate who learned to read and write by attending adult school.  Because Nantonbi’s family was poor and needed her to help with housework, she was taken out of school after first grade.  As the result, Nantonbi had few employment prospects as an adult.  She was lucky to get a job as a maid. 

Like many illiterates, Nantonbi hid her lack of education.  Embarrassment and fear are powerful psychological obstacles that prevent women from accessing educational opportunities.  Eventually, however, she got caught.  Namtobi remembers the incident as a turning point in her life:

“One day the Madame was expecting visitors for supper.  She told me to warm the food.  Because I could not read, I just turned up that knob on the stove.  Then the kitchen was full of smoke and the food was burnt, all burnt to charcoal.  The Madame was very angry and shouted at me like she was talking to a small child.  I was very frustated, and I felt very, very hurt.  I told her I could not read and write.  That is when I came out…”


At home that night, I cried very much.  I could not talk to anybody about the incident, not even with the family or anyone, because I was so, so embarrasssed.  I decided I must learn to read and write.”

Later in the broadcast, Nantonbi describes eloquently the joy of being able to read newspapers, understand signs and especially, read with her children. 

Clearly, the potential for achieving the interrelated goals of empowering women, reducing illiteracy, and encouraging economic development is very great in efforts that promote collaboration among development experts, literacy workers and the media.  In the regional workshops UNESCO facilitates through the “Educate To Empower” programme, important introductions are made and a framework for subsequent collaboration is established.  To sustain the collaboration after the participants go home, however, on-going technical assistance is essential, and funding to produce and disseminate subsequent programmes and materials must be available.  During the last three years, The DANIDA-UNESCO Special Project for Women and Girls in Africa has provided the support necessary to make the African experience a model for other countries to learn from and copy.

To say that illiteracy is related to economic underdevelopment, social injustice and unnecessary human suffering is merely to state the obvious.  Literacy is the key to individual self-empowerment, and nations are only as powerful as their individual members.  Literacy, therefore, must continue to be a primary focus of local, national and international efforts to reduce the gap between the richest and poorest people in the world in the 21st Century.

But significant and sustained improvement in literacy situation around the world will not be possible unless literacy programmes are designed to change prevailing norms and attitudes that keep women and girls weak, uninformed, insecure, dependent, overburdened and afraid.  Only through education that is gender-sensitive, responsive to participants’ practical needs and economically uplifting will women and men enjoy the benefits of societies in which all members contribute to their fullest potential.

Gender-sensitive education is not just for a woman, and it’s not a luxury the world can afford to ignore.  It must be established as the expected norm everywhere and pursued with commitment and vigour.  When this occurs, all people - not just members of one or the other sex - will be empowere

By Namtip Aksornkool


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