In West African communities, oral tradition is the norm. Knowing how to read and write depends on formal schooling, which is inaccessible to many citizens. In Guinea-Bissau, the literacy rate is around 55% (45% for women) and even lower in rural areas where Tostan works. This is why many Community Empowerment Program (CEP) participants were enthusiastic to gain basic literacy skills with Tostan. Although attaining full literacy would require more than three classes per week for three months, most participants learned to write basic information, and to read and sign essential documents by the end of the program. These abilities create many opportunities that were previously great obstacles, such as registering newborn children with the state and getting proper identification to vote.
Literacy class sessions usually start with a revision of human rights, which are learned in the first months of the CEP. Participants are asked to come up with a short sentence that would describe one of the human rights they have learned. The facilitator then deconstructs the sentence by identifying words, then syllables and finally letters. One or two letters become the focus of the lesson. Participants begin by writing one letter on their chalkboards, and then a whole, significant word from the lesson’s theme.
As a result, Mariama Seydi now knows how to read and write her name and the name of her country. Mariama is head of the Health Commission within the Community Management Committee of Massaba, Guinea-Bissau.
Between October 2015 and May 2016 (the beginning and end of classes), 9771 participants—80% of whom are women and girls—in four countries have increased their basic literacy, mathematics, and project management skills. The number of participants, who can solve math problems with a calculator increased from 503 to 3827 participants and those who can solve a problem without calculator increased from 758 to 4306 participants. These important skills will expand their professional and personal opportunities as they bring about lasting change for themselves, their families, and their communities!