A group of students and their two instructors gather on the third floor of a church in downtown Lomé every week for three hours to learn how to read and write in their mother tongue: Eve. This language, spoken by 862,000 in Togo, is the predominant language in the southern part of the country. It is used as the lingua franca (language of trade) in the central part of the country where a variety of other languages are spoken. The adult literacy rate in Togo for women is hovering just below 47%. So for these women, the struggle to function in their daily lives without being able to read, write and do basic math is common.
These ladies choose to defy the common experience and travel from far and wide to this classroom where they meet in a large room that encompasses the entire expanse of the third floor of an unfinished church building. The concrete floors provide ideal acoustics for teaching. The open air room, lacking glass windows, is cool for us on this July morning but must become oppressively hot during the warmer season. Yet, these ladies make no excuses and are dressed immaculately for their weekly gathering. Sitting in a circle of folded wooden chairs, each woman takes a turn reading from a paperback booklet. Correct pronunciation is rewarded with applause and smiles from the entire group. The learning atmosphere is affirming and encouraging. The two instructors take turns leading the class. One possesses multiple degrees and has years of experience while her teaching partner is a recent graduate of the program and has a deep passion for what she is sharing with her students.
On the first day of class, lead instructor Minén explains, she gives the students just five rules to carry with them throughout the nine to twelve month long course. The first rule: be on time. The second rule: come every time we meet for the entire three hours. The third rule and this one she explains is crucial to each student’s success: review your lesson every day. The fourth rule: Set a goal to complete the course and do not listen to negativity from friends or family. Finally, the fifth rule: you must motivate yourself. These rules shared with conviction born from knowing what these women will encounter as they seek to make a lasting change in their lives; help the ladies understand early on the commitment it will take to complete the course.
Minén conducts a sign up period for the literacy classes for a few months before they begin. She said, “Writing down your name for the course forms a commitment and shows interest.” They won’t begin a class until twenty to twenty-five students have signed up in that particular community. Once the class is formed they must find a venue in the community where they can meet. Sometimes, students discover they need glasses during the course of the study. On a very limited budget, ILAD seeks to meet this critical need as well. As students graduate the course and demonstrate proficiency, Minén will select a new instructor to join her and help lead the next group. Some students require taking the course multiple times. After the first few weeks, the students must invest a modest amount of money to purchase the next set of booklets that each of them use. This allows them to continue on in their investment in literacy.
While visiting this class we conducted a number of interviews of the students and one of their instructors to find out what impact ILAD’s Mother Tongue Literacy program has had in their lives and the lives of their families.