Literacy, school, poverty

Literacy class. Photo: GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

For many years, the Ghanaian organization I work for, GILLBT, has done adult literacy in the various Ghanaian languages. Among the many benefits is the fact that it helps to children succeed in school. The benefit works two ways. First parents who attend a literacy class and read the Bible in their language are much more likely to put their children in school and keep them there. This is true even in parts of Ghana where some children never attend school even though it is obligatory.

Second children who fail and drop out of school often then attend an adult literacy class in their language. They return to school with their improved reading skills and succeed. This is in spite of the fact that the literacy class was in their language and school is in English.

In fact, this path to success in school has been so successful that it has been formalized in a government program known as Complementary Basic Education (CBE). Children who fail in school and drop out then attend a few months of instruction in reading and other subjects in their mother tongue then returned to the regular school system; not infrequently skipping grades after returning. GILLBT partners with the government in implementing CBE.

GILLBT does adult literacy so that people can read the Bible. As I have reported in this blog (links) , that has been wildly successful in both spiritual and practical terms.

Today, there are tens of thousands of Ghanaian teachers, nurses, pastors and others who initially failed school, but then succeeded after learning to read in their mother tongue in a GILLBT literacy class. I even know of one university lecturer. They and their families were lifted out of a life of poverty through literacy and the Bible in their language. This is all the more impressive because it is happening in the poorest parts of Ghana; places where the poverty rate reaches as high as 90% and half of those live in extreme poverty.

Bibles in church

In 2017, the Ghanaian organization I work with (GILLBT) received a letter from a pastor of a congregation composed of believers from the Buli language. Here’s the gist of that letter:

This is to inform you that last Sunday during the Bible study period, we noticed an unusual thing that about half of the adults had their Buli Bible and each was eager to read whenever a reference was made. It was so good and pleasant to see that. I wish to say thank you GILLBT for this wonderful thing you have done. Long live GILLBT.

This is amazing for three reasons.

First, far fewer than half of Buli adults can read. In fact it’s probably less than one in five. It is likely that many of the people in church got there through a literacy class.

Second, the church in question is in Accra, a long distance from the area where the Buli language is spoken. Historically, people moving out of their area to a city learn the language of the city in order to find work and interact with their neighbors. Quite a few people, including pastors planting churches, think that local languages are therefore irrelevant to church planting in cities. It turns out that the opposite is often true – that local languages are very effective in evangelism of people newly-arrived from rural areas.

Third, because these believers can read, they have much better job opportunities. The effects are obvious. Christians do better economically than other recent, uneducated rural people moving to cities.

Lastly, these Christians will not be swayed by false teaching because they check everything the preacher says from their Bibles. By the way, the Buli Bible was dedicated two years ago this week.

Doing better

When I was in Ghana in July 2018 I had an interesting conversation with a Ghanaian Christian medical doctor. He is from a part of Ghana where there are very few Christians and where the poverty is not uncommon. He told me that he went out into a rural part of his home area where he met a pastor. The pastor is a man with no formal education, not even primary school. But he had learned to read in a literacy class and avidly reads the Bible In his own language. Like most pastors in Ghana, he is bi-vocational. That is, he receives little or no pay as a pastor and supports himself and his family through other activities. Being uneducated and living in rural Ghana means that he is probably a subsistence farmer, like many of his neighbors.

The doctor said with amazement that the uneducated pastor was clearly doing better than most of those around him who also lack education. He attributed the difference to the Gospel. That’s almost certainly right. There are lots of anecdotes and even at least one formal study linking better life outcomes in rural Ghana to reading the Bible.

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. – Acts 4:13

Side effects

The Annual General Meeting last year

The Ghanaian organization I work for (GILLBT) has a general meeting every year where key decisions are made. Other organizations with similar interests send delegations to bring fraternal greetings. At the last general meeting, the Assemblies of God church sent a high-level delegation. When they took the floor they said how much they appreciate the translations of the Bible done by my organization because they allow their churches to succeed. Then the said something amazing:

“Some communities turn to Jesus Christ just because they were taught how to read and write in their mother tongue through GILLBT.”

This was the third time I have heard a very reliable source close to the situation claim that GILLBT’s literacy efforts are effective evangelism. The thing is, the literacy classes were not designed to evangelize. They contain no religious or Bible content. But learning to read in the heart language and having the Bible also in the heart language have an unintended side effect. Unintended but not undesired!

These Christians were reached through literacy classes in their languages. Here they are reading Bible in their languages at a church meeting.

This side effect is common enough that some churches in Ghana have created very effective evangelism programs whose core component is literacy classes in people’s heart language. In fact, the next man to speak at the general meeting represented the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. He said that his church holds literacy programs for the purpose of evangelism. Those literacy classes are like GILLBT’s with primers made by GILLBT and staff trained by GILLBT. In fact, I helped them expand that program. Even though the literacy classes are just literacy classes, the result is churches full of newly literate new believers avidly devouring the Bibles in their heart languages.

I love side effects! Well, at least this one.

Literacy is simple

You might imagine that literacy is complicated, that it costs a lot of money, or that adults learning to read spend years in classes. After all, not all children in US schools become fluent readers by the end of first grade and it is in second grade that most become fluent readers. Even then, it is not sure that many could read the Bible and understand it. So you might think that it takes years for an adult in Africa to learn to read well enough to read the Bible fluently. But Bible translators run literacy classes that might surprise you in many ways. I have seen adults become fluent readers, including reading Bible passages, after spending 12 weeks in intensive literacy, although it usually takes longer. They have a very big advantage over US grade school students. Because of the work of missionary-linguists, their language sounds like it spells and spells like it sounds. They don’t have to deal with the inconsistent, confusing maze that is English spelling.

Also, the literacy program is adapted to the local context. Classes are held in whatever facilities are available, even if that is under a tree. Whatever the church or community has, that’s what we’ll use.

In addition, the literacy teachers are volunteers. Few have any formal training as teachers. Some just became literate themselves and they are often among the best teachers! They do get a week or two of training. This is possible because the primer is made so the every lesson has exactly the same steps. The teacher doesn’t need to know why or how the steps work. They just learn to follow the same process with each lesson. (This wouldn’t work with English because the spelling is so complicated.) So literacy classes can be run by almost anybody. A church that wants its members to learn to read the Bible does not need to find a trained teacher. Any literate member of the congregation can do it. Even if no literate person wants to, the church can send a few of its illiterate members to a literacy class and then have the one of them who does the best become the teacher for others. When I was in Burkina Faso, one big literacy program run by another organization required a high school diploma to be a teacher. Not many were found and they wanted salaries, of course. Then the wanted proper classrooms, and they did not want to be assigned to literacy classes is remote areas. A literacy program that uses motivated members of the community does not encounter these issues.

 So, these simple literacy methods work because of motivation. The teachers, for example, are often very highly motivated. Some have been volunteer teachers for years, peddling their personal bicycle to a class several times a week, then the next year doing the same for a different class in a different location. They do this year after year. One even continued after being hit by a car while peddling his bike to class and spending some time in a hospital. They believe that they are changing lives and transforming their community, which they are. The learners are also motivated. Many want to read the Bible. Some want to use text messaging on their phone. Others want to write letters to distant relatives. They put up with the inadequacies and spend hours in class because they really want to read. If they fail, they enroll in the next class and try again. Chiefs want literacy classes in their areas so they give what they can and tell people to enroll. Nothing can replace motivation when it comes to literacy.

But the biggest reason why these literacy classes work is that they are in a language people know – their own language, their heart language. Time after time, I have seen adult literacy programs in English or French (in countries where French is the official language) get low results.

A few years ago, I met a young lady in northern Ghana who told me that her father would not let her go to school, but her uncle interceded with her father so that she could go to a literacy class in her language offered by the Ghanaian organization I work for. She did so well and her father was so impressed that he let her start school for the first time as a teenager. She advanced quickly. In the process she became a Christian and married a fine Christian man. When I spoke to her she was a few weeks from graduating from university. There are tens of thousands of similar cases in Ghana.  Combine literacy in the heart language with the Bible also in the heart language, and amazing things happen. Simple literacy yields results that are anything but simple. 

Photos: Rodney Ballard, courtesy of Wycliffe Global Alliance

Deep and wide

Ed addressing the workshop

Ed addressing a regional workshop

A few months back, I attended a few sessions of a training event for African church leaders. The topic was the use of African languages in the ministry of the church. That includes translations of the Bible in African languages, of course. The focus of the training was on getting faith deep into hearts and minds so that influences all of life. Some have remarked that Christianity in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep. It is common for Christians and churches to split along ethnic lines during ethnic conflicts.

mandela-his-languageI know of cases where Christians have tried to harm, even kill, other members of their own church who were from the “enemy” ethnic group. Corruption is rampant in parts of African where there are many Christians. Serious Christians and church leaders are asking what is wrong and how to fix it. What is lacking in the preaching of the Gospel? What are churches not doing or doing wrong? How does faith get to the level of changing a person’s values, actions and allegiances? I have heard African Christians and their church leaders ask discuss these questions. The leaders of the workshop, themselves Africans, were proposing that deep faith that changes a person often involves the person’s mother tongue, even if it involves other languages as well.

At the end of the workshop, one of the participants, the leader of a large church in the country, told the group that he realized during the workshop that:

We win lots of souls, but we don’t give them what they need to grow in their new faith.

After the event, he asked for help planning a literacy effort for the Christians in his churches so that they could read the Bible in their own languages. We sent him a literacy specialist to help him get started. In Great Commission it is obvious that Jesus was giving instructions to do much more than “win lots of souls”. Jesus said to teach people “to observe all that I have commanded”. So we commend the church leader who wants to see the people in his churches grow in their faith.

We are doing Bible translation so that Christianity in Africa will be as deep as it is wide.

That’s for others

Langauge Map of GhanaThere are some large, unreached people groups in the north of Ghana. They have been resistant to various attempts by missionaries and churches to reach them with the Gospel. In recent years however, small congregations have started springing up here and there. These people groups have low education and literacy rates coupled with high poverty, which is quite a contrast to the southern parts of Ghana.

A number of Ghanaian churches have outreach in the north. They have have had modest success in evangelism and church planting. As Bibles were translated into the languages, some of them began literacy programs for members of their churches so that the Bibles could be used.

They funneled money from their churches in the south for to support the literacy effort. Literacy has had effects no one really expected, and those effects have been so big that two of the churches have changed their strategy for growing their churches in the north.

Keep in mind that most of the rural Christians were poor, subsistence farmers with little or no education. Prior to learning to read, their only participation in church was to sit and listen. Neither they nor church leaders thought that they had any role to play. When church leaders organized literacy classes, their hope was that these believers would be able to grow in faith through reading their Bibles. That happened, but much, much more.

Christians in the Northern Outreach Program read the Bible in their languages

Lay preachers from northern Ghana reading their Bibles at a church conference

Some of the Christians who attended literacy classes started seriously reading the Bibles in their languages. I’m not talking about reading a few verses a day. One man told me how he read the New Testament clear through 5 or 6 times in the month following the dedication. Where the whole Bible has been translated, some of those previously uneducated and illiterate peasant farmers used their newly acquired literacy skills to read their Bibles through multiple times in short order and then to continue reading it through every few months. They became known in their communities as Bible experts.

Literacy took them way beyond being able to grow in their personal faith – they became a faith resource for others. People came to them asking questions about the Bible and about Christianity. They started teaching Bible and Sunday school classes in their language. Some became lay preachers in their churches. A few have weekly FM radio broadcasts in which they explain the Bible or have a call-in segment where listeners can ask questions. In some cases, clerics from other religions come and ask them questions.

Learning to read

Learning to read

Not that long ago, these local Bible experts were simple pew sitters. Churches have realized that they need to recognize these lay preachers and include them in their pastoral staff, both because that seemed reasonable and because they are more effective than the more educated pastors sent to the north from other parts of Ghana who have to learn the languages. But these newly-literate lay preachers have provoked yet another change that goes way beyond the church to affect their whole community. Before, many people from northern Ghana considered that Christianity was not a religion them.

They thought that Christianity was the religion for the more educated peoples of the south of Ghana. But now the local lay preacher is from a family that has lived in the community since before anyone can remember, is widely respected, and preaches and teaches in the language of the community. Faced with that, people change their mind about his religion being only for people from somewhere else.

Bible translation and literacy for believers is radically altering the perceptions about Christianity, they are changing it from being generally considered a foreign import to something that is becoming an accepted part of the community – an understandable and acceptable choice. This hasn’t happened everywhere yet. There are still communities where the churches have not organized literacy classes. There, Christianity remains a religion for others.

Legible or fancy

KJV 1611 Genesis 1A change in technology changes the thing to which we apply the technology. There are lots of examples. Here’s one I love. What you see here is the first page of the first printing of the King James Bible in 1611. (enlarge). It is quite difficult to read. When Bibles were painstakingly hand copied by scribes, before the printing press, they became ornate. Each scribe was in fact a calligrapher.

Few had Bibles, few read them and those who did mostly had jobs that had them reading all day long – university professors, etc. So this system worked. Those who read learned through long practice to read the ornate letters with ease.

After the invention of the printing press, the first printers made Bibles that looked like the hand copied ones. They used the same kind of  ornate “fonts” and decorations. What else would they do? That kind of Bible was the only example they had. Printed Bibles spread more widely than he old hand-copied ones. Soon they were in the hands of lots of people who did not read all day long.

It took quite a while, but someone noticed that Bibles printed this way were difficult to read, especially for people who might only read the Bible a few times a week. People started experimenting with shapes of letters which were easier to read. The focus on the shapes of letters shifted from being fancy or ornate, to being easy to read. Eventually, educators began experiments to see which fonts were easier to read. Soon publishers were printing Bibles in easy-to-read fonts. Today, publishers consider carefully which font to use when printing a Bible and the main consideration is legibility. Get into the right circles, and there are still discussions of which fonts are best.

The technology of printing made the Bible and other documents available to more people. Those people needed something other than ornate letters, so the shapes of the characters (their font) eventually changed to match their needs. It’s one of very many examples of technology changing the thing to which it applied.

ImageTo print Bibles and other documents in local languages, we use fonts created by experts in making easily readable fonts. Those fonts contain all the characters we need, including a number not found in English. For many languages, we use letters like those we have in English, but we add some new letters to account for all the sounds in the language. Here’s an example of some of those added letters.

Capital of engFor the most part, these experts were and are missionaries supported by their churches and friends. Their work is a very important, if often unheralded, part of translating the Bible into all the languages of the world. In fact, I recently saw that Wycliffe is looking to recruit missionaries to do font development.

Black Hole

UNESCO School statsAccording to UNESCO, 42% of African children will drop out before finishing primary school. Because the dropout rate is so high, many adults don’t know how to read or write. So in most areas where translation is going on or needed, there are high levels of illiteracy. In fact, in most of those areas the dropout rate is well above 42%. So, translating the Bible without doing literacy results in little impact. But the major North American agencies that fund most of translation work are hesitant to do much literacy because they consider it a “black hole”.

By black hole thy mean something one can put lots of money into and never get to the end of it. They are both right and wrong about this.

Artwork courtesy of Alain r via Wikimedia Commons

Artwork courtesy of Alain r via Wikimedia Commons

They are right because of the statistics I cited above. Africa’s population is growing and many children drop out of school. So every year hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Africans become adults not knowing how to read. Even if a literacy program reached all of them, the next year more would be added. A charity could spend millions of dollars for decades and not solve the problem. The metaphor of a black hole fits. But, the metaphor is also wrong. Literacy is only a black hole if you try to solve it once and for all. There are lots of low-cost things we can do to help people learn to read their newly translated Bibles without trying to “solve the literacy problem”.

Reagan - everyone can help someoneMany people could be blessed by spending a fraction of the money spent on translation on well-conceived literacy efforts. Many churches in Africa could run such programs at very low-cost and some, if informed and trained, could cover the costs themselves. It’s a modern malady – if we can’t solve something definitively we feel discouraged and don’t want to do anything about it. But Jesus didn’t call us to solve the world’s problems definitively, just to love our neighbor. The idea that we must fix a problem can prevent us from obeying that simple injunction. For me, calling literacy a black hole is a great example of that.

A Ghanian woman demonstrates her newly writing skills by writing in the sand. It's very low cost - no paper, no pencil, no blackboard, no chalk.

A Ghanaian woman demonstrates her newly acquired writing skills by writing in the sand. It’s very low cost – no paper, no pencil, no blackboard, no chalk. (photo courtesy of GILLBT)

Hmong alphabet

Today is International Literacy Day. So my blog today is about literacy, and it will be about literacy next week too.

Hmong alphabetThis is a wood carving in the Hmong language. It uses a writing system developed in about 1959 by Shong Lue Yang, a Laotian peasant farmer. He may be the only person in history who was killed for creating an alphabet. Writing their language in an alphabet developed by one of their own, the Hmong people began to have pride in their identity. These developments cause some to perceive Shong Lue Yang threat, so they had him assassinated in 1971.

I know of similar situations in Africa. In one case, a people dominated by another began to assert their rights after the development of an alphabet for their language and the start of the first literacy classes. The group that had dominated them reacted with violence. They even attempted to burn down the buildings of the organization doing literacy.

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

Literacy is about learning to read and write, but its effects go well beyond the realm of reading. Christians in Ghana who learn to read and write their languages become more active in their churches, so much so that some churches now recognize the ministry of uneducated lay people who have learned to read and who read the Bible in their languages. Women who learn to read and write are more likely to undertake new initiatives or businesses and to speak out in their communities and churches, even though the literacy classes don’t teach any of those things.

Literacy among minority peoples is a very neglected but effective form of Christian ministry. As I have written before, through literacy a person can touch many aspects of life: spiritual, economic, social and even political.

PS: The photo of the Hmong alphabet comes from Tim Brookes of the Endangered Alphabets Project. They have a gift shop with some very beautiful and unusual gifts.