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Out of the Mouths of Children

February 1980

When Fidel Castro announced to the United Nations in 1960 that he would abolish illiteracy in Cuba within two years he was not believed. Eighteen months later, Cuba became the first Latin American country with a literacy rate of over 95%.

Now Mozambique is set to follow Cuba’s example. Recently, the first wave of a quarter of a million adults sat literacy tests and over half were expected to pass. For most of them it has meant coming home from a hard day in the fields and cramming two years of schooling into nine-months of evening classes.

President Samora Machel’s government, which inherited from Portugal a country 85 per cent illiterate after five hundred years of Portuguese rule, now plans literacy for all within one decade. ‘The overwhelming majority of our people,’ he announced at the launch of the campaign in July 1978, ,cannot read a People’s Assembly resolution, cannot read the instructions for the machine at the place where they work; cannot even read the prices in the shops.’

To change all this, Mozambique is following closely in Cuba’s footsteps. The problem faced by both countries was a lack of teachers. The solution was to recruit those with just four years of education, give them two weeks residential teacher-training, and send them out to take nationwide adult literacy classes.

The response to this call for volunteer teachers in Mozambique swamped the campaign’s 300 full-time staff. Says one of the organisers: ‘We had several cases of people walking 100 kilometres to a literacy teacher-training centre saying: ‘My village has sent me because they want to learn to read.’ We said that literacy teachers must have a minimum of four years of primary school. These people often only had two. But they were the most educated people in their village and we couldn’t turn them away’.

The result was 13,000 recruits instead of the planned 3500 and the anticipated 50 per cent failure rate in the literacy tests reflects the excess of demand over supply. But this year the target is another 17,000 volunteer teachers with four year’s schooling behind them. To do it, young people are being recruited even while they are still at school. ‘We’ve found that older people don’t mind learning from the young,’ says a volunteer. ‘in fact many adults are turning to the children in their communities for help. We no longer need to convince people of the importance of learning to read.’

As in Cuba, basic political education is part of learning to read and over half of this year’s literacy ‘graduates’ are vanguard workers - party members in state farms and factories, co-operatives and communal villages. But the literacy books themselves are kept simple and concrete. This year different readers will be published for fishermen, farmers and factory workers, and a new national newspaper is being launched specifically for Mozambique’s newlyliterate adults.

This column was published in the February 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 084

New Internationalist Magazine issue 084
Issue 084

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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