A FLAG from the Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign hangs in the office of a teachers’ union in Honduras. This is not just another banner traditionally exchanged by unions in neighbouring countries. It is a symbol of the significance of literacy in the two countries and of the difference between them. The union leader tells the story:
‘In May, 1981, forty teachers went to Nicaragua to gather information on the recently completed literacy campaign and its follow-up programme. When we returned, Honduran customs confiscated everything we had which related to literacy in Nicaragua: text books, teachers’ manuals, posters and even the badges with the logo of the campaign.’
Throughout the twentieth century the small republics of Central America have been ruled by military dictatorships and landowning oligarchies. Their economies have been dependent on world sales of agricultural commodities like coffee, cotton, sugar, beef and bananas — especially to the United States. There was neither the political will for universal literacy nor the economic need.
The majority of Central Americans are landless or near-landless peasants. Work. when it’s available, means tending crops on foreign-owned estates or on the haciendas of the local landowners. Most Central Americans over the age of ten are illiterate; those who can read and write live in the cities.
Unlike the developed world, literacy in Central America is more than a question of technical skills. It has a much different context— framed by pressing political and social concerns like ‘development’,’ liberation’ and ‘national identity’. To paraphrase Brazilian educator Paulo Freire — I can read and write, therefore I can control the world; if I can’t there is little hope that I can.
Learning to read and write is immensely difficult for illiterate adults. The uses of literacy have to be evident right from the start for the effort to be worthwhile. To believe that literacy will begin to give you power you have to see that there are openings in the world, ways in which you can exercise control.
The recent literacy drives in Nicaragua and Honduras show that really effective campaigns can succeed only when the mix of social and political conditions is right Otherwise the effort may be futile.
After the Sandinista government in Nicaragua declared 1980 the ‘year of literacy’, the Honduran military dictatorship next door promptly announced a ’law of compulsory literacy’. The Nicaraguan campaign was awarded the 1980 UNESCO literacy prize and has been recognised as one of the world’s most successful intensive literacy drives. But the Honduran campaign was such a failure that it is now rarely mentioned and no evaluation is publicly available.
Nicaragua’s Literacy Crusade was announced just days after the overthrow of the Somoza regime in July 1979. The next eight months were spent in preparation for the March-August 1980 campaign.
The Co-ordinating Committee for the Crusade included representatives from teachers organizations, the church, trade unions, the women’s movement and neighbourhood groups. A two-week census located illiterates and potential teachers. A basic text of 23 lessons was produced and amended after pilot tests. Volunteers were trained in teaching methods, first aid and drama.
A pyramid system was employed to train teachers. An initial core of 80 teachers trained 560 new teachers and so on, until nearly 100,000 new literacy teachers were ready.
The literacy campaign was promoted nationally through the media Television, radio, posters, even the matchbox labels carried a letter of the alphabet and corresponding symbol. Illiteracy was stressed as a social problem, a heritage of decades of dictatorship.
Most of the funding for the 512 million crusade was raised from international donors like Oxfam and the World Council of Churches. But there were also nation-wide street collections, which themselves formed part of the mobilisation process.
The entire formal education system shut up shop between March and August 1980. During those six months more than 400,000 citizens completed the basic literacy programme. In August before returning home, the teachers formed the new learners into Popular Education Collectives. These CEPs were to continue adult education on their own, backed up by local teachers and professionals, with materials provided by the Adult Education Ministry.
Meanwhile, in Honduras the literacy campaign was running into problems. On April 24, 1980 the Honduras Literacy Co-ordinating Committee met for the first time to oversee a campaign which had already begun officially 17 days earlier. The representative of the National University was notified of the meeting at 7pm the day before, and many delegates failed to attend as they hadn’t received their invitations. This inaugural session of the Co-ordinating Committee proved to be its only meeting.
The Ministry of Education had already taken key decisions that made the Co-ordinating Committee effectively redundant
The Literacy Campaign was to take place between May 2 and October21. The ‘obligatory’ teaching method would be based on Freire’ s ‘psychosocial’ method. Despite this innovative approach virtually unknown in Honduras, the literacy’ instructors received just three days training.
The Ministry decided unilaterally that a ‘methodology of dialogue’ was to be used. The materials for the campaign had already been produced and distributed. And under no circumstances were they to be altered or supplemented.
One classic mistake right at the start was that the reading texts for the learners were produced in far too small a print size (half that used in the Nicaraguan materials). This was a serious error given that most peasants have very poor eyesight — the result of generations of malnutrition. But the mistakes of the Honduran campaign were more than technical and organisational They were directly related to the whole political and economic climate of the country.
The content of the teaching text should have been drawn from the experience and needs of the learners. The Honduran manuals were, in many respects, far from such experience. For example. one of the pamphlets published by ’the Government of the Armed Forces’, devoted a section to electoral procedure and the civic duty of voting— even though Honduras had not held elections for eight years.
Freire’s approach is far more than a technique. It is crucially identified with wider social issues. As Freire himself said of the Nicaraguan campaign, ‘literacy’ only has meaning in a society undergoing revolutionary change.’
The social transformations in Nicaragua are profound. The economy is being restructured. The peasants, under the land reform law, are reclaiming the land and starting co-operatives. Nicaraguan industry is increasingly geared to the needs and the resources of the country and is moving away from assembly industry based on foreign investment and raw materials. A literate and semi-skilled workforce is being encouraged to run local industry and take part in the ‘participatory’ rural economy.
The uses of literacy are obvious. The motivation to learn, strong. And the two main obstacles to universal free education —few schools and pressure on peasant children to contribute to family income — are being removed.
But the overthrow of the dictatorship and the revolution itself have given the literacy campaign its greatest boost Nicaraguans now have a new confidence in their own power to transform the world.
On the other hand the Honduran Literacy Campaign was launched by a rigid and authoritarian military dictatorship. Neither land reform nor primary school expansion are seriously on the agenda. Social and political relations remain unchanged. The failure of the campaign has as much to do with this as with its chaotic organisation and lack of planning.
For decades ‘literacy campaigns by decree’ in neighbouring El Salvador have also failed in the same way as the recent one in Honduras. But today many Salvadoreans peasants are beginning a campaign which shows signs of being successful. It is run by’ ANDES (the Salvadorean teachers union) for refugees outside the country. The ANDES teachers have adopted or modified many of the methods used in Nicaragua’s successful campaign.
A small group of teachers exiled in Costa Rica prepared the project from October, 1981 through the summer of 1982. During those months a manual was produced based largely on the Nicaraguan model. But they also drew on their own pilot project in Costa Rica, where nine refugee peasants from El Salvador successfully completed the course under the guidance of a refugee primary teacher. The manual is based both on the experience of being a refugee and the struggle to overthrow the system which has led to mass exile.
Both the Nicaraguan and ANDES campaigns have vital features missing from the superficial Honduran exercise. Rigorous preparation is needed to identify the learners, prepare the volunteers, build a solid organizing structure and develop a manual which motivates the learners.
However the most important factor is the social context Peasants have to be able to see actual or possible changes in the structures which keep them poor and powerless. There must also be a genuine opportunity for active participation in local and national politics.
Finally’, even the most successful intensive campaign will fail without a comprehensive follow-up scheme. There has to be a massive programme to eliminate the root of illiteracy — the lack of universal primary education. This is the real meaning of Paulo Freire’s ‘literacy’ in a revolutionary context.