Papua New Guinea has an illiteracy rate of nearly 50%. Half the population cannot read the newly-translated Bibles or Bible Portions. They cannot read the newspaper, or the instructions on agricultural supplies. A 2007 survey showed that 36% of primary school graduates could not read or write.
Literacy on Bougainville
The Bible Society of Papua New Guinea has undertaken a major literacy project in the island province of Bougainville, which is still recovering seven years later after a 10-year (unsuccessful) fight for independence. There is now an entire generation that has missed out on school.
But the project does not teach people how to read. It trains community volunteers to be literacy teachers. Local churches, or ideally groups of churches, are invited to participate in establishing a literacy program in their locality. They select 10 to 20 potential literacy teachers, preferably with at least grade 10 education, or possibly ex-teachers.
The community select venues and dates with support and consultation from the Bible Society’s Literacy Coordinator, Dorothy Yogai. Dorothy then conducts an initial one-week introduction TOT (Training of Trainers) course.
But it is not as easy as it sounds!
In a recent course, it took a three-hour ride in the back of a three-tonne truck followed by a 90-minute walk through the bush just to reach the locality. Many people assisted with carrying the week’s food supplies, training materials and a portable power generator as there is no electricity – not to mention bath soap and a personal supply of toilet paper. Evening washes were in the local river.
This was a particularly interesting group of 18 trainees. One half were young to middle age women (“mothers”) who not only want to learn to read, but who want to change their restricted lifestyle, constrained by the inability to communicate other than verbally. They see becoming ‘teachers’ as a major first step to an expanded new world.
The other half was men – former combatants of the conflict – probably former killers. It is often argued that men will not lower themselves to admitting that they need to be taught how to read. But there they were – being instructed in ‘school’ by Dorothy – all 5’ 2’’ of her!
The initial training is only the beginning. Many of the trainees do not have status in the very traditional communities to be able to command resources, time and support to establish actual literacy classes. Dorothy visits each trainee and supports them to approach the local chiefs or pastors to request permission to start classes – in the church or under the traditional meeting tree. But she insists that they do the asking, not her.
Once classes are actually underway there are follow-up visits to assist with lesson plans, to interpret the sophisticated training materials, or simply to listen to frustrations. The Bible Society supplies each teacher with a set of professionally-designed teaching materials, including a recording device that verbally reminds teachers of how to use materials, how to utilise the cross-referencing of phonetics with Bible readings and so forth.
The teachers are volunteers, meaning their local program has no source of funds. But it is up to the individual or the community to supply each literacy student with paper and pen. Not an easy task when it takes a minimum of two days to travel to town just to purchase a new pen.
After only seven months of 2015, the program has eight active literacy classes underway, plus whatever classes eventuate from the latest TOT described above. If six of the 18 trainees (one third) actually establish classes, the TOT will be considered successful. This would bring the number of literacy classes established in 2015 to 14 – above the 10 budgeted for. And another TOT is to be conducted shortly on another remote island community. In addition, a 15th location was opened in partnership with World Vision’s Early Childhood program. The budget is exhausted.
The financial costs
The national capital, Port Moresby, location of the Bible Society office, is not connected by road to any other part of the country. Return airfare to Bougainville (site of the project) is close to US$1,000. Cost of food is astronomical. So a week-long training course can cost US$5,000 to 8,000, depending on the location. A single follow-up visit costs about $2,000 to 3,000. But to see the joy of a 40-year-old mother of six stand up and read a passage from the Bible, or to listen to plans by the ex-combatants to establish a cocoa project, make it all worthwhile.
God is good!