It is late afternoon in the village of Koria. Under a large shade tree some young people are setting up a radio-cassette player and two wooden chests on an expanse of straw matting. About 150 people gather around the matting. A young man selects a cassette from a chest and sets the player going. There are giggles from the children and some kidding among the menfolk as a familiar village voice booms from the player. But a respectful silence settles on the group when the speaker proposes a discussion on village wells.
It is bad practice, he says, to allow animals and their droppings near wells. Water is for drinking and efforts must be made to avoid contamination. Buckets should be kept clean and free of dust.
Across Mali, gatherings like these challenge centuries-old life styles and cultural habits. The programs raise a variety of questions, suggest answers, and invite discussion: Could the village environment be improved? Could villagers grow two crops a season instead of one, and vegetables in the off season?
These ``rural audioth`eques,'' are organized by the Malian Ministry of Education and UNESCO with funding by the United Nations Development Program. The program began in 1983 as a means of educating a population with an 80 percent illiteracy rate by reinforcing the oral tradition of communication and learning. More than 60 recorded themes dealing with everyday lives have been distributed. Committees organize listening sessions to fit the work patterns and special interests of men, women, or children.
Elvia Restrepo, who has been a technical adviser with the project since its inception, says that each village keeps a tape library in its own language.
``The greatest encouragement to all of us has been the people's realization that they can still learn, even if they can't read and write. The children can be given a foundation for future learning and the older people can have a second chance at what they have missed.''