Literacy linked to local needs

'Reflect circles' of adults cooperate to tackle development projects - and their own illiteracy.

In the middle of this settlement on the southern edge of Johannesburg, a place where poverty and sickness often squeeze out hope and plans, a group of women sit in a circle, recording their goals for the year.

They are volunteer health workers, ages 21 to 41, who care for neighbors with AIDS. On colorful construction paper, they write that this year they will get better training, recruit more members, and keep promises to their patients.

They will also improve their education.

These women are part of the Vukuzenzele Reflect Community Organization, one of a growing number of "Reflect" adult education groups in Africa and beyond. Reflect is an education methodology developed in the mid-1990s that connects education with community action in hopes of making learning relevant to adults. It started in El Salvador and Uganda, won the United Nations International Literacy award in 2003, and has now expanded into at least 60 countries.

Many educators hope Reflect will help stem what they see as the growing catastrophe of adult illiteracy. The United Nations estimates that 860 million adults worldwide cannot read or write - a statistic, they say, that has huge implications for future development and democracy in the world's poorest regions.

In South Africa, the government says that almost 8.5 million adults, 18 percent of the population, have had little to no schooling.

The number of South Africans involved in Reflect has grown exponentially over the past year. The Vukuzenzele project had eight participants in 2005. Now there are some 75. And while only eight South African organizations now use Reflect, another 300 are trying to adopt the methodology, says Louise Knight, coordinator of South Africa's Reflect Network.

"Literacy on its own is not very useful for anybody if there's not a reason to use it," Ms. Knight says. "This is a structured approach. That is, a way for people to meet their own objectives."

In the Reflect methodology, a group identifies a community problem - AIDS, sexual violence, poverty, or some other ill - and then decides how to help solve it. The education comes subtly. Maybe the group decides it wants to improve members' writing ability to draft petitions. Or perhaps it aims at better math skills to run the business side of a community garden.

Sipho Mabuya, for instance, says he and his Reflect partners - Nompumelelo Sibisi-Mtilleni and Wilmoth Tshabalala - will soon seek experts to help them learn business skills, such as bookkeeping.

The three Orange Farm residents run a garden outside the tiny Vukuzenzele community center, where the AIDS health workers have assembled for their meeting.

A year ago, this plot was covered with trash and weeds. Now, after using Reflect to learn agricultural skills (they decided together to attend an agriculture training session put on by a nonprofit), the three have thriving spinach, beets, and other vegetables to sell. Once a month, they use Reflect to decide how much money to take home and how much to use for seed, garden tools, or other business expenses.

"We use Reflect in everything we do," says Mr. Mabuya, who went to school through 10th grade. "We knew when we started, it wasn't going to be a short-term thing. We knew it was long term. If we want more money, we have to look forward. What Reflect has taught us is to go from one step to another."

Before Reflect, none of the three had jobs. Orange Farm has an unemployment rate of close to 70 percent.

"We were just sitting at home," says Ms. Sibisi-Mtilleni, a mother of three who went to school through the eighth grade.

Now, they say, they have purpose. They have already improved their writing skills: Last year, they successfully petitioned a nonprofit to install three water taps in their garden. They want to plant more and improve their math and business skills.

"We're moving on and on," says Mr. Tshabalala.

This sort of excitement is what makes Reflect work, says David Archer, who helped create the Reflect methodology.

"The specific literacy that is learned is of immediate relevance to people's lives," says Mr. Archer, who now heads international education for development group ActionAid. "Traditional adult education - it can be quite demeaning. You feel like you're not really being respected as a grown person. You have experience you bring into the room, which traditional teaching tends to ignore."

Sometimes, the learning is overt: In a rural province in southeast South Africa, the Family Literacy Project uses Reflect to teach mothers to read to their children.

Sometimes it's subtle: The healthcare workers of Vukuzenzele practice spelling and writing by recording their goals, although it is never described as a lesson.

The women are quite aware of Reflect's other attributes, however, such as the concept that "students" make their own decisions about what they should achieve.

"I learn so much responsibility here," says Irene Ntsamai. She and other members meet twice a week in this one-room brick building. They also talk with each other after their daily visits with patients.

They have no formal nurses' training, but help neighbors by bathing them, doing housework, or bringing food. Most of the women have rudimentary reading and writing skills. Now they aim to acquire more medical knowledge, such as understanding prescription labels.

Critics say that while Reflect may help adults learn, it cannot replace traditional education. In theory, a person could go through a Reflect program and still not understand basic math.

But Reflect proponents say their program is supposed to challenge such traditional concepts of education. In a Reflect class - called a "circle" - there is no teacher, no grades, no leader. Everyone is encouraged to share ideas and debate goals, something that can challenge traditional gender and power relationships as well as educational dogma.

"Reflect is alternative," says Knight of the Reflect network here. "But it's one that we believe is much more relevant to people's lives. It's brought to the people."

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