Thursday, July 23, 2009


I wrote recently about how the Rendille language is now a written language. Of course, it really doesn’t do any good to have a language written down if nobody can read it. That’s where literacy classes come in.

Over the midterm break, I decided to take advantage of a weekday with no school and head out to one of the classes for a visit. I have the books and know some of the teachers, but I’ve never seen a class in progress, so I found out where the truck came by and headed out.

After waiting by the side of the road with some Rendille mamas headed home from town with their bags of charcoal and small packets of tea and sugar, the truck arrived and I jumped on, eager for a ride out to the goobs. The back was full of people, as this regular run out to Saalle and Tubcha, two clan villages quite a ways out, in part serves as a Rendille bush taxi. The truck heads out every afternoon to take the literacy teachers to their classes, but the more people they can help out on the way, the better.

When we arrive at Saalle, Aabanna and Nangoyanna - the literacy teachers – and I hop off and walk towards a big acacia tree in the distance. The class takes place there in the shade under the tree. The only hint that this is our classroom is the piece of board painted black that rests in the branches. The students are already gathered – mamas and their babies, and three men off to one side, sitting on their three legged stools.

Aabanna takes down the blackboard and writes the date as two babies play in the dirt behind me. I greet everyone, introduce myself, and tell them that I’m learning Rendille and I want to see a literacy class. I sit down and the lesson begins.

We start with math. There are eight questions written on the board now – two digit adding without carrying – and the class is copying them down. I set to work, too, and write the problems in my notebook. I smile as I write down the answers, happy to play the student and see some of what goes on in a literacy class. Aabana then sees that I’m done, so he takes my book and marks it for me. Eight out of eight, it says, and he writes “Weyti haagisse!” on my paper. “Very well done!” When I get my book back, I look at the lady sitting beside me, who has seen that I’m finished already. She is not even finished copying the questions down, and I feel bad. Of course I can do this quickly – I’ve had twenty five years of practicing how to read and write and copy and calculate. I make a mental note to just go really slowly from now on.

I look around and see that each student has a little bag that the carry their notebooks in – most have the face of either Winnie the Pooh or Spongebob Squarepants grinning back at us from their place on the dusty ground. Amid the beads and metal ankle collars and brightly colored fabrics, I see the collision of two very different worlds.

We move from math to health, and although I can’t understand a lot of what Nangoyanna is saying, I realize that, among other things, she is teaching about cholera and how to prevent it and treat it.

After health, the class takes out book five of the literacy series. Today we’re working on the sounds ‘d and ch. We repeat back syllables, write down words, read some pages in the book. They ask me to take a turn leading the syllables part of the lesson, just like the other students, and I flub at first, but then catch on. It’s fun to be part of the class, and everybody claps for me when I’m done. It’s funny, all through the lessons, Aabanna and Nangoyanna keep coming up to me to point out where we are in the book. While the other students speak Rendille, they are just learning to read, but me, I already know how to read, but I just don’t always know WHAT I’m reading! Following along is no problem, but my teachers are so sweet in trying to help me keep up!

As the lessons progress, I look around me. Women are tossing a well used eraser around to share, the men are concentrating, two baby goats wander back and forth, babies play with each other in the sand behind us. A few mamas are nursing as they work. Irballey, one exceptionally keen man in the class, sounds out my Rendille name (Hafareya) and writes it with his finger in the dust.

There is a Bible lesson at the end, and some songs. The Rendille are such enthusiastic singers! I teach the class a song, too – a simple camp song I was able to translate quickly into Rendille. After the lesson, I hear everyone walking away singing it! So cool!

The people in the class are so keen, so excited about learning to read and write in their own language. Literacy is so incredibly popular, and in goobs where there isn’t a class nearby, people are crying for classes to begin there, too. But they weren’t always so popular…


For about fifteen years now (give or take), the Tirrim project has been running adult literacy classes out in the goobs. They learn to read and write, to do maths, learn about health issues for humans and animals, history and government, geography, and Bible. It’s a two year program that covers a lot of material!

Take geography for example. Before you can even get people to understand maps, you have to help them to see that three dimensional, colourful objects can be represented on a flat surface in black and white! There’s absolutely no tradition of writing or drawing, so even that is a big step!

Once that hurdle is over, they look at a simple drawing of the village where they are. Once they understand that places can be represented on paper, they move to a basic map of Korr ‘town.’ They then learn about the surrounding area, then the district, the province, and are eventually shown a map of Kenya. They see where Kenya is in Africa, and then the teachers bring out a globe. Reactions are varied, but they all look in amazement at all that blue…

“But look at all that water!” they say. “There’s so much water! We’ll all drown!”
“Wooooy! There’s all that water in the world? Why doesn’t someone give some to us? Don’t they know we live in the desert and have hardly any water???”
“No, no, no, that can’t be! The water at the bottom will all fall off!”



At first, Nick and Lynne had trouble convincing people to take the class. “Oh, no, we’ve tried to learn to read and write, but we just can’t,” they’d tell them. Well that’s because the government literacy classes were to teach them how to read Kiswahili, and nobody spoke that language. No wonder they couldn’t do it! How can you learn to read in a language you totally don’t know?

“No, no, no, but this isn’t in Kiswahili! These classes are in Rendille!”
“What? No, no no. Rendille is just a silly backward language. No one can read it.”
“You can! Come and see!”

It still took some convincing. “But why would we want to learn to read? We do fine as we are!” They were told about how learning to do math can help avoid being cheated at the shops and how they can learn all kinds of things. They asked the Rendille what kinds of things they would like to learn about, and they were told that, first, they would like to learn about the health of their camels. Then second, about the health of their people.

“Yes! You can learn about all of those things! Come, try!”

For the first classes, they asked for people who were not too old, because the idea was that from the literacy classes, new literacy teachers would be trained. But of course, the older you are, the more honoured you become, so most of the class was made up of old, old men, many of whom were nearly blind!

To get them motivated, the first Rendille reader is much the same as emerging literacy readers back at home – simple, simple sentences that can be understood mostly from the pictures that accompany them. Now, the Rendille are an extremely confident people already (they already know everything, apparently!), but from this first reader, once they felt that they could read, well, look out! They were so excited!

In addition to the literacy books, there have been a number of other books produced in Rendille – books on camel health, Bible basics books, books of Rendille fables… These are around, but only a very few draft copies. There are text books of sorts for the subjects in the literacy classes, too, ready to go, but there has yet to be money to have them typeset and printed. And of course, slowly by slowly, the Rendille New Testament is coming!

One other effect of the popularity of the adult literacy classes is that these newly literate Rendille began begging for education for their children. “They MUST learn to read and write, too!” The pressure began to grow and grow and grow...


Jean said...

again, this is so hard to comprehend! thank you so much for sharing, and taking pictures! Their clothes are absolutely stunning and i love the last picture of the very proud, happy student. :)

Steve said...

I'm mesmerized by this story about the literacy classes. Talk about teaching that illuminates, makes a difference, opens new worlds.......!!! Would you like to write my dissertation's introduction, by any chance?

As you travel....... the Risen Christ goes before you.