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I can read in my own language!


Lillian Haas tests an orthography (writing system) primer of the Siamou language with village children near Orodara, Burkina Faso. Until now, Siamou has been an exclusively oral language. Haas is originally from Blue Sky Mennonite Church, Alberta.

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August 22, 2005
-by Lillian Haas

Orodara, Burkina Faso — “Minata, give me peanuts."

The three students slowly sound out the words written on the board, searching for meaning in the strange squiggles. But the strange squiggles are becoming more familiar and, suddenly Sumayila laughs out loud. "Minata, give me the peanuts!"

He understands. I nod my head vigorously, point at the written words with my stick and hold out my hand to Minata. Fanta turns to Minata and reinforces the message, "Hey, give her peanuts!" She laughs as well and hands me a pack of peanuts which we all share.

I never before thought about all the skills needed to be able to read. Just learning what reading is is a challenge if one has never been exposed to it before. The primer introduces one letter a day which seems too fast now that we are over half way through the book. But the students are reading!

Literacy classes started out with five students who never have gone to school and four who know how to read in French and Jula. The beginning class has shrunk to three because of the need to prepare the fields with the coming rains. With four weeks left to go, I am hoping we don't lose any more.

The advanced class finished the book in three weeks and the students are writing fables; texts of several pages in Siamou. I am overwhelmed by their interest and motivation to write in their own language. The most exciting part is they are using the orthography (writing system) have proposed and "it is good!"

A night class has started with nine students. They couldn't start with the first advanced class because they were teaching Jula in other villages. They study from six to nine every evening huddling around kerosene lamps over their books, determined to read their language. These are the potential Siamou teachers for next year! My present life revolves around these classes. Mamina and I co-teach so one plans the lesson for the following day while the other is teaching.

We are in class from seven to noon and from six to nine in the evening every day except for Saturday. Here, Saturday is the holy day; market day in Orodara which everyone religiously attends. (It reminds me of how Sunday used to be observed in North America when everyone flocked to church.) Classes resume on Sunday night.

Graduation Day

“Never before have I received a certificate for anything!” A student stood up proudly during the closing ceremony of literacy classes. “I want to thank the teachers for this opportunity to learn how to read and write in my own language. I am proud to be among the first readers of Siamou and I hope to help others learn to read.”

The other students applauded, raising their voices in agreement and then, after a flurry of picture taking, everyone scattered to their homes. Classes were over and they were anxious to get to their field work.

Mamina and I breathed a sigh of relief and contentment. In teaching the same material to four different classes in three months we had pushed ourselves hard and we were tired. At the same time we rejoiced at the enthusiasm of the students and how quickly they had learned and how much we had learned through the process.

During the season, twenty-seven people learned how to read in Siamou. Over half of the students received a mark over 80% and one wrote a perfect final exam. Another student found inspiration in writing and has already filled a 50 page notebook with Siamou fables with no sign of slowing down. This first literacy season came to a close on June 5.