No more putting off school!
How one Zambian parish responds to literacy challenges
By Fr. Douglas Momanyi Ogato, M.Afr.
Zambia is one of the countries in the southern African region blessed with vast lands. However, it is sparsely populated, as most of its land is still idle and unoccupied. Serenje, my parish, is made of multiple church centers in one of Zambia’s largest districts.
Villages here are widely scattered from one another. One can travel for a distance of six to nine miles without seeing a village nearby. As a consequence, the government has found it quite difficult to provide basic social facilities, like schools, to every village.
Schools are still inadequate and far from one another. For instance, in one of our parish centers called Chikele, the nearest elementary school is nine miles away.
Long distances to school have dire effects on literacy levels in our parish. Many children cannot begin school until they are old enough to walk these long distances. Regrettably, when they are delayed for so long, desire for schooling easily fades away. As a result, the phenomenon of school dropouts is widespread across our parish.
To a large extent, girls are the ones who are mostly affected by delayed school entry. By the time they are old enough to travel to school at age 10, they are already in their adolescent stage, and their interest in beginning school at that age is quite low.
Like their mothers, who hardly had an opportunity of schooling, they end up getting married early. During Sunday liturgies in most of our centers across our parish, it is very common to see young girls, hardly developed, cradling babies on their laps.
Unfortunately, such early marriages seldom survive for long; often after young wives bear 3 to 4 children, their partners desert them for younger ones. These girls end up being subjected to an endless chain of poverty and illiteracy.
In the fishing camp areas along the Luapula River, generally there are no schools nearby. People living in these regions know neither how to write nor how to read. For instance, in one of the church centers during a recent election for leaders, it was difficult to find a secretary, as all members didn’t know how to write. And in another center, after one young man was elected as a secretary, he stopped going to church, as he felt that people had “set him up” by electing him while knowing clearly that he could neither write nor read.
Furthermore, as priests we are only able to make pastoral visitations every three months. This means that most of the time, centers are in the care of lay leaders tasked with the responsibility of conducting prayers on Sundays and other activities that may arise in the course of the week, like funerals. They do a good job and put all their heart and soul in it, but in centers where members cannot read or write, our mission is enormously affected.
As a parish community, instead of just waiting for help from the government, we decided to do our part to work toward reducing levels of illiteracy, by establishing schools where there is the most need. These basic schools consist mainly of grades one, two and three.
The project has begun and children are enthusiastic to learn. Since the church structures are already there in most of the centers, all we had to do was to put blackboards in each church. During the week these churches are used as school classrooms, while on Sundays they are then a place for worship.
The response from both communities and school-going children has been amazing. Communities have welcomed the literacy project “with two hands” (the Zambian way to say they welcome something wholeheartedly) and are very enthusiastic about its future.
In one of the centers near the fishing camps, the number of children attending was so gigantic that the church they are using became too small. One neighbor offered an extra room in her home to be used as classroom.
We believe that by beginning school early, the morale for schooling will be high. Moreover, students will be motivated to proceed to the next school for higher classes despite the long distance. And by promoting education, we are both directly and indirectly discouraging early marriages. We dream that by the year 2020, every child across our parish will not be delaying to begin school anymore.
Fr. Douglas Momanyi Ogato, M.Afr. is a White Father,
also known as the Society of the Missionaries of Africa,
working in St Peter’s Parish in Serenje, Zambia.