Nov 2015 04

Literacy for war-torn societies: GRG’s grassroots approach to empowering illiterate conflict survivors

Posted in News

By Alany Joel & Jasper Kubasek

Child soldiers often miss out on schooling. In the chaos of more than two decades of conflict in northern Uganda, a generation of people grew into adulthood often not having the opportunity to pursue education past the elementary school (primary) level, if at all. As a result, literacy levels in the war-torn northern districts are far below both global and Ugandan standards. As the people of this region attempt to recover from economic devastation caused by the conflict, illiteracy is a serious problem for those seeking to start up or operate a small business.

At Grassroots Reconciliation Group (GRG), we provide assistance to former child soldiers who escaped from the LRA and their community members on a demand basis, responding to the issues that they vocalize as being most important to address. Many of our group members came forward expressing that adult illiteracy poses a serious problem in their communities, so GRG responded by creating a pilot Functional Adult Literacy Program (FAL).

GRG asked our participant groups to identify members who had achieved a secondary level of education (high school), who could potentially become effective tutors. Many of these individuals stepped forward expressing a willingness to take a lead in bringing change to their communities. Since then, GRG has been conducting literacy training sessions in an attempt to give these tutors the skillsets they need to help their illiterate community members learn to read and write. Ultimately, the groups were able to turn the question back to themselves and find a solution using primarily the resources that they already have. We at GRG commend these tutors for their voluntary dedication to bettering their communities.

The pilot program began with the training of tutors in 6 groups from the Gulu and Amuru districts, and so far the feedback has been very positive. Over 200 GRG group members have already begun to see the benefits, and many others in the community witnessing this change have asked to join the lessons. Though significant progress has been made, our tutors still face many challenges. GRG’s most recent FAL training session focused on addressing some of these issues.

A major issue discussed during this session was the difficulty of teaching learners who are struggling the most to take the very first steps towards literacy. Across all groups, these individuals tend to be older women who have had had the least educational experience, many with none at all.   As their younger classmates who went further in primary school progress more quickly during FAL lessons, these women are left behind and often discouraged.

To help our tutors address this problem, GRG brought in a guest speaker, Jody Unterrheiner, who specializes in teaching phonics to school teachers. The value of her lesson was immediately apparent: the tutors enthusiastically engaged in the activities she brought to them and expressed how helpful it would be when they returned to the villages.

Jody’s lesson emphasized the distinction between “letter names” and “letter sounds,” pointing out that, no matter how well you teach your learners the letter names, if they do not understand all the letter sounds, sounding out words will be nearly impossible. To someone who has had a western education, this distinction might seem an obvious one. In Uganda, particularly in the north, that is not the case. School training here is very memorization-heavy and, when it comes to literacy, this means memorizing the alphabet and even the appearance of small words rather than reading by letter sound. Those who do progress towards complete literacy often struggled to make this distinction on their own.

A second challenge brought forward related to the difficulties of teaching these older learners was that of the traditional age-based social hierarchy in Ugandan culture. Many of the tutors are in their twenties, while the learners with the highest needs are typically 40+ years old.  These older learners sometimes ignore or dismiss a challenging lessons or exercises posed by tutors that they once knew as children, many of whom they even helped raise.  Tutors expressed that they struggled to push these learners because of this relationship dynamic, and they asked GRG if there was any way that we could help empower them, in the context of adult literacy lessons, to have a stronger position of authority. To address this issue, we distributed “GRG FAL tutor” (Functional Adult Literacy) shirts to be worn during lessons. In the villages, this small change has the potential to help differentiate the classroom hierarchy from the social hierarchy that group members are accustomed to.

GRG is very excited by the progress that has been made, and we hope to expand this program so that more of the war-affected communities we work with can be given the very basic tools they need to raise adult literacy levels. Up next, GRG plans to bring the adult literacy program further north to Lamwo district, where economic devastation is most severe and literacy levels are lowest.  Literacy is often essential to the success of income-generating activities. By expanding the program, GRG will continue to empower those whose educational opportunities were taken from them in the chaos of conflict.

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