Sumayya Omar | 20 February | Pic: translatingcuba.com
In September 1960, the Cuban President Fidel Castro, presented his revolutionary vision on education, before the United Nations General Assembly:
“Our people plan to wage a great battle against illiteracy with the ambitious goal of teaching every last illiterate person to read and write. To these organisations of teachers, students, workers, that is, the people as a whole, are preparing themselves for an intense campaign, where Cuba will be the first country in America which, at the end of few months, will be able to say that we do not have a single illiterate person.”
The Cuban Literacy Campaign was a vigorous social campaign aimed at eradicating illiteracy rates whilst unifying the solidarity among societies, students, teachers and organisations amidst the troubled political, social and economic climate of the time. The campaign mobilised close to a million volunteers – a literacy army known as Brigadistas – in 1961, of which a 100 000 volunteers were students. The commanders of the revolution traveled to each city, appealing to high school students to postpone their education for the education of others. Even children from the age of 12 left their naivety to assist their brothers and sisters. Thus, young people volunteered to give their time and effort towards people’s emancipation from poverty and dis-empowerment.
Young people gave up the comfort of their homes and lives to live and work in rural areas of Cuba. Their day compromised of working with peasants in the fields and their night was about teaching peasants through informal classes. The informal lessons were simply to teach peasants how to hold a pencil, to write and how to read with complete understanding. When the last member of the family had secured his or her success in the campaign, a red flag was hung above the doorway of the house, signifying the family’s revolutionary achievement of literacy. On the 22nd of December 1961 (less than a year after the campaign started) Cuba had achieved its revolutionary educational goal of eradicating illiteracy.
The campaign ignited an ungovernable brotherhood amongst the people of Cuba, allowing for the independence of the mind as well as empowering them to have freedom of knowledge. It is the vision, inspiration and motivation of the Cuban Literacy Campaign which we should turn our attention too.
It was a three step method: the first was establishing conversation – a Brigadista would invoke conversation with students based on a photo which was shown. The second step was to develop reading skills – the Brigadista would read, followed by the student and then eventually the student would learn how to read on their own. The final step was practicing and exercising – the students would have to identify sentences and write their own. After all three methods were completed, the students would write an exam.
The Cuban Literacy Campaign is an historical lesson for many countries trying to overcome the injustices of the past. Illiteracy could even stem from a state’s moral bankruptcy. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declares literacy as a universal human right.
Every year or so, the UNESCO Institute of Statistics for Literacy and Education, revise the literacy rates of each country despite its political, social and economic conditions. Certain countries are faced by political turmoil and economic depression along with ongoing war and foreign intervention. In 2013, Syria was able to maintain an 85.53% literacy rate and 90.26% for Libya. Other countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe who continue to deal with the legacies of the past despite huge budget allocations for transformation and development over the last 20 years, have not achieved 100% literacy rate. South Africa’s literacy rate in 2012 sat at 93.73%, which was not that far off from Libya’s literacy rate.
The question arises as to why illiteracy continues, despite efforts from the international community through various organisations working with government. The Cuban campaign is an example. It was not capital that drove the campaign.
One may ask how we can as South African citizens make a difference ourselves. This should turn attention back to our situation in South Africa and the historical lessons of the Cuban Literacy Campaign. The Department of Basic Education along with the NGO ‘Read to Rise’, has begun a threefold literacy campaign aimed at the distribution of books and establishing libraries across poorer areas. To date, 22 737 books have been distributed (mainly to Mitchells Plain and Soweto), 159 libraries established and 390 class visits by volunteers of the campaign.
Khari Gude (Tshivenda for ‘let us learn’) is another literacy campaign by the government of South Africa. It aims at teaching adults who have not attended school and cannot read or write. Between 2010 and 2011, 609 199 learners learners completed the programme. The campaign continues to target the balance of 1 128 075 illiterate to allow South Africa to half its illiteracy levels.
In essence it will be exciting for South Africans to embark on a similar literacy campaign to the Cubans. What an adventure to embark on. Just imagine the determination and emotions of the youth of the Cuban Revolution, how they must of felt to leave the comfort of their homes, responding to the call of their beloved political leader, volunteering out of love for their country and cause, to go and live in poverty stricken areas among peasant farmers only to help them work as well as to help them learn. It is something which deserves more than a red flag over homes, it is an achievement of a lifetime. The campaign victory was led by dedicated youth, teachers and workers of the 1960s who laid the foundation of free education for all in Cuba. Today in Cuba, schools and universities are free, everyone has equal access to free healthcare and national care.
There are many opportunities in the current climate of South Africa for the youth to be involved; a grander environment needs to be created for the youth of South Africa to contribute to the emancipation of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. Wouldn’t it be fulfilling to partake in a campaign that would enable a reading and writing nation, overtime reducing the ills of poverty and unemployment?
South Africa could be role model for other African countries if we succeed in developing a model for a nationwide campaign of literacy and learning. A nation who can write is a nation who can take care of themselves.