By Lamin Jahateh
Sare Alpha and Julangel are two villages in Upper River Region (URR) benefiting from a functional literacy programme being funded by a government project. The two villages are largely inhabited by two different ethnic groups with distinctive cultures and traditions.
But one of the similarities of the two cultures and traditions is that women do things on their own, with support from men, and men do things largely independent of women.
This segregation is largely very pronounced and prominent in Julangel, a Sarahule community. At the village, women do not sit at the bantaba, not for any reason, and men do not go to the market, except in rear circumstances. But the village market and the bantaba are directly opposite, just the road that divides the village into two almost equal halves also separates the bantaba from the market.
But even at Julangel, surprisingly, older men and women, mostly house heads, share the same class, sit in the same room and are taught by the same person, thanks to the adult literacy programme.
This has successfully bridged the divide and brought in understanding among the women themselves and between women and men.
Mr Marie Dambele, facilitator of the adult literacy class in Julangel, said: “The education has brought in so many things to this village. Sometimes, the women here find it difficult to come to understanding on issues. I don’t know why but it was difficult go get them cooperate successfully for long. It does not mean they used to fight or quarrel, no.
“They do go to one another’s programme and do things together but the collaboration and the cooperation among them was not that strong to my own observation.
“But the classes they attend together now have brought in more unity and oneness among themselves. All those who attend the classes together can now talk openly to one another and discuss things just like we discuss things in class.”
Apart from the unity among women, the men and women now have more understanding among themselves. At Julangel, it is a rare occurrence for the older men and their women to sit together for 2 hours to discuss issues.
But for the literacy class, they have to sit together for 3 hours for two to three days every week and consistently for months.
“Because of that, many of the men can now cooperate and collaborate more with women at household level and even at community level,” Mr Dambele said.
Dambele’s story in Julangel and that of Hawa Drammeh in Sare Alpha are similar though the two villages are very far apart. Sare Alpha is at least 200 kilometres east of Basse, the regional capital of URR, while Julangel is at least 150 kilometres north of Basse.
In Sare Alpha, the men and obviously the women, agreed to be taught by a woman. The men come to classes and agreed for a woman to stand in front of them to teach – a rare occurrence in Gambia’s patriarchal rural settlements.
Hawa, the Sare Alpha facilitator, said she receives no challenge from the men. The men, just like the women, are serious during Hawa’s sessions.
According to her, the bond between the village men and women has been enhanced by the fact that they now come together in one room and listen to a woman who stands in front of them to teach.
Beyond the group level, the literacy classes are having tremendous impact on individual beneficiaries. The majority of the beneficiaries of the programme can now read and write their name – this was initially unthinkable at their age in a typical Gambian village.
Bintou Jawara, a functional literacy student in Sare Alpha, said she now feels empowered because not only can she make phone calls and recognise names but she can also help others dial phone numbers to call and show out numbers stored in a phone.
Like her, most of the beneficiaries are able to dial and recognise mobile numbers, some can even recharge their phones with recharge card.
“Those days when I want to make a call, I have to call one of my children to help me dial the number but now I can do it myself,” Juwara Yaffa also said.
The women can now recognise amounts of money during transactions and can no longer be cheated to sign an amount, after a workshop for instance, which does not corresponds with the amount they receive.
They said they cannot also be cheated now through the use of weigh scale in selling their farm produce.
“They sometimes cheat us when we are selling because we cannot read the weigh scale; if you cannot read a scale, whatever you are told as the weight of your good that is what you would believe. Those days are gone now, we can now read the scale ourselves,” said Amie Njie in Julangel.
Even though the functional literacy classes in Sare Alpha and Julangel are marred by challenges, it has made some impressive impacts in the live and livelihoods of the women in these two communities.
A research by the UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning has it that the impact of functional adult literacy on the empowerment of women goes beyond the obvious benefits and extending to other spheres of everyday functioning, such as self-concept, family relations, and social participation.
According to the research findings, Functional Adult Literacy and Women’s Support Programme, functional literacy programmes contribute to women's social integration, positive self-concept, and family cohesion.