In Yemen, Fighting Illiteracy Through Poetry

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"Yemeni women's poetry tends to be very, very personal … almost like hanging your dirty linen in public," Adra said. "As a consequence, it's dying out, and with it, a major channel of women's voices is also dying out. We think of modernity as liberating for women, but in the villages of Yemen, it's almost the opposite. You don't hear [poetry] on television sitcoms."

Yemen has offered adult literacy campaigns for decades, primarily focusing on primary-school education. According to the Yemeni Ministry of Education, previous literacy efforts aimed at rural women were not often viewed as relevant to their agriculture-based lives. These women often do not take advantage of public schooling, and, if they do attend classes, the dropout rate is high.

To date, nine communities have participated in the pilot project. Most have been rural, with the exception of one class held in Sana'a, the nation's capital.

The first phase of the program began with 125 students in August 2002 and ended last May with 95 remaining—a high retention rate compared with previous literacy programs. Another 80 students are now continuing in the program in other communities. Teachers all had secondary education degrees and were drawn from the local area.

In class, learners were encouraged to develop a story based on a photograph of a familiar scene. An abbreviated version of the story, including any poetry or proverbs generated in the process, was written on the blackboard by the teacher and later by the students. Both the students and teachers would then read the stories aloud, choosing a phrase or word to study more closely. Ideally, each learner would end the year with a dictionary of new words and a typed, bound collection of her own stories.

Bridging Cultural Gaps

Statistically, the pilot program was a success. According to Adra, 77 percent of learners met or surpassed the project's target goals of reading and writing a short paragraph, reading short verses from the Koran, and recognizing other printed words. Most students collected more than a hundred words in their personal dictionaries.

Less tangible, but no less significant, was the fact that the pilot project overcame younger learners' disdain for traditional art forms, while offering a supportive environment for the creation of vernacular poetry, Adra said.

Students created personal poems or verse on current events—such as the war in Iraq—sometimes departing from traditional poetic forms. Furthermore, the project encouraged intergenerational communication between older and younger women, rejuvenating a long-lost oral tradition.

"Success was seeing the fact that mothers were taking this poetry session in the afternoon, and the little daughters were helping them spell," Niethammer recalled. "All of a sudden, the women are empowered and having fun with it."

The Social Fund for Development and the Yemeni Ministry of Education are now looking at ways to expand the Literacy Through Poetry project, such as extending it into new communities. Another option under consideration is the development of similar literacy-through-art programs in other countries, using Yemeni teachers as trainers.

"The culture is so rich, but it's kind of behind doors," said Niethammer. "That made it interesting to be able to teach literacy in the private sphere and make it culturally coherent. It was a curriculum developed from within."

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