In Yemen, Fighting Illiteracy Through Poetry

Kim A. O'Connell
for National Geographic News
January 27, 2004
Yemen may be one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. But its
tradition of spoken verse represents a rich cultural heritage.

For centuries, oral poetry has offered a socially acceptable way for men and women to solve problems, manage conflicts, and communicate feelings of sorrow, happiness, and worry, according to Najwa Adra, a New York-based anthropologist.

"There is a huge respect for [the spoken word] in Arab culture," said Adra. "If something is written, it's suspect; whereas if it's remembered, it's valued."

So when Adra began a pilot project to combat illiteracy among Yemeni women—77 percent of whom can't read, according to UNICEF—she embraced the country's oral poetry traditions.

Her program, Literacy Through Poetry, seeks to teach rural and urban women literacy skills through writing and documenting their own poetry and that of other women in their community.

The project was initially supported by the World Bank and is now administered by the Social Fund for Development in Yemen.

Empowering Voices

The pilot project addresses two chronic problems faced by Yemeni women: a decline in their own poetry composition and a loss of a public voice.

Poetry, music, and dance were once highly valued modes of expression among Yemeni women. However, a conservative shift in cultural attitudes in the country, coupled with reformist attacks on traditional folklore, has diminished women's confidence that they can openly cherish their traditions.

"We supported the project with the understanding that poetry in this country is very important and has a presence in the language and daily life [of Yemeni people]," said Carmen Niethammer, a World Bank operations officer based in Washington, D.C. "Yemen is a segregated society, and this is what women and men do when they are sitting by themselves in the afternoon. They recite poetry to each other," she said.

Trade in audio cassette tapes has bolstered the Yemeni poetic tradition by helping disseminate poetry throughout the country. Yet most taped poetry is performed by men; modesty keeps most Yemeni women from recording their voices.

Meanwhile television and other modern entertainments have diminished opportunities for poetry composition and recitals, according to Adra.

"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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