Adult Literacy: Empowering women through words

Adult Literacy: Empowering women through words
12th May 2017

Jamie works as Adult Literacy intern for WIL Uganda. Every weekday, he reaches out to women in the community to teach them English. But there’s more to teaching English than just learning new words: empowering women is what our organisation is about.

“Mulija Bukonte. Ndi musomesa,” I answer the conductor on the matatu. He asked me where I was going and what I am doing here. I am a teacher and have been working in this community in Busembatia for 3 months now. Today, Joseph and I reach out to Angela in Bukonte. Angela and many women like her on our programme have received little or no formal education. Their levels vary greatly, but what they have in common is their age-bracket. They are all adults, and I am, as of three months, an adult literacy teacher.

I have been a teacher for quite some time now, starting as a private tutor. I taught a skills course at my university during my BA and MA. Most recently I have been working with students that had been in conflict with the law, or came from turbulent at-home situations or had had an otherwise bumpy ride in life so far. What they had in common was a healthy dislike for school, class and teachers. Getting them to pay me some attention other than utter disdain was a daily battle. I thought teaching adult women who came to us of their own volition would be a stroll through the park after this. How wrong I was!

“The students have needs and goals that are not solely educational. To meet those is to succeed as a teacher.”

It took some time to get anything right, from my tone to the size of the lesson. More importantly, it took me more than my time and my patience. The learners needed a lot more than proper English lessons. Just like the students I worked with at home, they have needs and goals that are not solely educational. To meet those is to succeed as a teacher.

In getting the approach right I relied heavily on Zai and Vincent. They are WIL Uganda Volunteers of the first hour, and know our demographic like nobody’s business. Their most important lesson to me was to take time and take it easy. There is no point in wanting to move too fast.

At WIL Uganda we have many programmes, different aims and objectives, but at the heart of it all, there is one goal: empowering the local women and girls. For the Adult Literacy programme it means instilling confidence as well as linguistic chops. We build self-esteem as well as vocabulary. We show the women that they are as smart as they are strong as they are driven. Teaching one without the other is doing only half your job as a teacher.

How to build confidence and vocabulary

One Monday, Joseph and I walked down to Majengo, one of the parishes in Busembatia. We were off to teach Florence. When I first met her she was shy, soft-voiced, afraid to meet someones eye. She was more spontaneous when speaking her vernacular, but demure nevertheless. I found it incredibly difficult to teach her. The lesson ahead – Bargaining at the Market – daunted me.

Upon refreshing the vocabulary gained last week, we role-played. Joseph played a shopkeeper and Florence was the customer. She was too easily satisfied with a price and I instructed her to try to get a bigger discount. We reversed roles. Florence as a shopkeeper would not budge from her price, to Joseph’s great hilarity. I acted as a crooked shopkeeper trying to overcharge Florence. She did slightly better ever time but remained very insecure. Making new language your own takes time, but that was not at issue. I asked her to, convincingly, declare my price too high.

“that is too much.”

“Excuse me?”

“that is too much.”

“Florence, how does a high price make you feel?”

“Not good.”

“Does it make you angry?”


“Can you say it with some anger and confidence? *Resuming my role as shopkeeper* Please pay me 10.000 shillings.”

“that is too much”


“That is too much!”

Louder still!


“There we go!’” I thought.

“Never apologize for making yourself be heard. You have a voice that is as legitimate as mine or yours.”

I must have looked a little scared because she apologized. I rushed to tell her she should never apologize for making herself be heard. She has a voice that is as legitimate as mine or yours. From then on I included more explicit soft-skill teaching in my lessons, explaining the women that their voice is welcome, beautiful and theirs to employ. I see bigger strides now then I did at the start, and Florence is now one of my best students.

After this lesson with Florence, teaching never became a stroll through the park but it has never been more rewarding.

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