Godfrey Sentumbwe

Ethnic Differences in the Approach to Adult Literacy: Experiences from Nationwide
Literacy Training

Ethnicity in Uganda

Uganda is a multi-ethnic country, comprising more than 40 clearly distinct ethnic groupings. The main divisions are between the Nilotic groups in the north and the Bantu groups of the south. The 4 major ethnic groups by type and name are: the Bantu, the Nilotic, the Nilo-Hamitic and the Sudanic. In each of these ethnic groups, such as the Bantu, there are large language groupings (e.g. Ganda speakers) and very small language groupings (e.g. the Baruli). Even in one language grouping, the spoken and written languages are not automatically homogenous! Different dialects exist in each grouping.

Adult Literacy Training: A Problem-ridden Case

It is now widely accepted that there are many different meanings of literacy or literacies. However, this has generated a lot of confusion for adult literacy practitioners, especially for trainers and instructors in the field. Adult literacy has quite often been looked at as functional adult literacy or literacy for conscientisation/empowerment. These are interpreted differently by different people. In the hands of the naïve, ideology has overwhelmed pedagogy and the so-called awareness has overwhelmed learning of skills – a very big problem indeed.

The second big problem is the duration of training provided to literacy workers whose academic education levels are very limited. There are some ethnic groups lacking standardised orthography and reading materials in print. A short duration of less than one week cannot provide literacy workers with the level of competency needed to address the different demands of literacy learners.

A third big problem to be examined later is the learners’ demand to start literacy learning in English, even when they are completely non-literate in their own mother tongue!

LABE and Adult Literacy Training in Uganda

Adult literacy training has been one of the core activities of LABE ever since it started as a small organisation over 10 years ago. LABE works through partnerships with: the central government (especially the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development to deliver strategic literacy training services), local governments, district NGOs, Community Based Organisations or CBOs (in training literacy workers, production of literacy materials, setting up community literacy resource centres and piloting innovative approaches), international NGOs (through joint training of literacy workers) and higher adult education training institutions (by providing field work placements for trainee students).

We have worked in districts with the following key features: those with the lowest literacy rates (e.g. Kotido and Moroto – literacy rates below 15%), those with diverse ethnic languages which are not closely related (e.g. Arua and Adjumani), those urbanised districts such as Jinja, where indigenous languages may not be central in literacy work and those districts with a big population speaking one language, but still grappling with standardising their orthography (such as in Kamuli, Iganga, Jinja, Bugiri and Mayuge). These distinct features existing in the districts have transformed us into a learning organisation, ready to adapt, adopt and be adept with innovative training ideas.

Adult Literacy Training Agencies in Uganda and their Approaches

Literacy was first introduced to Uganda during the late 19th century by Islamic and Christian missionaries. For many years, it was only the missionaries who provided the literacy training. The colonial government joined gradually, especially after the Second World War in order to keep demobilised indigenous soldiers usefully occupied. A department called “the Department of Public Welfare” was established. This was the forerunner of the Department of Community Development, which is currently in charge of adult education.

In 1964, independent Uganda launched the national mass literacy campaign, using the traditional general approach to teaching reading, writing and simple numerical skills, independent of function or context The campaign was in 22 languages, with a primer and follow-up reader in each of the languages. In 1966, under the influence of UNESCO, the idea of functional literacy was introduced. It was an attempt at enriching the traditional literacy approach used in the mass campaign, though with limited success. The campaign lost its steam until 1971, when Idi Amin gave it a temporary boost. However, by the time he was overthrown in 1979, there was little government provision of literacy programmes. This situation lasted until early 1990, when a new Functional Adult Literacy (FAL) Programme was launched. This campaign enabled a number of individuals to acquire a rudimentary ability to read and write their names, but it was also beset with problems of poor campaign design, lack of harmonised curricula and implementation plans, poorly prepared reading materials and the use of untrained adult literacy teachers and sometimes schoolchildren.

Apart from government and LABE, other NGOS, both local and international, have provided literacy training services The list includes international NGOs (like Action Aid, Save the Children Fund, UNHCR) and national/regional NGOs (like SOCADIDO in Soroti, CEFORD in West Nile and several others). Action Aid developed an approach to education with literacy called “REFLECT” in early 1993. In this approach, they attempted to abolish the primer and other pre-printed materials. It is too early to say whether this approach is the solution to the traditional approach to literacy training.

Language and Adult Literacy

Language and Literacy Learning: Mother tongue? Local language? Official language?

One of the ongoing issues for us concerned with literacy in a country like Uganda – a country with many ethnic groups – is to know in which language literacy instruction should be provided. Should it be in English? Is there a local language of the majority of the people that should be used? Or should literacy instruction be focused on numerous local dialects and languages? The choice in he Uganda context is not a straightforward one. We have come across languages that are scantily written, yet they effectively function at the level of oral communication.

There is a growing awareness that there is no universally applicable form of literacy. There are different literacies and literacy practices for different groups, and for different social contexts. Literacy teaching and training programmes for adults seek to help the participants with very specific types of reading and writing. Language concerns (mother tongue or standardised languages) are regularly reflected in current debates about adult literacy. Issues surrounding minority languages and the rights of different groups to use them, the power relationships involved in language – these are features that also affect adult literacy programmes in Uganda.

Who Uses Which Kind of Literacy for Which Purpose?

One of the tenets in adult learning psychology is that adults learn for a purpose. But there is always a clash between literacy providers and learners regarding language for literacy learning. Whereas providers are convinced that literacy learning should first be in the mother tongue of the learners, the learners often prefer literacy in the official (English) language. The demands of these participants differ from place to place. Creating reading materials in diverse languages is an urgent need in many literacy programmes in Uganda. But it is equally arguable that many learners are hesitant to learn literacy skills in their own local languages when they are aware that they cannot use such skills to achieve any purposeful change in their own lives.

Dealing with the Challenges of Adult Literacy Training in Uganda

The Outstanding Questions in Adult Literacy Training

How can a small organisation with limited staff – both in numbers and ethnic composition – address the challenge of ethnicity and literacy training? How can one address the problem of reading materials in groups where the printed word is scarce? In what dialects should these materials be produced? Should there be a standardised approach for adult literacy training for all these ethnic groups? Is literacy learning and skills application limited to only a few ethnic groups? Do socio-economic factors reduce the challenges posed by ethnic differences to adult literacy training?

LABE‘s Adult Literacy Training Delivery: The Cascade System

To reach large-scale delivery of adult literacy training for different ethnic groups, LABE trains literacy trainers (tutors), who in turn train literacy instructors (teachers) in their own localities. The language used in training trainers is English, while the language trainers use in their localities is the mother tongue or local language of the community. This cascade system is effective for nation wide training institutions like LABE, but it may not work effectively for organisations that impart literacy skills and knowledge directly in literacy classes.

Literacy Materials: Which formats in Which Language and Where from?

The most visible aspect of a literacy programme is the package of teaching and learning materials used. The formats of these materials are not uniformly abundant in all ethnic groups. There are “lucky” groups, such as the Baganda, Acholi and Runyoro/Toro speakers who have a good number of materials available in their languages. These exist in printed book form, printed non-book form and audio-visual electronic formats. Very few of these materials exist in marginalised ethnic groups like the Kakwa or the Sarnia. If at all there, they are limited to a few books such as the Bible. In such communities, LABE trains instructors and their learners to produce learner-generated materials in their own languages. These can be printed on surfaces like polythene (“kavera”) sacks using marker pens. Further training in translating existing texts from English into local languages is attempted. Learners and their instructors have been enabled to multiply reading materials in their languages even when the orthography is not yet standardised.

The Literacy Training Package for Trainers: Standardised or Diversified?

Modem approaches to adult literacy education point out that there are many different literacies for different groups – ethnic groups, occupation groups or religious ones. As a result of these differences, a standardised literacy training package for literacy workers would not be the best approach to all these groups. Some national literacy training agencies in Uganda, however, have failed to deal with this problem. The FAL programme has a national literacy training manual. Until just recently, Action Aid was using what they were calling the REFLECT “Mother” Manual. ME has opted for a trainers’ LITKIT, a form of literacy toolbox that trainers from different contexts can adapt for use in their own training. We have extensively pre-tested it with different groups where we work. Still in draft form, it is expected to be launched early next year – January 2002. It is a form of diversified training package and trainers can modify it to suit their local contexts.

Literacy Learning. In Local Languages or English?

We have encouraged different groups to consider instructing literacy in mother tongue or local languages before moving into literacy in English, especially in rural-based communities. In multi-ethnic communities, like in urban centres, we offer training support to groups delivering literacy in English. However, there has been the problem of failing to distinguish between English literacy learning and English language learning. This is a complex issue for literacy instructors who have little or no special training in this area.


The use of mother tongue instruction or the official language (English) in adult education remains a topic of continuing debate. Our experience with adult literacy learners from different ethnic groups has shown that if they are to continue with literacy skills learning after the initial literacy cycle, then a shift from local or mother tongue instruction to English instruction should be attempted. This is due to issues of power and status, which some languages are associated with – and in the Ugandan context, it appears English has both.

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