Lasting changes through literacy training in Sierra Leone

Outi Perähuhta
Finnish Refugee Council





 How can one achieve long-lasting changes in people’s lives through adult education and motivate them to continue studying on an independent basis? This article discusses the lessons learnt in Sierra Leone, where functional literary training started by the Finnish ­Refugee Council (FRC) has been continued by the target communities, years after active FRC support came to an end.

The West African country of Sierra Leone is among the poorest countries in the world. The Finnish Refugee Council (FRC) began a development cooperation programme there in 2003, after the long civil war which lasted from 1991 to 2002.

When the Sierra Leone programme began, close to 80 percent of the adults in the country were illiterate. Literacy was deemed highly important during the reconstruction period, as economic growth required literate citizens. As a response to the post-conflict situation, and in order to support the social reconstruction of the country, the focus of the programme was set on adult literacy. As an organisation, the FRC operates in protracted refugee contexts as well as in post-conflict and returnee areas. The focus of the work is on adult education and livelihood support.

The work in Sierra Leone was carried out during 2003–2016, in cooperation with eleven partners, including radio stations.1 All in all, the project reached 620 communities and about 30,000 adult learners. Agricultural and business skills, as well as awareness of health and sanitation, were integrated into literacy and numeracy education. The implementation structure was based on facilitator training and monitoring carried out by the FRC and its partners. Some communities paid for the work done by the facilitators’ with labour or through a moderate cash payment.

The approach used was the participatory and discussion-based REFLECT method (Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques). This approach centres on adult learning and the generation of broader social change. The REFLECT approach works by creating an ongoing open space where participants can meet and discuss the topics and issues that are relevant to them. In addition, REFLECT involves several participatory tools and methods which allow the participants themselves to identify and demonstrate the changes that they would like to see happen. The participants decide what they wish to learn, and may prioritise topics according to subjectively-observed relevance. The participants are then taught and supported by local facilitators from their own communities.

The regular REFLECT approach was fine-tuned to ensure compatibility with the national non-formal curriculum, and to introduce levelling tests for learners. In addition, each community formed a management committee to oversee literacy training and to amplify the action points to the whole community whenever relevant. This approach was chosen to make the programme sustainable right from the beginning by enabling communities to continue the project once all funding and support would end. Learning was supported through the compilation and use of “Learner-Generated Materials”, in which all topics, ideas and contents were generated by literacy training participants and community facilitators. Various facilitator and stakeholder training courses, including on agricultural and business skills, were provided for facilitators and community members in the form of TOT training activities. The partner radio stations’ civic education programmes, together with the learning circle visits, also lent a voice to the communities.

“The responses collected provide ­tangible evidence of the long-term changes stemming from the adult ­literacy programme.”

Long-lasting results

The programme ended in 2011 in some of the communities. After five years without any support, it was time to conduct an assessment of whether any traces of the project still existed within the targeted communities. We wanted to know what long-term changes had occurred – if any – and what could be learnt from these changes. Part of the reason for this decision was the fact that all public gatherings were banned for more than a year during the Ebola outbreak in 2014–2015, and this had also made the learning circles impracticable. The expectation was that the Ebola outbreak had ruined the programme. We assumed that under normal circumstances (i.e. without Ebola) perhaps in a few communities there would have been some signs of the project left. However, even under normal circumstances, we did not expect any communities to really have continued the learning on their own, without any support, after the partners and FRC had exited.

Members of Largo community practice writing in their school building. The presence of such a building was an exception in the rural communities involved in the project, © Mikko Takkunen

The assessment was carried out using a participatory method in 12 selected communities, with a total of 403 people participating in the sessions. Eleven out of the 12 communities assessed, and the one pilot community, had continued the programme until the outbreak of Ebola, and many had restarted it once the epidemic was over. The skills obtained during the programme were in active use in all communities, regardless of whether any learning activities still continued.

These results came as a positive surprise. The responses collected provide tangible evidence of the long-term changes stemming from the adult literacy programme. The most significant and prominent changes were identified as the everyday use of practical literacy, numeracy and business skills, improved agricultural practices, higher self-esteem, support for children’s education, and group farming. In addition, there was a major change in the role of women in the communities, and increased participation in community activities, this being mentioned by both learners and community elders.

Voices of participants:

“Before I was an illiterate housewife and I could not contribute to the development of my community. After participating in adult literacy training, I can make soap. When I sell it, I keep a record of my income and expenses. I know about women’s rights organisations, and I do not let my husband violate my rights. Before I was shy, but now I speak my mind. I am also my community’s chairwoman.”
Kadie Jigba, 38, Tikonko, Sierra Leone

“Before I only did farming. Now I can read, write and do simple calculations. These skills benefit me a lot. Because I am excited to learn more, other students chose me as the chairman of the literary circle. I was encouraged to take out a loan for a motorbike. Due to the motorbike, I have been able to drive a taxi and take care of my family. Thanks to the FRC, I am now no longer dependent on other people’s help.”
Tom Sandy, 25, Bongieya, Sierra Leone


Adult literacy training introduced numerous changes to the lives of the literacy circle participants. Being able to write and read their own names, using a mobile phone without assistance, and participating meaningfully in community meetings, are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the skills that literacy enables one to acquire. The training has also had remarkable effects on the participants’ self-esteem. People who had not attended community meetings before, especially women, had the courage to voice their opinions, and several communities ended up selecting previously timid women to leadership positions, thanks to their courage and the hidden potential which had now been unearthed. Additionally, increased awareness of personal rights was reported, and women now knew to tell the authorities about domestic violence.

The learning experience and learning circles brought the communities closer together: Increased social cohesion and conflict resolution skills were frequently reported at both family and community level. Group farming was started and continued in all communities in order to support one another or to raise funds, as a result of the group cohesion formed in the learning circle. Additionally, there were several community development actions that had spontaneously occurred, e.g. clearing the roads, community cleaning days and community construction. There were several communities where the chief and elders reported that the number of disputes that were brought to them had clearly declined after the learning circle had been established in the community. Many mentioned the conflict resolution skills included in the literacy training as a reason for this, but also the fact that everyone could speak up in the circles.

These changes demonstrate strengthened capacity at both individual and community level, as well as improved ­social cohesion – all of which are pivotal for post-conflict communities. This social cohesion encouraged the community members to support each other and improve their wider communities. This is important with a view to securing the sustainable and peaceful development of the communities.

“The skills that were learnt were found useful by the participants, since they were able to use them in their everyday lives.”

Usefulness in daily livelihood activities

Given the results, we wanted to find out which factors contributed to the continuation of learning even without external support. The main contributing factor was that the issues and topics covered in the learning responded to the communities’ true needs: The topics had everyday relevance and importance, and it was possible to put the new skills into practice immediately. The need for literacy was prevalent in people’s daily lives: For instance, worries of being cheated in ordinary monetary transactions were reported to be a limiting factor for income-generating activities. Learners also mentioned that they wanted to assist their children in their school work, but without literacy it was not possible.

The learnt skills were found useful by the participants, since they were able to use them in their everyday lives. Literacy encouraged more and more participants to start up small businesses, as literacy and numeracy allow one to keep a record of income and expenses and reduce the risk of being swindled when selling one’s crops. Those who were already running businesses reported increased profits as a result of the skills that they had acquired.

Positive influence on children’s education was one of the direct benefits mentioned by the participants time after time. Adults had understood the importance of childhood education, and women in particular expressed their resolve to make sure that their daughters remained in school. There were a great number of participants who were now allocating income for children’s education, as well as stating that they were now at last able to monitor their children’s performance in school.

The role of the facilitator

As for the independent continuation of learning activities, the most crucial factor was the presence of a trained facilitator in the community. Similarly, the main hindrances to the project and its continuation were cases in which the facilitator had fallen ill, passed away or relocated.

Mutual respect among learners and facilitators was another key contributor. Facilitators were willing to visit learners in their own homes in order to encourage them or enquire about a learner’s absence. Facilitators had also gained respect among community members and leaders. Facilitators often became able to influence public opinion, and were also called on to mediate disagreements.

For the facilitators themselves, facilitating literacy groups was a life-changing experience. Some facilitators mentioned that they had been timid and never thought that they could lead a group of other adults. Training and experience however helped them to become confident of their abilities. Several facilitators have also received other work opportunities, and many of them have entered remote teacher training schemes in order to qualify for public primary school teacher positions.

Lessons learnt

When analysing what brought about the changes, two main factors were identified:

  1. Tuition responded to the requests and needs of the people.
  2. Opting for an implementation strategy that did not require external support after the first few years’ investment in training and monitoring, creating a situation in which the cessation of external support did not hinder the activities from continuing.

In many communities the learners chose to hold classes after dark, since daylight hours were spent labouring in the fields. The learners would not let the lack of communal lighting hinder their learning activities, and would bring torches or gas lamps from their homes to illuminate their workbooks, © Mikko Takkunen

Relevance of the learning, ownership of the learning by communities and the attitude of facilitating, not teaching the adults, all come back to the participatory and rights-based approach applied in the literacy activities. Following these findings, we can see that investment in adult literacy programmes is an effective method for creating tangible, sustainable and long-term changes. These changes take place over and above the level of the individual, and create a significant positive impact on families and communities.

More information:


1 / The project partners in Sierra Leone were: Agency for Community Development Initiatives (ACODI), Community Empowerment and Development Agency (CEDA), Community Action for Rural Development (CARD), Hands Empowering Less Privileged in Sierra Leone (HELP-SL), Islamic Action Group (ISLAG), Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD), Rehabilitation and Development Agency (RADA), Sierra Leone Adult Education Association (SLADEA), KISS 104 FM, Radio Bitumani FM 93.7, Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS).

About the author

Outi Perähuhta has worked in development cooperation since 2000. She has worked with adult education at the Finnish Refugee Council (FRC) since 2003, when she launched the Sierra Leone country programme as the Country Director. Her expertise includes adult education and the livelihood sector, especially in refugee and fragile contexts. She currently works as an adviser at the FRC head office in Helsinki.


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