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Volunteer armyto beat illiteracy- in 30 months


Reyna Mamani, 16, looks to the others in the small, basic class- room for encouragement, as she hesitantly writes the letters V and I in blank spaces on the blackboard. The school - an adult education centre during the day - is on the outskirts of Sucre, a 500-year-old colonial city, full of Catholic churches and cobbled streets, perched in the Andes.

Reyna is in a pilot programme to teach 1,000 illiterate people aged 15 and over to read and write. In the next 30 months, it will be rolled out to another 720,000 people in this beautiful but impoverished land of nine million.

Under each blank space, the group's facilitator has already written a number and Reyna has to associate the number with a letter. The letter V connects with the number 13 and the letter I with the number 3. She fills in the other two blank spaces, N and O, linked to the numbers 9 and 4.

"Vino!" she says, triumphantly, and the 16 other members of the group and the Bolivian and Cuban teachers clap. She has learned to spell the Spanish word for "wine", using a method called "Yes, I can", developed in Cuba five years ago.

It is being applied in five Latin-American countries and used in pilots in three others. It has been taught in the Creole language spoken in Haiti, in English, French, Portuguese and even in Braille in other countries.

During the past three years, the Venezuelan government claims that 1.5 million people in the country have learned basic literacy through the technique.

In New Zealand, it has been used with the functionally illiterate and the learning impaired.

"I already know the numbers," Reyna says, timidly. "During the day I am a child-minder, and I have to know numbers to buy groceries with the children. Now, I am learning letters, too. That is great."

The Global Campaign for Education has this week highlighted the need for 15 million extra teachers to allow the 100 million children currently not going to school to receive an education.

But another key element of the Education for All goals agreed by world leaders in 2000 is to help older children and adults who missed out on school by halving adult illiteracy by 2015. United Nations' education body Unesco estimates there are 771 million illiterate adults worldwide.

Adult literacy is important for achieving universal primary education because literate adults are more likely to demand education for their children, and support their learning.

The Bolivian government is aiming to eradicate illiteracy in two-and-a-half years by training 30,000 volunteer facilitators in the Cuban technique and setting up 10,000 learning centres.

There will be a paid supervisor, usually a high-school teacher, for every 10 facilitators. The Cuban government is giving Bolivia 30,000 television sets and 30,000 video recorders, and is sending over teams of co-ordinators.

"This video class will teach you how to read and write items related to cooking and food," says the soap opera star, Rogelio Sarzuri, one of a group of seven Bolivian actors who recently went to Cuba to shoot 65 such video classes.

"This is p-a-v-o and it is associated with the numbers 11, 1, 13 and 4," he adds, pointing to a picture of a turkey.

Sabina Cuella - aged 43 and dressed in bright, traditional Bolivian costume - opens up her work book and looks for the picture of a turkey.

She copies down the letters P A V and O.

"I have seven children and they are all able to read and write," she says.

"They make fun of me because I cannot. I gather crops in the fields.

"Being literate would change my life. It would give me much more confidence. After this programme, I would like to learn to read and write in my native language, Quechua, and go to primary school."

The classes last for two hours every weekday evening over three months.

Leonardo Avalos, aged 24 and a facilitator, says: "I am not getting paid to help these people. I am doing it because I love my country and I want it to move forward and become developed."

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