Celebrating learning in the Sahara

Celebrating learning in the Sahara

Daza academic Mohamed Abakar and linguist Rivers Camp flew to Bardai for a celebration of language and literacy in the Sahara.

The guests take time to pose for a photograph - headscarves fluttering in the early evening breeze. Just stepped off the plane are Daza academic Mohamed Abakar and linguist Rivers Camp who are greeted enthusiastically by their host Mark Ortman.

Story Jenny Davies, photos LuAnne Cadd.

Teda leaders complete the party. They have driven from Libya to here in Bardai, a desert oasis on the edge of the Tibesti Mountains; home of the Teda and the place where their language was first written down.

The following day, learners crowd the cultural centre’s courtyard. Everyone scrambles to their feet as the State Governor arrives. The respected Centre Manager Isaaka, and Odji a leader in Teda language development, extend a welcome to scores of invited guests including Mohamed and Rivers. They introduce the reason for the gathering - a writing competition!

In the beginning was the Teda alphabet

Packed rows of attendees show the community’s pride in their language but Mark Ortman, who developed the Teda alphabet with the help of others, remembers having to explain the value of having a written language at all. ‘The Teda did not want their language written when we started,’ he explains.

Estimates of the country-wide literacy rate range between 22-40%, meaning many people can’t read or learn in any language. Chadian Arabic is spoken in Mosques and school is taught in French but the free-thinking Teda, resistant to external influences, were suspicious of the linguists’ motives.

Convincing them took time, something Mark had plenty of in the early years. It took five years to develop the orthography, the complex process of adapting Latin script into an oral language; which he completed with the help of a small number of forward-thinking Teda.

The decision to use Latin rather than Arabic script, helped the language gain traction in the eyes of the Teda, but the turning point came when the first picture vocabulary books were published Mark explains. ‘When they saw the books come out, when they saw the language written, then they saw that it could be done!’

"Nobody could make the connection that you use your language to learn everything else you don’t know." Rivers Camp

Spreading the word

Rivers Camp followed the Teda language development with interest from a village on the other side of the Tibesti. The people in that area, a related people group called the Daza, are near neighbours to the Teda, which meant, given the right opportunity, they could use the same alphabet to start their own literacy movement.

The opportunity arose in an unlikely setting, a UK University, where five years ago, Chadian and Daza speaker Mohamed Abakar was finishing up his master’s in international criminal law. His own success and educational achievement made him think about his roots. ‘I was teaching in the university when my home village didn’t have even a primary school. This is not right!’ he thought, wondering what he could do about it. 

Mohamed emailed Rivers Camp, who he had met a few years earlier through a MAF Chad engineer, to discuss an idea he had for starting a school. He was excited about the possibilities, so they travelled to the village.

In the village of Teriturenne, Mohamed and Rivers began by talking to the community to get their support for a Daza school. ‘One guy said, “you know, our kids don’t speak French, they don’t speak Arabic. If it’s not in our language how are they going to learn anything?"'

As the man’s words sunk in, Rivers realised that, not only was the community asking the right questions, ‘We had stumbled upon the one place in all of the north where we could do this! Everywhere else had been very closed to the idea of Daza literacy and local language school. No one else saw any benefit of it. People would say, “why do we want to learn our language, we already know our language?” Nobody could make the connection that you use your language to learn everything else you don’t know.’

Building a school from scratch

Getting agreement from the community was just the start. It would take 9,000 bricks to build the three classrooms required. They asked the villagers to make the bricks, investing their ‘sweat equity’ to get the project off the ground. One young man, 22 years old Yisip, made the first 2,000 bricks all by himself. Impressed by his commitment, they asked him to become the school’s first teacher. 

‘When we proposed this to Yisip he was very shy’ Rivers remembers, ‘he just said, “I’ve never been to school, how am I going to be a teacher?” We said, “that’s ok, we’ll teach you.” I sat with him for three months in my office in the city teaching him to read.’

Odji, the Teda language leader in Bardai, advised Mohamed that to make the school a success he would have to be there to oversee the school in its early stages. Amazingly, Mohamed was able to arrange his work schedule at the Islāmic University in N’Djamena, to facilitate this new venture.

For two years, Mohamed worked long days on Saturday and Sunday, while spending Monday through Friday teaching in the village. It was a rigorous schedule. Mohamed drove eight hours north on Sunday afternoon to be ready for class on Monday in the village. Then Friday afternoon, he would turn around and drive eight hours back, in order to be ready to teach at the University Saturday morning.

"I was teaching in the university when my home village didn’t have even a primary school. This is not right!" Mohamed Abakar

Rivers would spend the week writing the school curriculum for Mohammed to teach the following week - tagging team with Mohamed in a relentless relay. ‘Every week he’d come back, and I’d give him the next thing he needs.’ And so the school progressed, and four years later 90 students attend the smart white-washed building with the Chadian flag flapping in the wind outside. 

Learning to think   

Many of his pupils took to learning Daza like ducks to water, speeding through the entire primary curriculum in just four years. Some of the teachers Mohamed trained, he proudly asserts, are now better teachers than him! The school now has three French teachers and three Daza teachers. Classes are taught in both languages and they are in the process of opening a secondary school.    

Daza books are becoming more advanced as the student’s progress. There are endless possibilities for inspiring subject matter: from natural science to Daza folklore, to books on how Malaria is spread and the anatomy of the human body. 

Well-loved and recognisable children’s stories have made it into the mix. Amongst them are ‘The Little Red Hen’ which has become a favourite with the hardworking villagers. The ‘Tortoise and the Hare’ with its message of ‘slow and steady wins the race!’ encourages the slower learners to persist.  

Literacy is the key. But Mohammed believes that as important as teaching his students to read, is teaching them to think and decide for themselves. ‘I’m not necessarily trying to promote western ideas; I mean what is west?’ he asks. ‘These ideas haven’t necessarily originated from the West – all being equal, there are a lot of things they took from us!’

By encouraging discussion and debate (the tools of his trade, as a lecturer and legal specialist) and highlighting subjects like equality and women’s rights, he is starting the conversations. ‘Even within the school we are different, we are not the same,’ he points out, ‘and it’s not about stereotyping people or stereotyping the ways people are thinking,’ he adds - just developing skills of critical reasoning. ‘So, I’ll write the story and leave the end for them to finish themselves!'

Writing the future

The writing competition is motivating students in Bardai to start to write things down. It has occurred to the centre’s staff that a time will come when they will begin to run out of Teda books to read. When they do, it will be an opportunity for the next generation of voices to be heard in digital newsfeeds, Teda newspapers, and books. Teda and Daza literacy is an end itself, but also an opportunity. Once learners grasp the Latin alphabet, other languages are within their reach. Like the two French encyclopaedias that take pride of place on a table at the front before they are given away as prizes; they will have knowledge at their fingertips and an open door to a wider world.

There are limiting factors. Relatives and friends clap respectfully but hide their thoughts behind face coverings and dignified expressions. Winners receive their prizes shyly then quickly exit the stage. Public recognition of achievement is a tricky thing in an honour shame culture and it’s still early days.

 “You know, our kids don’t speak French, they don’t speak Arabic. If it’s not in our language how are they going to learn anything?"

But the most notable thing about the competition is that the winners are, almost exclusively, women and girls. With Teda young men away mining the gold fields, the centre’s student base has changed. It’s a positive shift because, although men hold positions of authority, literate women teach their children to read and write. 

Shadows lean towards the exit as the late afternoon sun lowers in the sky. The teachers share fizzy drinks and friendly greetings before the call to prayer from the nearby mosque empties the courtyard of its busy throng in minutes, and stillness descends. There is time for one last photograph – teachers, translators, Teda, Daza; everyone stands in front of the centre’s blue doors, which are closed for now, until tomorrow when the next group of learners will arrive. 

"I’ll write the story and leave the end for them to finish themselves!" Mohamed Abakar