‘ABC’ is only the start

Vaccination for the children, building latrines or making compost themselves? That’s no problem for farmers like Jeanne. She learned to do all these and much more in the literacy course. Because reading, writing and arithmetic have opened up new worlds for her.

Those who land in N’Djaména, Chad, are landing in the dark. Aircraft from Europe arrive at night‑time when even the capital city is pitch-black. The outlines of just two or three roads are visible from the air. During the daytime the second impression is almost as dark: the roads leading to the south of the country mainly consist of holes, even craters. Not a single advertising billboard for washing detergent or local mobile phone suppliers lines the route. Most of the women, men and children travel on foot at the side of the road in the baking sunshine. It isn’t surprising that the Sahel country ranks almost at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index. But is that a reason to lose hope?

Not for anyone who gets to know women like Jeanne or Elizabeth. Both of them live in Pala, a small town in the south-west close to the border with Cameroon. They raise their children and cultivate a few hundred square metres of land with maize and peanuts that they sell at the market.

Thanks to the local women’s association and SWISSAID partner organisations over the past three years Jeanne has learned reading, writing and arithmetic – and it has opened up new worlds for her. “Vaccination, for instance, was explained in detail in the textbook”, she says in good French. Previously, she didn’t get vaccinated because she thought this would make her ill. “When I realized what the point is, I immediately got myself and my children protected.” She fluently refers to words like polio, diphtheria and tetanus, even if occasionally she glances at Elizabeth, her teacher, who is sitting nearby. “During local vaccination campaigns, Jeanne acts as a messenger going door to door and making sure that her neighbours and their families join in”, the teacher adds.

Homework is a favourite

Jeanne enthusiastically talks about the daily classes that Elizabeth teaches every January to June from 14.00 to 17.00 (during the second half of the year the women have to tend the fields). This includes daily homework of 30 minutes arithmetic and 45 minutes reading. “I really like doing this!”

She proudly explains that nowadays at the market nobody can pull the wool over her eyes, and there would be trouble if anyone tried to short-change her when buying her doughnuts and peanuts.

In the rural regions of Chad nine out of ten women can neither read nor write or do arithmetic and the map of illiterate people coincides with areas of poverty. The south-east of the country is one of the poorest regions. Less than three per cent of the population has access to the Internet; families must spend 70 per cent of their income on food.

Agriculture is hard labour. Women and men hoe the fields by hand, and if they are lucky they can count on an ox to help with the ploughing.

A SWISSAID self-help project similar to the one at Pala includes alongside literacy other components tailored to the needs on location. On the one hand, the women and self-help groups find support with organisational matters. Women receive machines like grain mills or water pumps that make their work easier. On the other hand, they learn skills to earn additional income. In Pala, for example, many women have learned tailoring on one of the three treadle sewing machines available to the group. They keep the clothes to sell at market.

And finding an answer to hunger means that in most SWISSAID projects the focus is on methods of modern, organic farming with regular practical demonstrations on the fields. However, exceptional talents and leadership figures are crucial for longer-term development. Women like Jeanne and Elizabeth are key; they can inspire others not to give up in the face of difficulties, provide some successes and help others when not everything is an immediate success.

Cow manure against hunger

In Pala literacy, higher self-confidence and the women’s economic success has changed quite a lot in recent years. “My husband is currently minding both our youngest children”, says Jeanne and isn’t the only one in the room who giggles. It is unheard of for a husband to supervise small children so the woman can do another activity. “And he’s now also busy collecting cow manure”, she adds and has to give a loud laugh.

The family needs the manure to produce compost. This is used on the fields as fertiliser. “The first time that I head about this in the women’s group and applied it at home, my husband thought I was crazy.” But the success convinced even him: “In just one year, we were able to double the maize harvest to 12 sacks per hectare and the maize cobs are big and fat.”

Previously, like most small farmers the family went hungry from July to October until the millet and maize were ready. “That’s over”, says Jeanne. “Today, my entire family enjoys at least two meals a day all year round.”

The maize and millet stores were not even completely empty before the next harvest, explains teacher Elizabeth. “For the first time we had more than enough.” And she follows this up with enthusiasm in her voice: “If we had known from the start how you use compost, today we would no longer be so poor!”


Project code: TS 2/14/04
Project duration: 14 months
Project costs: CHF 41'565.-
Number of direct beneficiaries: 753 (mostly) women