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In this classroom in Nepal, the blackboard is made of cement and black paint, and is built into the wall. It serves many purposes. It’s a notice board for group meetings and village procession schedules. The children use it when they study here. It was originally built for the Values-based Literacy Program (VBLP) classes. Along with improving their livelihoods with goats and related trainings, the 23 project participants in this village of Itaura, in the central plains of Chitwan, are also part of another life-changing process. They participate in the VBLP classes where, over the next year, they will learn the basics of reading and writing. VBLP uses adult learning principles and Heifer’s Cornerstones as a framework to teach these women literacy and numerical skills. Their teacher, Mina Mahato, explains the process, “I teach them the letters that form each Cornerstone, then they learn words and then sentences. It’s a long process, but when you see them write their names, it’s worth all the hard work.” It is hard work for both the teacher and students. Finding time during the day is impossible, so evenings are the best time for classes. The older women struggle to see what is written in the books, so the younger women help them. Ranging in age from 20 to 50, these women already have so much to do as farmers, mothers, wives and daughters. So, why spend four hours three days a week crouched on straw mats trying to write with shaky hands? “Because it’s harder to live in darkness,” replies Mina.
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“It takes time to make any sense of the shapes that form the letters,” says Asha Mahato, “but when it does start making sense, one thing leads to another and soon the whole world starts making sense—the billboards painted on the walls, the poles by the roadside, the signs on top of doors at the city hospital, the numbers on the buses are all there to make your life easier. They make the world simpler and daily life smoother.” A ripple of yeses and head nodding went through the room where approximately 13 sari-clad women sat on straw mats along concrete walls. Generally not outspoken, Asha is the least shy, so she spoke for all. She has good command of the Nepali language helped, while most of the other women struggle to be fluent, as their mother tongue is a local dialect called “Tharu.” From time to time, impatient children squealed. They are too young to be left alone at home while their mothers tend to many obligations, such as the farm, the animals and this adult literacy class.
For the illiterate, a visit to the local government hospital is impossible. Completing necessary forms and maneuvering from one room to another without the ability to read the doors labeled with doctors’ names is a frustrating challenge. Asha writes slowly, but she can correctly provide her name, age and address. She now wants to work harder to express herself. “I want to be able to write a letter soon,” she says. It’s a dream that she will fulfill, hopefully by the end of this year, crouched up on the straw mat with other hopefuls while the rest of the world sleeps.