In Ghana, innovative literacy program produces dramatic results

“Enlightening the Hearts” program of the Olinga Foundation encourages local dialects and moral virtues, reaching more than 22,000 students in remote rural schools

GONUKROM VILLAGE, Western Region, Ghana — For years, Owusu Ansah Malik thought his native language was second-rate. English, the national language, was emphasized in his classrooms — his local dialect was not.

But a program that offers instruction, books, and mentoring in the 16-year-old’s native Twi language has helped him see the value of his mother tongue — and improved his English literacy.

“I thought our Ghanaian language was too poor to be learned, since its teaching was not encouraged,” said Owusu, who is in Class Eight at the Gonukrom Junior Secondary School. “But with this program, I realized that our language is rich and can be learned. It has also helped me to read English easily.”

Owusu is one of more than 22,000 students to have participated in the “Enlightening the Hearts” literacy program, which is aimed at helping young people age 9 to 15 in Ghana become literate by teaching them to read and write in their own language.

Operated by the Olinga Foundation for Human Development, a Bahá’í-inspired nongovernmental organization, the program has offered training in more than 260 remote area primary and junior secondary schools in Ghana’s Western Region since 2000.

By all accounts Enlightening the Hearts is highly successful, helping to triple the literacy rates among participants and winning praise from students, parents, teachers, and government education officials.

“The methodology makes it so simple to acquire language skills,” said Samson Boakye, a teacher at the Anyinabrim primary school. “The syllabic approach is excellent. Then there is transfer of knowledge from the Ghanaian language to the English language. Children are therefore reading the English language fluently.”

Along with its distinctive method for teaching literacy, the program also incorporates elements of moral education by emphasizing virtues drawn from religious scriptures — another feature that has drawn praise.

“Why I like this program mostly is the moral aspect of the book which will no doubt help children to become good citizens in the future,” said Ayyub Yaku Aidoo, a teacher at the Samreboi primary school.

The origins of the project go back to 1996, when the Bahá’í community of Ghana initiated a literacy campaign. It was handed off to the Olinga Foundation in 2001. The foundation itself was started by a group of Bahá’í educators in 2000.

The foundation was named after Enoch Olinga, one of the first Africans to accept the Bahá’í Faith. Its mission is to promote universal basic education, to empower young people, and, according to its Web site, “to build the capacities needed to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization on the African continent.”

In addition to the Enlightening the Hearts literacy campaign, the Olinga Foundation has three other programs: 1) a capacity-building program for community leaders; 2) community-development facilitator training; and, 3) a junior youth empowerment project.

In all of its programs, the foundation draws on Bahá’í social and spiritual principles, emphasizing specifically the equality of women and men, the right to universal basic education, and the need to eliminate prejudice.

At present, the literacy program reaches the largest population, and has drawn the most attention. “This is our main program,” said Leslie Casely-Hayford, director of the foundation. “We believe literacy and moral education are essential to the progress and development of society.”

Focus on deprived areas

The project currently operates in two districts in the Western Region, Wasa Amenfi West and Wasa Amenfi East, and plans are well advanced to offer the project in a third district in Ghana’s Eastern Region. The focus is on remote and underserved school populations.

“The program places great emphasis on reaching children in deprived area schools, which are often off the main road,” said Dr. Casely-Hayford.

Once schools are selected, the foundation provides specialized training and onsite supervision for teachers, and books and learning materials for students. About 40 to 50 schools are chosen as project sites each year.

The program has had impressive results. In its own surveys of select schools, the project found that the average baseline literacy rate from 2002-2006 was about 17 percent. Among those students who were tested after completing the ten-month program, the literacy rate averaged 52 percent.

“That represents a tripling of the literacy rate,” said Dr. Casely-Hayford, noting that a 2004 World Bank report indicated that literacy among primary-school children in Ghana is extremely low. By one measure, the report said, fewer than five percent of students showed mastery of English in 2000.

As well, an evaluation by the district education office found that students in schools participating in the program also performed exceptionally well in the Ghanaian language subject section of the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE).

The project’s success, said Dr. Casely-Hayford and others, stems largely from its practice of using the local language as the language for literacy instruction.

“Experience over the last five years in three language groups — Twi, Ewe, and Dagbani — has proven that this approach speeds the learner’s ability to acquire basic literacy skills, and increases their confidence by using a phonetic and syllabic approach,” said Dr. Casely-Hayford.

Leonard Nubuasah, national program coordinator for the Olinga Foundation, said that many children quickly become literate during the nine-month program.

“The children can transfer their knowledge of literacy in their own language easily into the English language,” said Mr. Nubuasah, a former teacher who has been with Olinga for five years.

Another key to the program’s effectiveness is the motivational impulse generated by the emphasis on moral education and the use of the Holy Writings of the three major religions practiced in the region.

“Access to Holy Writings can also stimulate individual and collective transformation,” said Dr. Casely-Hayford. “It also ensures human capacity development such that a child’s full potential is realized.”

The moral values discussed in the workbooks are patience, honesty, trustworthiness, love, humility, obedience, purity, kindness, and modesty.

“We used these nine virtues because they are highly embedded in our Ghanaian society at the local level,” said Mr. Nubuasah. “The Christian preachers talk about them, the Muslims discuss them, and they are also found in the Bahá’í Faith. These are the three main religions here, and these virtues are the building blocks for our children.”

Mr. Nubuasah said that another sign of the project’s success is that about 75 percent of the schools that have participated in the nine-month program have continued to use the project’s methodology.

“We know this because every year we continue to supply these schools with books, and we continue to monitor the program by visiting each school — if they are not too remote — two or three times a year,” said Mr. Nubuasah.

Last November, Michael Nsowah, acting director general of the Ghana Education Service, wrote a letter recommending that other educational districts in Ghana consider adopting the Olinga Foundation’s literacy program.

“They have been highly effective in the regions they have worked in,” said Mr. Nsowah. “They have increased reading and literacy levels and brought values into the learning environment. All my regional offices were happy with their work.”

“They do a lot of work in remote places that are difficult to access. They provide both learning materials and skills development. This is an important thing for a country like Ghana that does not have too much money,” said Mr. Nsowah.

Cost effective

Because of its emphasis on cost effectiveness, the program has been able to reach large numbers of children through teacher training and the provision of literacy materials. According to Dr. Casely-Hayford, it costs about US$300 to open a program in a new school and support that school for a one year period.

The project receives most of its support from the Bahá’í International Community’s Office of Social and Economic Development. It has also received support from the Canadian International Development Agency, the National Spiritual Assembly of Ghana, and the North American Women’s Association of Ghana, along with several other groups and individuals across the world.

The emphasis on providing specialized training to teachers is another factor in the program’s success.

To date the program has trained over 350 primary and junior secondary school teachers. The training has two main goals: encouraging and enabling teachers to improve the quality of education in schools through better literacy instruction and to introduce the concepts of moral education and personal transformation.

Mr. Nubuasah said many teachers were at first unmotivated and unsure about how to teach children how to read and write, especially using the local language.

“But the Holy Writings of the Bahá’í Faith, especially, speak about the importance of education and the station of teachers,” said Mr. Nubuasah. “This becomes a source of motivation.”

Entwi Bosiako, the head teacher at the Gonukrom primary school said the methodology taught by the Olinga Foundation was simple and easy to use, as were the textbooks.

“This has motivated me to teach the Ghanaian language,” said Mr. Bosiako, 39. “The Holy Writings used for reflections during the training workshop is also a source of inspiration and motivation.”

District education officials say the program’s success extends beyond the simple promotion of literacy.

“Our students have had problems with reading,” said Nana Bobbie, assistant director of the Wassa Amenfi West district education office. “When Olinga started, we saw improvements in the places that they were working. We also saw that people started talking about values and we were impressed. So the work that they are doing has had a good impact on education as a whole.

“Also the teachers ... have now become excited by the training. I think this is another key to the foundation’s success.”

“We really appreciate their help,” said Mr. Bobbie. “Morality has broken down so badly in Ghana. We had been looking for a way to salvage the situation for a while. Then the Olinga Foundation came with their books and values. We really like the moral education attached to the literacy campaign.”

Reported by Kerii Hange Tjitendero