Ugandan project doesn’t stop at literacy

November 2, 2008
Alisa Poli, left, learned to read at age 63. Patrick Uwachgiu, 25, of the village of Panyabongo, and Terence Jacan, 42, of Pamitu, are volunteer mentors in the UPLIFT program.

NEBBI DISTRICT, WEST NILE REGION, Uganda — Being literate means being able to read useful information – that's why the first unit in the UPLIFT literacy program tells how to treat malaria.

Later units deal with farming methods, nutrition, hygiene and safety, making compost, environmental challenges, and so on.

"When I compare my condition and that of my friends who have not attended UPLIFT courses, I can see a big difference," says villager Alisa Poli, speaking in Alur, the main language in this part of Uganda.

Earlier this year – at the age of 63 – she began the UPLIFT program and already can read.

The “T” in UPLIFT stands for transformation, a concept at the heart of the program, says program director Hizzaya Hissani. The full name of the initiative is the Uganda Program of Literacy for Transformation.

“UPLIFT uses literacy as a vehicle for social and economic transformation,” explains Dr. Hissani, who with five fellow Baha’is began the program in 2001.

Since that time, more than 6,700 local residents have completed the literacy training, and – with new support from the Norwegian and Ugandan governments – UPLIFT has committed to training 4,000 more people by the end of 2009.

What participants learn

Those who have been through the course – UPLIFT uses the term “learners” – tend to talk about its holistic nature rather than the isolated skill of reading.

“My attitude about things has changed a lot,” says Kulastika Okwong, a 61-year-old mother of seven who has completed the UPLIFT training. “I was really ignorant. I didn’t know how to treat malaria, and I didn’t know how to make compost…. We lived day-to-day. We ate all the food I produced, and we had no savings.”

Mrs. Okwong, whose husband is one of 10 field coordinators for UPLIFT, says she used to feel like a “dependent” person; since going through the training she feels more independent.

“I used to go to witch doctors when someone was sick, but now I try medicine made of neem leaves. If that doesn’t work, we go to the health center,” she says. “I used to think that school meetings were a waste of time, but now I see they are important. Reading books is important, too.”

For the past year she has worked as a community health assistant, appointed by the government. She is one of about 10 former UPLIFT participants who have been asked to do this type of work.

“If it was not for UPLIFT, I wouldn’t have been appointed,” she says.

Hizzaya Hissani, UPLIFT program director, uses a bicycle to travel from village to village to monitor the program and consult with participants. Slideshow
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Hizzaya Hissani, UPLIFT program director, uses a bicycle to travel from village to village to monitor the program and consult with participants.

Mrs. Okwong and her family live in Ogido, one of 73 villages in the Nebbi District where UPLIFT is active.

The Nebbi District – population 500,000 – is one of the poorest areas of Uganda, located in the northwest section of the country, far from the capital of Kampala and the international airport at Entebbe. Subsistence agriculture and fishing form the basis of the local economy.

The district is divided into 19 subcounties, and UPLIFT is active in 11 of them.

Dr. Hissani, who is originally from neighboring Kenya, first visited the West Nile region of Uganda in 1999.

“I was shocked to find that 12 people had recently died of malaria,” he recounts. “On further investigation, I found that these people were illiterate and that there was gross land mismanagement in their farming operations.”

He consulted with several Baha’i friends in Uganda who worked in development and they came up with the idea of the UPLIFT program.

How the program works

Dr. Hissani, who has a doctorate in the field of functional literacy, worked out a curriculum that speeds literacy by having students learn certain key words, then break them down into syllables and use those syllables to form new words.

Learning to read with texts that discuss malaria and farming methods – subjects of immediate importance to the lives of the participants – helps motivate the students and makes the program more useful to them.

“The approach is to look at the needs of the community as a whole and to relate the content of the program to the lives of the learners,” Dr. Hissani said.

Each class is led by a trained mentor, who in turn reports to a coordinator. UPLIFT currently has about 100 active mentors, all volunteers, and 10 coordinators who receive small salaries. The program used to average about 45 people to a class, but with the expansion made possible by a grant from the Norwegian government, and in-kind support from the Ugandan government, the classes now average around 70 people.

Learners attend class – often in the open air, often sitting on mats – twice a week for a year (except during harvest season). The experience of UPLIFT has been that about 90 percent of the participants become functionally literate with the year.

So far the program has operated in the Alur language, but Dr. Hissani says they have begun field-testing an English version. English and Swahili are the official languages of Uganda but many other languages are spoken locally.

One key element of the program has turned out to be the response from women in the Nebbi District – so far more than 80 percent of UPLIFT participants have been female.

(Mrs. Okwong points out that as a child, her brothers were sent to school but she was obligated to stay home and cook and do domestic work. She says she always was looking for the opportunity to learn to read and write.)

Another key to the success of the program is the acceptance of people from different faiths – not just Baha’is but Christians, Muslims and others are among the mentors and the learners. One of the activities now associated with UPLIFT is interfaith devotional programs where participants read passages from different faith traditions.


Opio Hannington, a local official in the Panyango subcounty in the Nebbi District, said his office has been working with UPLIFT for four years and that he is highly encouraged by results.

“UPLIFT has created a sense of unity, awareness to demand services, and cooperation,” he said. “It has brought collaboration … and understanding.”

Hassan Ringtho, chairperson of the local government in Paidha subcounty, said UPLIFT has been particularly effective with older people.

“Before, old people thought that they could not learn,” he said, “But now they believe they can learn…. Now they feel they have the ability to change their way of life.”

He stressed the point that attitudes can change.

“If one used to spend the whole day drinking, and now he drinks for only one hour, hasn’t the attitude changed?” he asked. “People follow models and examples. UPLIFT officials are the models and examples.”

Alfred Okwai, one of the UPLIFT coordinators, said the program specifically tries to train mentors to be role models to the community.

“Most of our mentors are positively different from others who did not attend the course,” he noted.

Mrs. Poli, the 63-year-old who recently learned to read through the UPLIFT program, recounts many ways her life has changed.

“Before, I could not bother with cleanliness at home,” she says. “Now, after realizing that hygiene is the basis for health, I have built a pit latrine, a kitchen, a drying rack, even an animal shelter.”

She says she also has joined a small “savings group” initiated by some UPLIFT learners so that she could begin saving money.