Children, Chores, and Literacy

My adjustment has been hugely aided by the local children here. Christian (his African “yard name” is Togbah pronounced “Toe-pa”) has taken the lead in helping me out around the house and is slowly becoming my 10-year-old shadow. He and his friends come over to help me cook, haul water, and do laundry and dishes. And by “helping” me I usually mean they do it for me. Here’s Christian carrying off the coal pot now that the rice has finished:


When the chores are finished we all read the random books the previous tennent left behind, or work on projects. So far, project-wise we’ve been focusing on making pickles, sourdough bread, and a home-made ginger ale. We’ve also spent a lot of time fighting the ant problem by designing and building ant traps and trying to invent a good ant poison without a source of borax. I’ll talk more about these ventures in a future post. In the meantime, here’s “Turtle” (Christian’s brother) reading one of the random books we have while the rest of us were in the kitchen:


That same day Christian’s little sister stopped by too:


Even though the boys that come by are nine, ten, eleven years old, only two or so out of the five that regularly come by are semi-literate, while the rest cannot read at all. So when I say they are “reading” the books, what they are really doing is looking at the pictures, saying some of the letters they recognize out loud, or counting the pages. But they can do it for hours, looking at the same couple books over and over. It’s a little heart-wrenching to watch — they are all trying so hard to “study”, but what they’re doing is no more effective than trying to learn a subject by sleeping with a book under your pillow.

It’s common in Africa to blame children for being lazy and not wanting to study or learn, but most of the children I’ve encountered so far are hungry for knowledge and make huge sacrifices for their education (walking over two hours in pouring rain to get to school, paying school fees instead of buying food, etc.) But as long as they lack basic educational building blocks (namely, literacy and numeracy), they will never go far. You could spend millions of dollars on building new libraries or even go as far as sponsoring new science and computer labs for every school, but if you don’t address the underlying probems of literacy and numeracy, how will the students ever be able to take advantage of those resources?

Two summers ago while I was still living in the states, I worked as a clinician at a learning center for Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes. I was trained to work with children (and adults!) with literacy problems using an evidence-based system for instruction that strengthens core skills in reading and comprehension. The impact this type of instruction has in many clients is absolutely transformative and life-changing.

I haven’t done any studies to characterize the literacy problems in my community (yet), but from what I have heard anecdotally and what I have observed in my classroom and in the community, they are in dire need of the type of intervention that the Lindamood-Bell learning process addresses. One pastor told me he has problems filling leadership positions in his church because he makes basic literacy a requirement. Many of the weaknesses in the children I see here evoke memories from my summer at the learning center. Again, I’m no expert, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the educational difficulties here in Liberia (see this, for example) can be traced back (at least in part) to weaknesses in literacy (and numeracy) that start at the primary level.

So, I’m hoping to try to adapt some of the exercises and techniques I learned at Lindamood-Bell and see if I can make some sort of system that can boost these children’s reading ability while they’re doing chores. If this is possible, I could try to turn it into an entire family-based community literacy effort. Not everybody has the means or the time to go to school, but perhaps people could educate each other in their homes as they did other repeditive tasks. African life centers around the household – why do we think education needs to happen elsewhere?

Last week I made an order for a bunch of Lindamood-Bell materials to be sent here. I’m going to use it as a starting place for the kids that visit me. In the long-term, I want my system to only make use of materials that can be produced locally, but for now I just need a quick fix with my familiar resources so I can get started as soon as possible.

I can’t wait for this stuff to arrive! In the meantime, I’ve really got to find a fix for this ant problem… More on that later.

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9 Responses to Children, Chores, and Literacy

  1. Doug Hutchinson says:

    Cute helpers you got there Kyle! Since their literacy levels are so low maybe you can post the
    names of objects found in the house ( using 3×5 cards maybe) on said objects and then make a game of it by having someone rearrange them after they have been up for a week or so. Put the words/cards on the wrong objects and have the kids “fix” them by putting them all back in their correct locations. In any case I like your thinking and your attitude! Stay happy!!:)

  2. Hutchinson says:

    Great post! I wrote you directly yesterday…or rather I attempted to. Please let me know sometime when you get a second if it came through. I have tried twice before and am not certain I am doing everything correctly.

    Be good…be kind…be open! 🙂


    Sent from my IPad


    • khusmann says:

      Yup, the letter you sent me yesterday is starred in my inbox waiting for me to reply! (It might take a couple days, I still haven’t had a break yet – we’re doing period tests in school right now) Not sure about the one before that you’re talking about… sorry about that! Although if lots of people reply to my mass mailing, replies can get burried, especially on my phone’s small screen. If you make a fresh email rather than replying, it can make it easier for me to find! 🙂

  3. Mägi says:

    Pretty rad you have two years in this town so you can think longer term.

  4. Evie Jaskoski says:

    My teacher’s heart is filled with joy at the thought of you teaching those little ones to read!!! How can I get some books to you? I want to be part of it!!!

    • khusmann says:

      Thanks for your enthusiasm Evie! Oh how I wish you could send some books, but I still need to figure out all the rules surrounding donations that Peace Corps has. (And they’re there for good reasons) Eventually I’ll do a post addressing this subject, but in the meantime I’m really sorry that I can’t accept anything!

  5. Pingback: Back Home! | Kyle in Liberia

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