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Cell Phones Boost Nigerien Literacy, Profits

By Lane Hartill

Barou always knew what to do. And her daughter, Hawa—who followed her like a shadow—absorbed all her secrets. Like how to pull the sandy soil back with her hoe and drop the peanut seed in just so. And how to handle men when they started to grumble and gripe. Patience, Barou used to say, works every time.

Hawa Zoumarie with her grandchildren

Hawa Zoumarie, here with her grandchildren, is learning to read thanks to CRS-provided literacy classes. The classes use cell phones to teach students the alphabet in the local Zarma language. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

The key to life in this part of Niger, Hawa quickly realized, was patience.

Luckily for Hawa, she had an endless supply of it.

Hawa grew up in the 1940s and '50s, prior to Niger's independence in 1960. Back then, her home village of Katanga was a place of mud huts and hot sand where life revolved around the rains that fed the millet fields.

When the harvests were bad, and droughts baked the earth and cracked and yellowed the millet like old teeth, Hawa knew what she'd need to get through the hungry season: patience.

Sometimes the French colonial bosses and their henchmen would arrive unexpectedly and take men away, forcing them to work on the roads. Hawa wished they had been school recruiters who had come to whisk her away. She didn't care that most girls didn't go to school. She wanted to sit in a classroom and learn numbers and letters like some of the lucky boys. But that was a pipe dream. The recruiters never picked little girls like her.

Flash forward about 20 years. It's the early 1970s. Yayé Seyni, like Hawa, has just been passed over too. When the school recruiter made the rounds, Yayé was deemed too old. His brother was sent to school instead, and Yayé was given a machete and pointed toward the fields.

Yayé saw the students going to school every day, wearing their clean clothes, moving in a laughing pack. He passed them and, hoe in hand, under that unrelenting Nigerien sun, he hacked at the weeds, and the envy grew in him.

Yearning to Read

The years scrolled by, and Hawa soaked up Barou's lessons. She eventually married. Her husband became the village chief. They raised seven children, and she made sure all of them went to school. But there was something missing: She yearned to read, to decipher those mysterious scratches people made on paper.

Project ABC (Alphabetisation de Base par Cellulaire or Elimination of Basic Illiteracy by Cellular) is a two-year program that uses cell phones as a learning tool for literacy in Hausa and Zarma, local languages in Niger. Participants in the cell phone literacy program follow basic literacy training, but with four modifications:

  • Participants, most of whom are farmers, are trained in how to use a cell phone.
  • As students learn the alphabet and numbers, they are also taught where numbers and letters can be found on the mobile phone handset.
  • The project provides one cell phone for a group of five people in the literacy classes to share. The phone allows Nigeriens in the literacy classes to practice their reading and writing skills via text messages.
  • Nigeriens can receive weekly price information via text messages on the phones and via message boards in villages.

The market information will provide participants with an incentive to improve their literacy skills. Project ABC is a partnership between Catholic Relief Services, Tufts University, Oxford University and University of California-Berkeley.

She received letters from her brother in Ivory Coast, but she had to have others read them to her. The contents of those personal letters, her brother's life in glittering Abidjan, meant just for her, would now be grist for the village gossip mill.

Barou eventually passed on. And so did Hawa's husband. Hawa spent her time helping women who had given birth. She warmed water and washed the bodies; she sat in their dark huts and shared the secrets of being a good mother that she'd learned from Barou.

She always gave of herself, just like her mother had.

But she never told anybody what she really wanted: to open a book and read.

As usual, that would have to wait. She would have to be patient.

Just like his father, Yayé listened to the merchants who passed through his village and told him the prices in the market. Then he took his peanuts and beans to market and accepted the prices. He was at the mercy of the buyers. When they peeled off the money to him, he didn't look at the numbers. He memorized the colors and pictures of the money: The purple bill with the birds on it was roughly $20. The green one with gazelles on it was about $10.

But learning to read wasn't the only thing eating at him. He had his eye on a pretty and quiet young woman in the village. He was in love with her. For now, marriage was out of the question. He didn't have money to pay her dowry and he estimated wedding expenses would be the equivalent of $450—more than a year's salary for most Nigeriens.

Yayé had a plan, though. And Catholic Relief Services was going to help.

Texting Their ABCs

When Hawa learned earlier this year about literacy classes put on by CRS in her village, she thought her dream had come true. She signed up, and threw herself into it. During the class, she was the picture of attention, a model student. She strained to absorb all the sounds of all the letters. It wasn't easy. But soon those marks she'd been looking at for all those years slowly started to have meaning.

Her teacher not only taught her the alphabet on a blackboard, but the class also used a special multimedia cell phone, one that talked. She could see the letters on the screen and a man's voice from inside the phone told her what they sounded like. Besides the multimedia phone, basic Nokia cell phones were handed out. Hawa and four other women shared one. The idea: Through text messages, they could practice the alphabet. But she wasn't there yet. That would come with time.

Yayé Seyni checking his cell phone

Yayé Seyni, a farmer in central Niger, checks a cell phone for the prices of beans at local markets. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

After four months of classes, Hawa hadn't mastered the alphabet yet. Even now, when she leans forward and traces the ABCs in the sand, the lowercase A looks like a squashed gourd, the B, hardly recognizable.

But that doesn't matter.

Hawa knows she will write and read someday.

She just has to be patient.

Yayé had heard about the literacy classes also. They told him cell phones would not only help him learn how to read, but also let him check market prices for his peanuts and beans by sending a code to a computer system that automatically responds with up-to-date market prices.

But to do that, he'd have to learn how to read.

The more Yayé thought about the woman, the more it motivated him. Twice a week, as the sun was setting, he sat in the literacy class, and, for the first time in his life, he sounded out the ABCs in Zarma, the local language: "ah buh tchuh."

He knew that he wasn't going to learn to read during the four months of class. But time was of the essence. If he didn't propose to the woman, another bachelor might beat him to it. That's why every day in his field at 2 p.m., when the sun became too hot to work, he sat under a tree with his notebook and went over his lessons. In his millet field under the acacia tree, he memorized the alphabet and the sounds of the Zarma language.

Slowly, he could make out words. Then sentences. Soon he was reading long, detailed paragraphs.

Boon for Farmers

On a recent day, Yayé held his Nokia phone to the sky and, from memory, typed in a code asking a server in Niamey, the capital of Niger more than 100 miles away, for the price of beans.

Then he waited.

In a few seconds, an electronic buzz greeted Yayé. Beans were selling for $53 a bag in the market in Loga. In Dogondoutchi, they were $58. If he took his beans right now, he could make an extra $5. In less than a minute, he did what farmers here have never been able to do: compare prices at local markets.

Yayé's plan is to save up enough money to buy some goats. He'll fatten them up and sell them next year. With that, he'll make a few hundred dollars. If he falls a bit short of the $450, he knows he can borrow the rest. But the hard part is done, and the results are already thickening his wallet.

He never imagined that any of this could happen to him. The classes, the cell phone, the market data, the profits.

And next year, with any luck, it will allow him to marry the girl of his dreams.

Lane Hartill is the western and central Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.

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