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Literacy and Laughter

Filtered sunlight streams in sideways through an iron-barred window, filling the small room.  Its concrete floor is neatly lined with magenta and teal woven mats awaiting their guests.  Down the red-earth path, women trickle into the space, removing their shoes and tucking them neatly to the side.  The walls begin to reverberate with laughter—the deep belly-laughs of those who have gathered here.  Class is in session.

Solomon and Amanda, SP Staff in Kampala, Uganda, have been serving their community through offering small-business consultation and training.  They eventually found that many of the trainees and entrepreneurs they encountered could not read or use English, a limitation that was keeping them from applying what they were learning and holding them back from future opportunities to develop their business.

In Uganda, not being able to read or to use English means that you did not finish school and are thus stigmatized as poor and uneducated.  Some of the women Amanda works with have experienced painfully shaming experiences leaving them fearful and hesitant to use what English they do have or to trust that they are safe to continue learning. Most of the women are refugees from the north of Uganda who were not able to finish primary or secondary school education. One student, Mary, shared that when she attempted to return to school, she, the only adult student, towered over the children seated beside her and was the target of ridicule.  The voices of children, teachers, and others she met rang in her ears; “You’re a grown woman.  How do you not know?!”

Opportunities to learn as an adult are limited, but when Amanda offered to teach two levels of basic literacy and English skills, a dozen women came despite their busy lives and the shaming that they had endured.  The two groups have come together twice a week for months on end to learn how to read and write in English, to phonetically spell out words, to build sentences, to hold simple conversations, and even to use English humorously.

Before she met this group of learning women, Jenifer was quite the unknown.  As an orphan house girl, she did not have the opportunity to attend school—not even a day.  As an adult, she rarely interacted with peers, and others considered her quite odd.  Yet as Jenifer attended the literacy program and received focused attention, she began to open up.  A community pastor started to notice that Jenifer was not the same person she was before.  Now she had a new confidence in her interactions and joked and laughed just as much as the others.  When Jenifer finally learned to hold a pencil and write her name, she declared, “I am so proud!”

For these women, becoming literate was not simply about gaining marketable skills for business; rather it was an opportunity to engage each other around meaningful topics and to gain practical skills for everyday life.  But with God present, there was potential for even deeper change.  Amanda prayed for these women, and they began to step beyond the shame they carry into the newfound joy of literacy.

The classroom is lively.  The women enjoy using their new phrases with each other, grinning with amusement.  They sit together reading simple stories to each other while laughing hysterically because they just can’t believe that they are doing it.  For Mary, Jenifer, and the rest of their classmates, there is still much to learn.  But in small, life-changing ways, the Kingdom of God is streaming in sideways, through the shame, and it sounds like laughter.

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