Kipkemboi* loves learning and is looking forward to going to school. All his friends are going and it will be lots of fun.

He arrives on his first day of primary school and is excited to see his friends. They, too, are excited.

Kipkemboi goes into the classroom, settles down, and waits for the teacher to start. After roll call, the teacher begins the lesson. It’s something to do with learning to read, but Kipkemboi doesn’t really understand what’s going on. Neither do his friends.

Image of a Pokot primary school teacher pointing out Pokot words on a chalkboard

That’s because the teacher is talking in English, and she is teaching about how they are going to learn to read in English. Kipkemboi vaguely understands English, because he hears it being spoken by others: but most people in his village speak Pokot – his language – not English.

Furthermore, although Kipkemboi can speak Pokot, he’s never seen it written down or learnt to read it, so he’s never learnt the basics of how to learn to read – whatever the language.

Inevitably, Kipkemboi is unable to keep up with those children who have learnt how to read, and falls behind in his studies. He loses interest in class, and before long stops attending school altogether.

That was three years ago.

Image of Pokot children looking at school books written in the Pokot language

Now his younger sister, Chepkesio, is arriving for her first day at school. But things are different. The teacher is speaking in Pokot and teaching the class to read in Pokot.

Chepkesio understands all that her teacher is saying and soon learns to read. So when the time comes for her to move on to learning to speak and read English she will already have the knowledge and skills she needs to learn how to read in any language.

Chepkesio will be able to continue with her studies and finish her schooling.

What’s the difference? Why is Chepkesio able to do what her brother Kipkemboi couldn’t?

The answer lies in a small, but important, literacy programme that is now running among the Pokot community.

Image of a Pokot child writing in their book during a school class

Ian Cheffy, who serves with Wycliffe and its primary partner organisation as part of its Advocacy and Alliance Building team, takes up the story.

‘The overall literacy rate in the Pokot area is the lowest in Uganda. Many children learn very little at school – partly because they are taught in English, which they do not speak in their community. In response, my colleagues in the Advocacy and Alliance Building team have developed a mother-tongue reading programme for children in the first three years of primary school so that now they can learn to read in their own language. The team has created attractive new teaching materials, trained the teachers and school supervisors in their use, and provided regular in-service coaching.’

Importantly, the reading programme has been developed in collaboration with the Ugandan Ministry of Education as well as a Dutch development agency.

It is already clear that children are now learning to read much more easily than before. The government education officials are delighted with the results. The children will now have a much better foundation for their learning and for when they come to learn English. The future for education in Pokot is promising.

Image of a Pokot child reading in their book during a school class

‘The particular benefit for the Pokot children of learning to read in their own language,’ Ian continues, ‘is that they are now actually learning to read, whereas previously they were supposedly learning to read in English but did not actually understand it – with predictable consequences. Now, with a solid foundation based on knowing how to read in Pokot, the children will be able to acquire literacy in English much more easily when they come to it later on in school.’

The views of the Pokot people have been changed as a result of the programme. The Pokot member of Parliament for the Amudat District comments: ‘I didn’t know until today that English is a local language just like any other language in the world. I thought it was a language that everyone must learn.’

And Rachel, one of the Pokot teachers, says: ‘I am extremely happy and feel like I am reborn. I deeply appreciate the research done on our traditional songs.’

The positive effects of being able to read are numerous and wide-ranging (see Wycliffe’s Ripple effects video), so this primary school reading programme is setting up the children for their future lives. The Pokot community can see the benefits. As one Pokot parent said: ‘Now that we know what our language will be doing in the schools, we will bring our children to school.’

However, there is another probable effect of the programme, as Ian says:

Image of Pokot children excited to answer a question during a school class

‘The Pokot Bible translation team was the first to write down the Pokot language, creating a writing system and a Pokot dictionary, and eventually translating the Bible into Pokot. The Pokot community has had the Bible in their language since 2009. However, it is not widely used. That’s hardly surprising, given that Pokot children are not learning to read and not receiving much of an education. So the programme will provide the opportunity for Pokot children to read the Bible in their own language – something currently denied them.’

And it’s the work of the Pokot Bible translation team that has enabled Ian’s team and its partners to create this literacy programme and its materials.

This in turn means that efforts to translate the Bible into Pokot have ultimately helped to give children like Kipkemboi and Chepkisio the chance to get an education – and all the opportunities and possibilities that education opens up.

Appendix: the work of the Advocacy and Alliance Building team

The Pokot programme is typical of the work of the Advocacy and Alliance Building team of Wycliffe’s primary partner organisation, SIL.

Ian says: ‘We build on our corporate expertise in literacy and education to offer consultant services to other organisations who are committed to education and development but have less expertise in minority languages than we have. It’s an approach we have followed since the team came together about 12 years ago.

‘We have worked with a variety of agencies, including both Christian and secular, such as UNICEF and UNESCO. Funding for our consultant work ultimately comes from the World Bank, USAID or other national and international funders. It’s great to see how the expertise we have developed over the years in Bible translation can serve many communities beyond those in which we have run our own projects.’

*The story of Kipkemboi and Chepkesio is an amalgamation of a number of real-life stories about the impact the Pokot literacy work.

Story by: Jeremy Weightman

Date: 04/12/2023

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