Unesco lauds SA literacy project

Literacy students singing about Aids
in the community. The Aids virus is
represented by the performer in front.

A food tunnel, where vegetables grow
prolifically for the community’s benefit.

A group of literacy students hard at work.

(All images: Operation Upgrade)

Janine Erasmus

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has awarded one of its two prestigious 2008 Confucius Prizes for Literacy to Operation Upgrade, a South African literacy NGO based in KwaZulu-Natal. The theme for this year’s award was “Literacy and Health”, with entrants focusing particularly on epidemics and communicable diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

Now 42 years old, Operation Upgrade is South Africa’s largest and oldest non-governmental literacy and development organisation, and works closely with Oxfam Australia, its primary sponsor, and local chapters of Rotary International.

The organisation was honoured by Unesco for its KwaNibela Project which is based in KwaNibela in northern KwaZulu-Natal, about 500km north of Durban. The project works to promote social change and development through adult literacy and adult basic education in areas such as healthcare, childcare and family nutrition, and income generation.

The other Confucius prize also went to Africa, to the Literacy Plus programme of the Adult and Non-Formal Education Association in Ethiopia, which not only teaches rural women to read but also educates them in business, conflict resolution and disease prevention.

The laureates were announced by Unesco director-general Koïchiro Matsuura, after careful evaluation by an international jury. In its statement the Unesco jury congratulated “this excellent programme for its exemplary objectives, promising results and innovative elements, all of which provide a true model for other countries to study and adapt”.

More than reading and writing

Pat Dean, director of Operation Upgrade, says that literacy is more than just knowing how to read and write – it encompasses other essential skills that enhance quality of life. “We view the project as an integrated rural development programme that is driven by literacy.”

The KwaNibela area north of Hluhluwe is very poor. The area is suffering its eighth year of drought and there is virtually no infrastructure. Some 26 000 people live here with no piped water or electricity. The literacy project started in 2004 with the training of a group of educators, and by the end of the first year, says Dean, they had a group of 287 adult students.

Currently there are 430 students, of which 87 are men. Because the area has a history of migrant labour most of the students are women, as the men are off looking for work in mines and cities outside the area. Students vary in age from 25 to 55 years, and many of them are heads of single parent households, supporting an average of five children and two adult dependants.

“Aids is very prevalent in this area,” says Dean, “and it was thought to be caused by witchcraft, so our next step was to train our teachers as Aids counsellors, equipping them with the facts about the disease. They have helped to dispel the notion of witchcraft in the community, and through literacy classes and workshops we have educated people in Aids awareness.”

Sustainable source of food

Operation Upgrade then introduced techniques that taught people to grow their own food. “We installed food tunnels and found that vegetables grew extremely well under them. Currently we have 28 operating tunnels, but people have asked for more so we are building bigger ones. We have one particular group which has started a seedling nursery, supplying seedlings to other groups that operate tunnels, and to other growers in the area.”

Another income-generating activity focuses on leathercraft. People manufacture belts, bible covers and keyrings, as well as the traditional clothing worn by the Zulu nation at ceremonies. “We can’t keep up with the demand,” says Dean, “and the leathercraft industry brings income and food into the community.”

Operation Upgrade stepped in to address the problem of access to safe water through several interventions, such as the donation of 70 Hippo rollers and the installation of bio-sand filters, which purify water even from contaminated sources such as dams and stagnant pools.

The organisation has also started the practice of rainwater harvesting. “Here we have two systems in place,” says Dean. “The first collects water through gutters placed around an individual house or hut, and the other collects it in a large community tank. This water helps with the tunnels and community gardens.”

Earning the respect of the world

Operation Upgrade came to the attention of Unesco at a literacy conference held in Mali. Unesco was so impressed with the organisation it featured it on its website as one of the world’s most effective adult literacy and numeracy programmes, most of which are based in Africa.

Unesco later invited Operation Upgrade to enter for the Confucius award, with South African national and KwaZulu-Natal provincial departments of education endorsing the entry.

The award will be presented to Operation Upgrade on 8 September 2008, International Literacy Day, at Unesco headquarters in Paris, which Operation Upgrade project manager Itumeleng Lebajoa will attend.

This is not the first prestigious award Operation Upgrade has won. In 1996, then-president Nelson Mandela, together with the Department of Education, presented the organisation with the 1996 Presidential Award for Adult Basic Education and Training. In 2005, it received an international award for Innovation in Literacy from ProLiteracy Worldwide in the USA.

“Operation Upgrade’s KwaNibela Project is a perfect example of what this year’s Unesco prize is all about – an innovative program that teaches literacy to women and that focuses on literacy and health,” said David C Harvey, president and CEO of ProLiteracy Worldwide, which has partnered with Operation Upgrade for more than 40 years, providing financial support, interns, and onsite training for the organisation’s staff.

Rewarding efforts to wipe out illiteracy

South Africa became a member of Unesco in 1946 but withdrew a decade later under increased international pressure against apartheid. It rejoined the organisation with the advent of democracy in 1994.

The Unesco Confucius Prize for Literacy was established in 2005 to recognise and reward the activities of outstanding individuals, governments or governmental agencies and non-governmental organisations working to boost literacy among rural adults and out-of-school youth, particularly women and girls.

The award was an initiative of the government of the People’s Republic of China in honour of the great Chinese scholar Confucius. The award is worth US$20 000 (R160 000) and includes a medal,  a diploma and a study visit to literacy project sites in China.

The Confucius Prize is one of three annual international Unesco literacy awards. The other two are the Unesco International Reading Association Literacy Prize and the Unesco King Sejong Literacy Prize, awarded to projects in Brazil and Zambia respectively for 2008.

The Unesco Confucius Prize for Literacy is open to institutions, organisations and individuals who have made a significant contribution in literacy, achieving outstanding results and promoting innovative approaches. Contenders cannot nominate themselves – all nominations must be submitted by governments of member states or by international non-governmental organisations that maintain formal relations with Unesco.

Nominations must be accompanied by a written recommendation. Applications are scrutinised and winners selected by an international jury appointed by Unesco’s director-general.

Previous recipients include Family Reorientation Education and Empowerment in Nigeria and Reach Out and Read in the US in 2007, and the Ministry of National Education in Morocco and the Directorate of Literacy and Continuing Education of in Rajasthan, India, in 2006.

Related articles

Useful links