I will call her ** Mabel. I have known her for many years, and have observed that she is a great mom and a good wife, caring for her family in a very meticulous manner. Her boys are always clean and well-groomed, her house always immaculate whenever we stop by for a visit. She volunteers to be in charge of cleaning the church building, and makes sure our facilities look nice for every service. The floors are carefully waxed, the cleaning supplies are always stocked, and Andy never has to wonder if the church will be clean and ready for Sunday morning like he had to before Mabel took charge.

Knowing this about Mabel, Andy and I have always been puzzled by her actions in church services. She usually sits in the back, never opens her hymnal, half the time doesn’t sing, and she never brings a Bible. She often looks bored. Since she pretty much speaks only Bemba, we have attributed many of her actions to the fact that she doesn’t understanding things, though we do much of the service in Bemba as well as English.

When our church had to register with the government last year, we were required to have 15 members of Calvary Baptist Church sign the document in front of a government official at the police station downtown. Several members had to work, so we requested the help of some of the housewives who could sign the document on a week day.

Mabel appeared that morning along with her husband to put her signature on the document in front of the official. Since an “X” wasn’t permitted as an official signature on the document, Mabel and another lady named **Candace shyly asked a few other women members to sign for them. Up until that moment both women had kept their illiteracy a secret from the majority of our church family.

When Andy came home that day and told me what had happened, I had to wonder why I had not recognized the signs before? Sadly, after all these years, I had not noticed that they couldn’t read or write. Andy asked me if I could help them. It meant many months and probably years of classes, and I wasn’t even sure if I had the ability to teach an adult how to read. What if they had learning disabilities?  Was it worth it?   I had to try.

That Sunday, I asked Mabel if she would like to learn how to read. Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied with a shy, dazzling smile, “Yes!” I had my first adult student. I asked her if she might know another member who would like to join her in the reading classes and she suggested Candace. I now had two students!

Candace is also a good mom and wife. She understands quite a bit of English although she doesn’t speak it often. She and her husband are graciously raising a nephew as their own son, along with their own 3 children. She works hard;  6-7 days a week as a maid for a Russian woman. It is a struggle for Candace to come to class – she comes on her lunch break twice a week, taking a taxi to make it on time.

We decided to meet twice a week. Neither lady knew their alphabet, nor could they differentiate one letter from the next. Our first few lessons were just learning how to say A-B-C’s and how to hold their pen and position their writing paper.

Andy made some really nice alphabet flashcards for me to use in class. When I left last May to take Allison to college, he took over and kept the class going. He did a great job, and they progressed under his tutelage.

At each class I assign Mabel and Candace handwriting papers, and it has been fun seeing their progress, from writing like 5 year-olds last March, to currently writing like adults. They are slow, but they are now confident how to write each letter. It became apparent that in order to progress more quickly, I would need to split the class and work with them individually.

Handwriting exercises of the two ladies that Jill is teaching to read and write.

We laugh a lot in class as we tease each other about our accents. I promised them that they would soon be speaking with an American accent which makes them giggle. Getting a Bemba speaker to differentiate between “L” and “R” has been challenging. Teaching the pronunciation of short vowel sounds has also been difficult because those sounds aren’t used in Bemba. We have had to come up with imaginative ways to pronounce “H,” and know the difference between the sound of long “E” and short “I.”  I have only taught American children to read in the past, and never had to think twice about their accent. Oddly, the “G”  and “C” sounds at the back of the throat has been a huge hurdle for them. But through all the tough problems, we have had fun! Seeing shy Mabel blossom and become more bold in speaking has been a delight to watch. She has so much more confidence nowadays! Both women carry their heads higher, knowing they can learn and are not “stupid” like they have been told in the past.

By December 2017, I was swamped with other obligations at church, and to be honest, both students had leveled off and quit progressing very much. I started to ask myself again, “Is it worth it?” 

We ended up taking December off. But when January came along, both women were eager to start up class again, and I was pleasantly surprised when both started off 2018 with gusto and determination! The much-needed break gave us all the energy we needed to keep going.

They have progressed steadily since March 2017.  They can now sign their full names (which happen to be 6 syllables long), they easily read 3-letter words, and are coming along quickly on one-syllable, long-vowel words. I lend them reading books each week to practice reading at home. Its going to be an exciting day for me when they start reading my personal favorites: Curious George, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and Ferdinand the Bull!

In both homes, teaching Mom how to read has become a family affair. Candace’s husband and daughter actively work with her and Mabel always has one of her twin boys helping her to read.

In class I drill them in phonics rules and they do simple Kindergarten and 1st grade worksheets. Mabel read a list of 36 long-sounding “E” words at our class last week and she looked like the Cheshire Cat when I congratulated her. I almost cried and had I been closer, I  would have hugged her! This week, Candace read that same list!

I wondered why they did not learn to read as little girls?  All I could learn from Mabel was that an auntie pulled her out of school when she was 11 so she could help at the house and farm. Only a shrug and a giggle came from Candace when I asked her why she didn’t learn how to read or write when she briefly attended school. Children often have to grow up quickly here and are very familiar with hard work. In years past, educating girls was not a high priority in large families, so Candace and Mabel’s stories are not uncommon.

There are so many opportunities here to make people’s lives just a little bit better. I feel blessed to be able to make a difference in my Christian sister’s lives.  When I encourage my ladies to read their Bibles at our ladies meetings, I often envision Candace or Mabel sitting quietly, drinking in the Word of God as they read it for themselves.

Teaching these ladies how to read has unlimited potential. They won’t have to sit in the back of the church auditorium with their arms crossed, and not singing from the hymnal because they cannot read. They will be able to participate actively in the preaching service, looking up scriptures. They will have confidence to take a person through a tract or witness from their Bible, memorize scripture on their own, teach their own children the truths from the Bible and someday teach their grandchildren from the Word of God.  And I ask myself this question yet again. Is it worth it? Yes, without any doubt, Yes! It is worth it!