Decolonization Of Education For Women In Post-conflict Northern Uganda

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There was a woman who was interviewed by a journalist for a national newspaper about her experience as a sex slave during the conflict in Northern Uganda. The journalist wrote about the woman’s experiences, adding the fact that she was also planning on marrying her captor. After the article came out, the woman asked me to read it since she couldn’t read. So, we sat down together and I read to her what the journalist had written.

The woman quickly became distraught, breaking down in tears. I asked her what was wrong. It became apparent that the article was inaccurate. The woman had been misquoted. For her, it was unimaginable that anyone could think she could marry her captor. I wanted to let the journalist know the mistake he made and the damage he had caused. As for the woman, she wanted to keep the paper so that when her children have gained enough education, they could help her to craft a response to the journalist.

Illiteracy is a significant issue for many women in Northern Uganda. Here, a good number of women feel blocked and get frustrated in society because they had lost their chances of receiving formal education during the conflict when they were abducted by rebels or as a result of an early marriage. Even after some skills training, they still have limitations in English proficiency causing them to have challenges in functioning in the community where the English language is the medium of communication.

Some of their concerns include: (a) not being able to participate in decision making process either in their homes or outside their homes; (b) inability to read and write leading to difficulties following signs and directions pointing to health facilities or childcare places; and (c) being potential victims when journalists or researchers extract stories from them and write in different languages which they do not understand. In addition, there remains limited access to justice in society either for themselves or for their children, which would allow for legal recourse if victimized.

This paper will talk about the need to advocate for basic education for women in Northern Uganda after many years of armed conflict and the importance of women to learn to read and write so that they may be able to advocate for themselves. Providing basic education to women is a critical step forward in the decolonization process in the post-conflict era. It is a process that involves the “decolonization” of the current mind-set of many people in Northern Uganda.

The impression I get through the daily interaction with women in Northern Uganda is that they understand the need for basic knowledge of reading and writing in the English language to enable them to communicate and avoid being taken advantage of, misrepresented and exploited even in their work places and small businesses. These are critical skills in order for woman to develop necessary bargaining discourse and power in society.

The problems and limitations posed by women’s inability and inadequate literacy and numeracy skills have clearly become a blockade to most of their freedom of expression and social interactions in the larger community of Uganda since people speak different languages and so use English as the common medium of communication. As a result, they continue to be helpless victims of circumstances that negatively affects their self-esteem and self-identity development. They actually feel oppressed in their own society by the “systemized education”. Freire (1970) argued that such systemized education does not offer them alternatives that can validate the indigenous knowledge they had received when they were growing up.

This type of education system is almost always led by the oppressive regime or government which has its own agenda about what students should learn. Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed wrote about this system as “educational projects” that are being applied to adult learning. Therefore, in taking these educational projects approach, originally designed by people who carry the weight of the burden of “ignorance,” and applying it now to adult learners is effectively causing the same form of oppression as seen in the old colonial days. The oppressed I am focusing on here are the women of Northern Uganda. They must be the beginning subjects of a new educational project. These women already “know things” as Freire says, so this must be the beginning of any work to humanize them as a group. The new literacy projects must begin with what women already know and must humanize them.

Then they must ask what they want to know, or do next, and how they want to move forward. Only by allowing the women to be the leaders in this effort can the dichotomy of the oppressor and the oppressed, as well as the educated and less educated, be broken. Without undergoing this process, the current educational system will continue to increase the obstacles that hinder the engagement of meaningful dialogues between women and will impose on them the feeling that they are “ignorant” just because they cannot read, write and speak in English.

The way these women are able to narrate stories of their life and what they learnt from childhood is in line with Saussure’s ideas of how signs are created in the mind of people. He did not talk about writing or reading but emphasized on how mental images are created. His work also reminds us that these women have much knowledge and intelligence and have developed a rich cultural way of knowing.

This knowing integrates one’s creativity in the community and follows an ongoing process of learning which may be unique from culture to culture. Much as the women may not be able to “signify” as it is done in English, they need to be nurtured in their cultural way of knowing, which often times is based on oral traditions that creates some permanent memory in their mind.

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Some solutions as a way forward in advocating for the learning process of these women could be through a form of basic indigenous education that can be given to help deepen their knowledge on what they already know and have been engaged in daily. This is done in order to make them feel and understand that their own knowledge has purpose and can facilitate the teaching and passing of knowledge to subsequent generations.

This is why it is increasingly important for these women to value their inherent knowledge that can make them the leaders who can then decide their own educational future. In turn, they can also teach their traditional instructors about what they do not know and what they may desire to know.

Follows the thought of Freire (p.76), the “oppressed” are always inside the design that puts them aside. He argues that the key to solving the problem is not getting them “integrated” into the same society but that they must transform it entirely so that they can become visible themselves. In my case, I argue that women must begin to see the world from their own perspectives and not from the perspectives of the world that continues categorizing and giving them labels based on stereotypes of the dominant culture. By working towards their transformation through basic indigenous education, they will move on to transform the society.

This could be their journey of liberation from the oppressive discourses like “ignorant”, which widens the gap between the “educated” and “uneducated”. People who do not have a voice and those who have been silenced by the systemized form of education have been deprived of their dignity. It would be worth validating their practical knowledge of the daily activities like growing food crops and preparing them, sewing clothes, engaging in trades like vegetable selling, which involves a lot of mental mathematics with the practical skills and understanding of measurements such as length and weight.

With the daily tasks in the community, these women demonstrate a profound knowledge and experiences which involve the use of the money and how this money is generated as well. They would need to be taught some savings skills and planning for the future to help eradicate poverty in their households and in their society at large.

As a way forward I would like to argue that learning be based on their reality since these women have some specific needs of learning related to their daily tasks around the home and in their society. Further, there are good reasons for finding appropriate learning materials and curricular schedule that can advance and encourage the learning process with the aim of given them hope as learners. This may include the timing of classes to meet their needs and according to their availability.

This new educational curriculum has to be geared towards mother-and-child, respect and include women’s views and opinions about the program, and have a lot of flexibility. In this way, women will feel their voices have been included in the overall planning process of learning. This will remove one of the obstacles of feeling “ignorant” in society. The content of the curriculum will need to be reviewed from time to time before gradually introducing new materials for further learning.

There must be a critical evaluation from learners and teachers in order to come up with the appropriate solution which would make the learners measure their progress and awaken in them the desire of going deeper into finding how much knowledge they already have. This knowledge can be used as a basis for other forms of learning which can eventually be passed on to another generation to ensure the continuity and transmission of experiential knowledge.

The way these women are able to narrate stories of their life and what they learnt from childhood is consistent with Saussure’s ideas of how signs are created in the mind. He did not talk about writing or reading but emphasized on how mental images and impressions are created, as advanced by Dimetriadis and Kimberlis (p. 39). It also confirms that these women have a substantial knowledge and intelligence which they received from their own cultural way of knowing.

One suggestion is to place emphasis on the introduction of literacy and numeracy in their local language and eventually move on to the basics of communication in English in order to connect them to the bigger communities in Uganda and the world. Another suggestion would be the development of the school for adult women and the understanding of how adults learn as opposed to the way children learn. Also, it would be important to consider storytelling and narratives as a way of awakening and deepening the desire for learning. Knowledge of culture and how women learn, would yet be another alternative solution.

Freire (1998) goes further to say, “even before attempting to discuss methods and tactics for purpose of creating dynamic classes like this, the teacher must be clear and content with the notion that the cornerstone of the whole process is human curiosity” (p.81), and he acknowledges that curiosity develops the knowledge of a person and puts one to “act, ask again and recognize”. There will be some difficulties that will come when working with women in their oral language because their local language will need to be translated first in order to reach another audience. These difficulties can be overcome by being willing and opened to explore other people’s world in order to see a bigger picture and access to education beyond their own. This is where I see education as an intervention of a human act which lead to radical changes in the society, especially in relation to human rights specific to people whose rights are constantly denied.

I have observed this reality over the years in my work with women who might not have gained formal language writing skills but have a lot of hands-on skills and lots of stories to tell. This was my case. While my mother was not formally educated, she was wise. She raised us on many stories from which we learned.

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