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ALTA battles ‘shame factor’ associated with illiteracy

Sunday, April 29, 2012
Paula Lucie-Smith, CEO and founder of ALTA

The Adult Literacy Tutors Association’s (ALTA) most challenging task is facing the shame factor associated with illiteracy. This was the response to one of the questions posed to Paula Lucie-Smith, CEO and founder of ALTA, during an interactive session with members of the public, following the screening of the film The First Grader at the National Library and Information System Authority in Port-of-Spain yesterday.


The First Grader is a 2010 film based on the true story of Kimani Maruge, a Kenyan man, who enrolled in elementary education at the age of 84, after the Kenyan government announced free universal education to its citizens. Maruge, who was imprisoned as a young man following the brutal killing of his wife and child, fought to be educated among his classmates—first graders, telling them that the power was in the pen and to never give up on their books.


The movie was so inspiring that three of ALTA’s students came forward to tell of the struggles they faced in and out of school, which led to them not being able to read and write as children, but were now being helped by ALTA. Among the students were 89-year-old Ramdas Sooklal.


ALTA, which offers reading circle guide (a programme to help students with their reading or computer skills,) adult literacy and Train-a-Tutor sponsorship, has 50 locations in Trinidad, but none in Tobago. “I am beginning to feel there is a beginning of a change. Now we have students coming out in front of people they never met to talk about their experiences.”


When ALTA first started 20 years ago, Lucie-Smith said it was extremely difficult. “No one would come forward to say anything, far less speak out especially when people were looking at you.” Lucie-Smith said that finally they were getting people to overcome the fear, “the fear of someone knowing that you can’t read.”


Lucie-Smith said that society needed to change the way we viewed illiteracy in society. A survey conducted by ALTA in 1995, Lucie-Smith said, showed that “22 to 23 per cent of the population could not do basic reading and writing. But if you take it to a higher level then only 45 per cent of the adult population can actually read and write at newspaper level.”


Lucie-Smith said people in the less urban environment in Trinidad may not feel the need to read. “So we find the demand for our classes is along the East-West Corridor.” Lucie-Smith said changes in technology was now forcing people to become literate.


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