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When a tree bends, it leans on its sister 

Darfuri proverb explained by Salwa Ahmed as “The rich should support the poor and the strong support the weak. The proverb may be recited to any person to encourage her/him to seek help from family or relatives without embarrassment.”

Interested in supporting our work? Visit Women’s Education Partnership

All photographs of WEP’s literacy work in this blog are copyright Imogen Thurbon and may not be reproduced without permission 

A Darfuri Folktale

The women of Darfur have their own way of explaining that age-old mystery of why it is women and not men who give birth.  As with all the best folktales, it is both lyrical and subversive.

In Enikö Nagy’s beautiful collection of Sudanese folktales, proverbs and aphorisms, Sand in my Eyes, the tale goes something like this:


At the beginning of world, God created Darfur as a verdant plain, blessed with gently rolling fields and fertile farmland. It is a satisfyingly tidy Eden, our Darfuri narrator tells us, with what I like to imagine is just a hint of a wry smile. And in this very Sudanese Eden, it is men and not women  whom God has entrusted with giving birth. But when the Almighty is done with creating other worlds, he returns to inspect his creations in Darfur, only to find his handiwork utterly altered; the once fertile lands are now riven with deep gullies and valleys; the rolling plains scarred with ridges, hill and high sand dunes. A terrified silence meets God’s demand for an explanation. In the end it is an elderly woman who finally summons up the courage to explain that such was the wild kicking and flailing about of the men during childbirth that they had torn apart the very earth and ruined the land.  From then on, God decrees, it will be women who give birth for men “are chickens and not fit for such heavy responsibility.” (Nagy, p.438)


There are, of course, many readings to this tale and it is both a reminder of the quiet powers of resilience of Sudanese women and a gentle poke at male pride.  Folktales such as this one and the oral traditions they spring from form a rich seam of cultural and critical rural literacy that permeates Sudanese culture.  And I saw many more such folktales, proverbs and songs on the walls of the literacy circles of Khartoum I visited two years ago.  They play a central role in participative literacy work where participants retell, perform, dispute, reinterpret and rewrite their meanings together.


Sudanese proverbs and their meaning in Arabic and English

And more from Salwa Ahmed

In one training session for literacy facilitators, the women there were asked to consider the validity of popular Sudanese proverbs, among them “afjakh al baSalah gubaal tabga aSalah”; “crush the onion before it becomes a python” – generally understood to be advocating the need to discipline a woman physically while she is still young and docile enough to be malleable.  Needless to say, the discussion which followed was a lively one.


What is Literacy?

Folktales and oral traditions such as these also challenge traditional understandings of what it means to be literate. They call into question the traditional view of the inherent separateness between the oral and literate, explore how societies express and value orally transmitted knowledge and how structures within societies interact and negotiate their roles.

Defining what it means to be literate is increasingly far from straightforward. The Melanesian Critical Literacies Project (Action Aid UK website p.17) defines literacy as “the capacity to read nature as a living text and understand the reason for events and problems.” A definition which reframes understanding of the knowledge, intelligence and cognitive processes of rural peoples in negotiating their environment.

Approaches to our understanding of literacy and its acquisition have always been subject to the idealogical orthodoxies of the day. The traditional ‘banking of knowledge’ approach to education, famously identified by Paolo Freire, viewed knowledge as “a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those they consider to know nothing”.  In recent years this approach has broadly given way to more participative understandings of knowledge sharing which draw actively on learners’ life experiences and wisdom.


Traditional definitions of literacy are underpinned by the idea that teaching people to read and write will of itself bring social and developmental benefits to societies. New Literacy approaches of recent years challenge this assumption and warn that if the root social and structural causes for illiteracy are not acknowledged or addressed, then it is questionable how transformative literacy input will be.  In essence, we are now urged to approach literacy acquisition always asking whose literacy in fact prevails and in which chosen languages and social contexts literacy work is being undertaken.  Who is benefiting from literacy and what are the underlying power conflicts at play?


Women in Wad Bashir literacy circle discussing songs and proverbs about marriage

Interested in supporting our work? Visit Women’s Education Partnership

Formal Definitions of Literacy

UNESCO’s definition of literacy focuses on the acquisition and use of reading, writing and numeracy skills as a means to developing active citizenship, improved health and livelihoods and gender equality. It includes the ability to:

“identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for policies and Programs (pdf) UNESCO Education Sector Position Paper 13, 2004

 Key Questions

UNESCOdefinition of literacy raises key questions: how and when does acquisition of reading and writing skills translate into development goals? Can we reliably demonstrate a correlation between the two? Does literacy work really work My visits to Khartoum literacy circles set up and run by WomenEducation Partnership were in part a search for answers to these questions. And during my journey I was struck time and time again by the joyfulness and vibrancy of the Sudanese folk culture I saw woven into every literacy session I attended. Folktales, poems, proverbs – and songs such as this one: 

Port Sudan Fishing Dance accompanied by popular song:

Al Jazeera documentary series “Camera in Sudan”, Episode 3 


Translation of this video clip available shortly.  Arabic transcript kindly provided by Muna Zaki

This article is an abridged version of Challenges to Literacy and the Role of Women’s Community Literacy Networks in Sudan, Imogen Thurbon, first published in SudanStudies for South Sudan and Sudan, March 2018, Number 57. Read full article here: SS57_Thurbon


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