Literacy is

not an end in itself

The brilliant idea behind this workbook for West African women is to enable the cognitive processes inherent to reading, without requiring the participant to learn to read (letters, anyway).
Instead drawings are used in a syntactic way, enabling a visual means for community members to save, think, and plan for a better future.
This workbook is part of a curriculum developed by OneVillage Partners, an NGO working within rural communities in Sierra Leone. My job was to design the visual systems and layout the workbook.


Daily life for women living in a rural Sierra Leonian village is a torrent of chores. Between subsistence farming, labour intensive food preparation and child-caring, very little time is left to learn new skills and improve your life situation. And it is not a reality conducive to developing a mindset of anticipating problems and handling them in an analytical, far-sighted way.

REALITY IS A COMPROMISE The novel approach of this workbook, and the curriculum it is a part of, is to enable many of the cognitive processes associated with traditional reading, while taking into account the immensely busy life of the women in a rural farming community. Many community members have stated outright that their participation in this training were conditional on their not having to learn to read. If this condition strikes you as odd, imagine yourself responsible for bringing food for a 5+ family from soil to table every day, breastfeeding infants, and street hawking whatever produce you can spare. While most people would benefit from becoming literate, what do you do if you don’t have time?

It is difficult to assess how reading affects the ability to imagine, inside your head, situations not (yet) real. From taking part in the creation of this material, I will stipulate that the process of turning letters into imagined situations and deriving meaning from those situations, strengthens your capacity to anticipate and react too many possible futures. But I don’t think the benefits of reading is exclusive to the reading of letters. Symbols and contextually organized drawings can constitute a kind of reading, and offer many of the same benefits. It is a lot less flexible than reading, but of more immediate use to the participants.

HOW IT WORKS  This is one of the first pages, where you evaluate your money-handling abilities by ticking checkboxes. A woman climbing a ladder is a metaphor for progress.

TIME AND MONEY  More involved concepts are introduced in this fold-out calendar (below) displaying in the top row the four agricultural seasons. Notice how this introduces a visual definition of time implied by the direction of reading, a common side-effect of literacy. Beneath, in a row of boxes, partipants paste drawings of their individual goals onto the timeline. Vertically the activities of buying and selling produce, putting money into savings, and unexpected events are depicted. A matrix of visual value estimation devices allow for gauging income and expenses for each month/activity. This makes it possible to visualize when and how much money is needed for school fees/uniform, bringing produce to the market, unexpected events, and so on.

A grid of visual value estimation devices allow for gauging income and expenses on a time axis. This makes it possible to anticipate when and how much money is needed for educational and other factors neccesary in transitioning beyond current standards of living.

CALCULATING WITHOUT COUNTING  A cup of rice is the basic visual unit for estimating value. In Sierra Leone a cup of rice is (in effect) a currency unit fixed at a rate of 1.000 Leone (~0.15 €) In the material a simplified outline of a cup represents this unit. A pile of rice equals 10 cups, and 10 piles are one bag of rice (100 cups). Rice is a cash crop widely grown by the course participants and serves as an easily recognizable symbol suitable for introducing symbol based visual language.

Counting value is done by pencilling in the corresponding number of cups, piles, or bags.


Gender dynamics account for some of the vulnerabilities the communities are facing. In the chart below, the participant has to check whether they (wife), their husbond, or both are in charge of matters of domestic finance. To be able to track perceived changes this is a recurring page in the workbook.


If you are unfamiliar with life in rural farming communities in West Africa, the skills taught by these pages must seem very mundane. It is not easy to identify with a person who is not accustomed to thinking about money in terms of time, if you – like me – were privileged with a piggy-bank as a child, and when you for many years have held and used pencils and books. From learning to hold a pencil on page 3 to planning your family economy on a mere 41 pages, this is a very steep learning curve. And it works.

WHY IT WORKS In this workbook many questions had to be asked! The research and experience of OneVillage Partners inspired the curriculum concept, and their close ties to the community made field testing an integrated part of the process. A Sierra Leonean artist, Alosyne, drew the artwork and was fluent in the specifics of local visual vocabulary. I worked with Alosyne to ensure a uniformity of expression in the drawings, created the page layouts, and turned the original ideas and research into functional visual systems. For all of these reasons, the curriculum is successful today in teaching analytical skills to the benefit of individual and community.

CONCLUSION The cognitive benefits of reading can be reaped without becoming literate in a traditional sense. Using this workbook and deriving meaning from the syntactically organized drawings is in itself a kind of reading. The reading of letters is not a skill that fixes or improves anything in itself. It does make thinking easier. But so does this workbook.

DESIGN FOR DEVELOPMENT Seeing how the participants adopted a visual language based on common symbols was a very rewarding experience. There is a lot of potential in evolving common pictorial teaching aids into a localized visual tools. Anyone working in a similar context should get in touch, I would be delighted to share my findings and learn of other efforts of a similar kind.

I take a keen interest in the challenges of designing and communicating between several cultural contexts. How to harness a natural sense of identification between people living under very different circumstances, is a question I am always searching for more answers to.

Visit the website of One Village Partners to read more about their methods and community-based development work.

All artwork on this page is used courtesy of One Village Partners 2016©.