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Volume 13 No. 2 (1998)

Education for all Education for life



by Kizito Sesana

Looking back at my life, I find that, apart from the close family environment, only a handful of people have had a lasting impact on me, on my way of thinking and on my way of relating to the world. One of these people is certainly Paulo Freire. I read his books with fascination. They were opening new horizons. They were offering a new key to open, up, to understand and to change reality around us.

Freire rejected the Marxist-Leninist view of the confrontation of oppressor-oppressed, of class hatred and the rhetoric of the "people's revolution." He overcame the ineffective, bland, spiritualistic and sometimes sickly sweet approach to social change so common in the clerical world. He offered a simple, but highly effective method (profoundly rooted in Christian principles) for changing reality. Though demanding in its implementation, this method was one through which the poor, the rejected and the oppressed could become the liberating hope of everyone, including their own oppressors. The method is described in an analytical way in another article in this issue of Wajibu.

I am not the only one who had his eyes opened by Freire. Innumerable people had their ways of thinking changed by this unassuming Brazilian teacher, husband and father of five children. His influence has been widespread, the "pedagogy of the oppressed" that he taught during his life is only beginning to make an impact. It is the backbone not only of many alphabetisation programmes but also, for instance, of the "training for transformation" approach so commonly used in East and southern Africa for the formation of the members of small Christian communities. Someday, somebody will do a study on how Freire's thinking influenced the great papal encyclicals on development, missionary activity and international problems.

Freire was one of the few persons for whom the word "teacher" could be used in all its nuances and implications. He was an educator who could insert himself in the expectations and hopes of the oppressed people. He used to say: "I cannot understand how some people can affirm that it is possible to be an educator without really loving."

The "pedagogy of the oppressed" grew out of the fertile Latin American soil, at first preceding and then growing together with liberation theology; it has many features in common with this theology. The most striking difference is the pedagogy's concreteness, its gift of translating big ideas into concrete actions and methods, its going into the details of "how to do it."

Freire's love for the poor and the oppressed people expressed itself in the continuous refining of a method that could really improve their lot. Learning how to read and write with Freire became, for the illiterate, (a term Freire never used, he called both the pupil and the educator "learners") an adventure in discovering the meaning of daily life, and the realisation that the learners themselves had something to teach their educator.

An example of this concreteness is given in Freire's book Education as practice of freedom. The group of adult learners takes the word tijolo, brick, in Portuguese. (Portuguese was Freire's mother tongue and the language of his educational work and original writings). The word is divided into ti-jo-lo and the group starts exploring the "phonemic family (ta-te-ti-to-tu; ja-je-ji-jo-ju; la-le-li-lo-lu). After the group has mastered the different phoneme, it starts a trip to discover all the possible combinations of that phoneme in order to build up different words: luta (struggle); lajota (cement block); loja (shop); lote (lottery); lula (cuttle-fish); tela (cloth), and so on.

In the group, there is no teacher in the traditional sense of somebody transfering his knowledge from on high, only a facilitator. The group is encouraged to discover words that represent objects or ideas that are part of their concrete daily life. The interest to learn how to write and use these words will be very high. More so, when the words are connected with realities that are important for the lives of the oppressed, like work, strike, pay-slip, unemployment, disease, sickness, hospital, fees, taxes, and so on.

Through learning to read and write, Freire's pedagogy would teach people to take responsible control of their lives and their future. It should therefore be no surprise to learn that many people have not been very pleased by this method.

In Africa we have witnessed a rather common pattern. For instance, in a certain Catholic Diocese somebody proposes the introduction of a development education methodology based on the Freire pedagogy. The bishop and the priests approve enthusiastically: after all, Freire was a devout and faithful Catholic layman. A short time later, the first fruits are seen: small Christian communities flourish, lay people take responsible part in development projects and in the life of the church. The bishop and the priests are enthusiastic. More time passes, and as the lay people grow in their responsibility, they start questioning the decision-making process in the church. Why are decisions that affect everyone taken in isolation? What competence do priests have in administration and building? Why was there no consultation and discussion on a certain programme? Later on, lay people are ready to serve in positions of true leadership.

The clergy becomes uneasy, they think that the lay people want too much power, things are getting out of hand ... and they react by closing the doors. They feel the basis of their power shaken. A strong tradition of clericalism that has easily transplanted itself from Europe to Africa, cannot be put into question. The Freire programme is discontinued.

Freire had an association with another person who had a profound influence on my life, especially on my approach to Africa: Amilcar Cabral, a brilliant political thinker and charismatic leader of Guinea Bissau's liberation struggle. I came across the political writings of Cabral at the same time when I was reading Freire. Cabral saw the liberation struggle of his people as a "cultural fact and a factor of culture". The struggle was launched not simply to shake off the oppressors' shackles, but also to make the oppressed grow in the understanding of themselves and of their culture, as well as in the development of a new culture, a culture capable of resisting oppression.

It was a must, according to Cabral, to overcome the idea of "weak cultures." I entered into some correspondence with Cabral, and was invited by him to visit the liberated areas of his country, where he was developing methods of political conscientisation. I never met Cabral. He was killed by the Portuguese and I was able to visit Guinea Bissau only a few months after his death. The leadership of the liberation struggle had passed to his half brother, Luis, who was not worth half of Amilcar. Successive events brought to power a leadership that had nothing in common with the dreams of Amilcar, and, as I write, Guinea Bissau is in the throes of a civil war.

It was no surprise to me that just after independence, still flying on the wings of Amilcar's political genius, the Guinea Bissau government invited Freire to put his ideas extensively into practice in their country. Freire inserted himself in the West African society in 1975, trying to transform it from below. He perceived clearly that the only way one can start an educational work is to enlist the participation and commitment of the people in the reconstruction of the country. He therefore established a solid link between his team and the most marginalised.

In 1980, towards the end of his experience and with the Cabral dream already fading, Freire, his team and his method became a nuisance to the leftist bureaucrats of the government machinery. Like the clergy in other countries, the government could not accept the growing power the Freire method of political conscientisation was putting into the hands of the people.

According to Freire, to be conscientised means to be truly human, to be able to creatively re-organise society, a society where every person is free. The aim of the pedagogy is not to create a new relationship of dependency but to uproot every dependency. It is a position the powerful cannot easily accept.

The more time passes and living, as we do, in a global society where market laws and the cultural leveling promoted by the communication industry, keep African people in a situation of internal and international dependency, the more we understand the importance of Freire's lesson.

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