Word by Word

Why do the ASAH girls need our help? Because even though they range in age from 10 to 17, most of them can barely read. The national language in South Sudan is English (with a British accent and usage) and school is taught in the immersion method with all instruction in English.

For the younger kids and those who have not attended school regularly, I imagine it as Leek Sam, Manyok, and Dau have described their experience in refugee camp schools – learning outside, under the trees. The first couple years they hear so many unfamiliar sounds, it’s gibberish, but eventually, they begin to understand. So it is here.

The ASAH girls can understand some English, but they have virtually no conversational skills. Comprehending comes first. Speaking is tough because they have little opportunity to practice – no memorized conversations such as I remember from French classes in junior high school and high school. No time in the “lab” to listen to native French speakers repeating conversations and reinforcement with the written word in a book.

The fact that our girls and many girls in the village have not attended school regularly, day after day, year after year has delayed their acquisition of skills. The school day is also much shorter than ours in the US, ending at noon or one so the children can return home for perhaps the only meal of the day. And once they return to their homes. there are no books, no workbooks, no educational programs on television, and no one speaking English in the home, and even if there were, many kids, especially girls, are busy cooking, cleaning, carrying water or firewood, or taking care of younger children.

Students from Woodland Middle School in Duluth, Minnesota learned about our program and decided they wanted to write letters to our ASAH girls, with the hope that the girls would write back. I arrived here with a packet of close to 30 letters, some addressed to individual ASAH girls by name, and some written to the group. 

We broke the girls into three groups, and read a few of the letters to the girls. They were excited to receive them, the first letters of their lives. (Although some of our sponsors have also written to the girls). Though the girls have learned the rudiments of letter writing in school, their writing skills are hindered by their limited English vocabulary, and their inability to spell.

Since we have only twelve girls, we had them each write to a group of students. The process began with the teachers writing the names of all the children in the group for our girls to copy. The real labor began as three of our ASAH teachers and myself hovered over the groups to assist them with vocabulary and spelling. Word by word, letter by letter. When they finished, each girl recopied her letter so that I would have a nice, neat copy to bring back to their pen pals in Duluth.

What did they write about? They wrote about the games they like to play here at ASAH – netball and volleyball. They wrote about the local foods they like to eat. They wrote their names, their ages and their classes. Each letter was individually composed. It took about three hours for each of them to complete a few paragraphs.

That’s how it begins. Word by word.

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