Wednesday, February 12, 2014

SHARPening Ugandan education

While the girls are off playing (see last post), Daddy is busy working. A couple of months ago, I was asked by my SIL supervisor to be a part of a workshop in February-March of this year. The request came at a good time because I planned to finish the first full draft of my Ik grammar by 31 January, and we don't have anything else big tying us to Timu for the moment.

The workshop is part of a big program funded by the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) called the School Health and Reading Program (SHARP). It is headed by an agency named RTI and involves a handful of partner organization to implement the program. One of those partners is an SIL subsidiary organization called SIL-LEAD whose vision "is a world where all peoples have a voice in their own development---in their own words." SIL-LEAD subcontracts work out to local SIL branches (like Uganda), which is how I got involved. The SHARP program is also conducted under the Ugandan government which means the workshop I'm taking part in is held at the National Curriculum Development Centre here in Kampala, where they write school curricula for the whole country.

Like I said, it's a very big program, and if you want to know more about it, go here. This four-week workshop is only a tiny part of it. The goal of the workshop is to evaluate the orthographies of five Ugandan languages and determine if any improvements need to be made. The five languages are: Lukhonzo, Lugwere, Lusoga, Ngakarimojong, and Ateso. The first three are Bantu languages, while the last two are East Nilotic languages and therefore closely related. Because of my familiarity with Ngakarimojong, I was assigned to Ateso, its close linguistic cousin.

The Ateso language has been being written for at least 100 years. Its alphabet has 17 consonants and 5 vowels. But last year, when the new P1 and P2 (grades 1 and 2 in the US) school books made in the SHARP went to the schools, a lot of complaints were made about how they were written. So it was decided that the Ateso writing system should be revisited and revised. A major issue is that, technically, the language has 10 vowel sounds, not 5 as are written. That means that a fairly large number of words are spelled the same but spoken differently. Now it is being suggested that they write 9-10 vowel symbols to represent their vowel sounds. That way, there will be less ambiguity in the writing system.

My job in this workshop is to be a linguistic consultant and facilitator for the Ateso group. They consist of 10 folks, 5 men and 5 women from all over Teso-land. They are wonderful, educated, Christian people and just a delight to work with. They are passionate for their language and their people and are working hard every day to get a linguistic knowledge of their mother-tongue so they can better make the very difficult decisions of how to write a language. What I try to do with them is basic linguistic research, letting them do most of the work only with my guidance. That way their linguistic awareness is raised such that by the end of the workshop, they will be novice linguists of their own language!

Creating an orthography is a complicated process, fraught with tension and compromise. A writing system should be based on sound linguistic principles, but it must also be teachable and acceptable to the speech community. With Ateso's century-long tradition(s) of writing, any major changes will be met with strong resistance. The ten folks I'm working with are part of a slightly larger Ateso Language Board whose members have been elected from the Teso districts. Once a revised orthography is proposed, they will have to advocate for it and defend their decisions to the people.

I'm certainly not used to working from 7:00 am to 6:00 (that includes the commute), especially being away from Amber and the kids for that amount of time. The weather here is hot and muggy, and Kampala has been draped in a lethal layer of smog since we got here. I've had diarrhea and haven't slept a good night since we came. The work hours are long and sometimes grueling. But I sense the grace of God through these difficulties, and I'm thankful for the chance to invest in the development of the Ateso language and its millions of speakers. My prayer is that their education will improve through a good orthography so they can better participate in their national culture and the global community. And in this way, God's purposes for them and all of us will be edged a step closer toward fulfillment.


The Reeds said...

I'm sorry you don't feel well.. :( I'm grateful you have such an opportunity though.

Anonymous said...

Reading this makes me feel so close to you guys! I helped facilitate a participatory orthography development workshop just last month (along with a linguist and my supervisor, thank goodness).

And, my supervisor (Xinia) is coming to spend 6 weeks in Kampala starting next month to help Prossi with the MLE portion of SHARP. I've been giving her the low-down on Kampala. Wish I could tag along and hang with you guys! :)

Love and prayer, Kate