La Paz, May 10 (Inter Press Service) - Coipasa is ahead, with Chipaya on its heels. Right behind them are Urubichá and Guarayos. The competitors are not race horses but rural villages and towns in Bolivia racing to declare themselves free of illiteracy.
The starting shot was fired last year by the government's national literacy programme, which is using the Cuban literacy teaching method "Yo sí puedo" (Yes I Can).
The target is to eradicate illiteracy, along the lines established by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the international community in 2000, and the objectives of the Education for All movement led by UNESCO, which aims to meet the learning needs of all children, youth and adults by 2015.
Some 1.2 million of Bolivia's 9.2 million people do not know how to read or write.
In Bolivia, South America's poorest country, 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. A similar proportion of the population is made up of indigenous people, the great majority of whom are poor.
Adult illiteracy is high among Bolivians living in impoverished rural communities and the slums ringing the country's cities. Most slumdwellers have no access to basic services like electricity, clean water or sanitation, much less schooling, according to the Ministry of Education and Culture.
The leftist government of President Evo Morales, who is himself indigenous, has poured funds into efforts to reach this segment of the population, offering university scholarships, incentives for teachers who join the literacy drive, free eyeglasses, TV sets and VCRs as teaching tools, and solar panels for communities without electricity, to enable them to use the new equipment for the videotaped adult literacy classes.
Those involved in the literacy drive have their work cut out for them. For example, the coordinators of the campaign in the western province of Oruro identified 25 illiterate people in a specific municipality, with whom they began the course in April 2006.
Five moved away or dropped out for different reasons. And to get the other 20 to complete the course, which is made up of 65 half-hour videotaped lessons, the literacy instructors and their supervisors had to actually knock on the students' doors and convince them of the benefits that the eradication of illiteracy would bring the community.
"Sometimes we had to actually chase down students to keep them in class," said Octavio Colque, the literacy coordinator in that area, where Coipasa and Chipaya are located.
Moreover, he told IPS, "it was very difficult to teach them basic reading and writing skills, which is why it took us a whole year."
The incentives offered by the government have helped. For instance, the top adult literacy students who go on to complete their primary and secondary school studies can win scholarships to attend university in Cuba.
And in Chipaya, Cuban optometrists visited the village as part of their aim to distribute 200,000 pairs of eyeglasses to newly literate Bolivians. In just under a year, 226 Chipaya Indians learned to read and write with the Yo Sí Puedo method, which will soon begin to be applied in Bolivia's cities as well.
A big challenge is that not all of Bolivia's indigenous people are fluent in Spanish, while for now, the majority of adult literacy lessons are given in Spanish. Of the 15,000 literacy posts throughout the country, only 88 provide teaching in Quechua or Aymara, the main indigenous languages spoken in Bolivia.
The government is addressing the problem, however. Minister of Education and Culture Víctor Cáceres told IPS that "We are overcoming these details. In Cuba, we taped 65 classes in Aymara and Quechua, using Bolivian actors and situations, with which we launched bilingual literacy classes in March. By the middle of the year we should also be teaching literacy skills in Guaraní."
Nevertheless, the depth of the results has been questioned. Professor Mario Yapu, who has carried out research on the educational reforms adopted in Bolivia in 1994, told IPS that "It would appear that the results -- in this case, the eradication of illiteracy -- are more important than the people themselves, because what this method would seem to be creating is functionally illiterate people."
The functionally illiterate technically know how to read and write, but are unable to perform even the most basic tasks using language.
In the Yo Sí Puedo method, students learn to read by establishing an association between letters and numbers, since even illiterate people work with numbers every day, selling or buying products in the market, for example. Thus, the classes move from the familiar (numbers) to the unfamiliar (letters).
Despite the difficulties and obstacles, the race is on. Coipasa and Chipaya -- near the border with Chile, in one of Bolivia's poorest regions -- are competing for second and third place.
The first town to declare itself free of illiteracy was Tolata, in the central province of Cochabamba, where a white flag was raised on Apr. 12 to declare victory in a contest with 27 other villages that are also in the final stretch.
This year, the programme will be extended to a total of 329 municipalities.
The Yo Sí Puedo method has also been implemented in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Paraguay. Venezuela declared itself to be "illiteracy-free" last October 2005, when it announced that nearly 1.5 million adults had learned to read and write over the previous two years.
Bolivia has the sad distinction of being the South American country with the highest illiteracy rate. The fourth national progress report on the MDGs, released in December 2006, indicated that 13 out of 100 people over the age of 15 do not even know how to write their name.
That is not much higher than Peru's adult illiteracy rate of 12.3 percent and Brazil's 11.4 percent, but is a far cry from Chile's 4.3 percent or Argentina's 2.8 percent -- the statistics presented in the U.N. Development Programme's (UNDP) Human Development Report 2006.
Limited progress had already been made in Bolivia in recent years, as indicated by the fact that illiteracy among adults between the ages of 15 and 44 declined by 1.5 percent from 1999 to 2004.
The national progress report on the MDGs says the goal is to reduce the illiteracy rate to 2.2 percent by 2015, since completely eradicating illiteracy is a nearly impossible task, given the country's geography, characterised by remote mountain and jungle areas.
According to population projections, that would mean around 122,000 illiterate adults in 2015, the deadline set by the MDGs, whose scope includes the fight against poverty, hunger and illiteracy.
First published at Inter Press Service