"Are you blind?" The young nurse's response to Ho Thi Thuy hurt the 49-year-old woman, who had just asked for help in finding the Obstetrics section of the Hue Central Hospital.
|150 out of the 400 villagers are illiterate, most of them middle-aged and poor, Ho Quang Chinh said. — Photo laodong|
Thuy was not blind, but she was illiterate. And the humiliation she felt pushed her to do something about it. She decided to enroll in an illiteracy eradication class in My Loi, a fishing village in Thua Thien - Hue Province.
"I had been too shy to join. But that nurse, she was my daughter's age… she insulted me, I felt it and I decided to join the class."
Ho Quang Chinh, who teaches the class, said that the Centre for Continuing Education in Quang Dien District, where Thuy's village is located, had opened the class in 2010 with the aim of teaching villagers basic reading and writing skills.
The class is free of charge and Chinh, who lives near the village, was assigned as the class's sole teacher.
"150 out of the 400 villagers are illiterate, most of them middle-aged and poor," he said.
He said village residents were originally members of a floating community on the Tam Giang Lagoon, and had moved to land recently.
"Many of the students are my age, born in 1968, the year that many died of hunger. The country was at war then. Some were born later, when peace had returned, but sill lived a very hard life. Living on the water, they could not receive any schooling."
The class is held from Monday to Thursday every week, and the only reason villagers can absent themselves from it is when they off fishing, their households' sole means of earning an income.
One of Chinh's main tasks besides teaching is visiting the villagers at their homes and reminding them of the next class. He does not have to work hard to motivate them.
"They have experienced the disadvantages of being illiterate and felt discriminated against, so they are very determined to study," he said.
"We have the feeling of being brushed aside by the whole community. We know nothing but the water and fish, not even a simple word," Thuy said.
Tran Tham, who is as old has his teacher Chinh, said local government staff were among those who discriminated against the villagers.
"They know that we are illiterate, so they write down whatever they wanted. The wrong name, wrong year (date of birth) on our ID cards and family residency books."
"It's shameful not to know how to read and write. So getting a chance to study now is a piece of luck and I am determined to do it well."
Joy of learning
Tham and his classmates find it a joy to attend class, despite the uncomfortable seats and basic facilities at the "school."
"My friends say that I am the best student. They always shout out my name when the teacher needs a volunteer to read loud the entire text," Tham said with evident pleasure and an innocent smile.
For Ngo Thi Huong, 45, the joy of studying comes in the encouragement she receives from her children, including her first son, who is studying to be an IT engineer at the Hue University of Sciences.
"My last daughter and I study every night. She enters Grade 1 next year and she is learning how to read and write now," Huong said. "She reminds me of studying every evening. The other children, who are in secondary schools, help me with the spelling of complicated words."
But things are not so encouraging for another student, Nguyen Thi Gai, 42, who is always busy with fishing and housework. "My children shout at me, saying why do I have to study when I am getting old. Whenever I leave for class, they tell me to stay at home.
"They tell me that my going to class makes their mates discriminate against them. I want to quit sometimes. But I really need to know how to read. Illiteracy has too many disadvantages."
Tran Thi Cuc, 43, who was late by a month for the class after going on summer leave like Gai, receives full support from her family. It is her turn to study after two years of staying at home and working, giving her husband the chance to attend.
Chinh, who also teaches simple math, classifies his students into different grades, from first to fourth. "They practice a, b, c in the first grade. They are rather slow and need more patience and encouragement," he said, referring to Gai and Cuc.
He said it is impossible to have a permanent student list for the class. Some quit for several months for various reasons and return later. But he does not mind, because he does not see his task as having a good report about eradicating illiteracy. He sees his class as meeting a practical need of the villagers.
"They don't come to be certified, some will quit earlier if they feel confident about their reading, writing and calculating skills."
"Many people have thought that we are too old and the class is useless. But it works for real," said Tham. "I surprised staff in the district office when I pointed to them that my DOB on the family residency book was wrong.
"I can write and sign a petition requesting correction (of DOB) right in front of them."
Nguyen Thi Bong, 39, another student, has found out that her ID has carried a different name for 14 years, saying Bon (tank) instead of Bong (flower).
Furthermore, "I finally found out that my younger sister and I have the same DOB on our ID cards although we are not twins."
Bong quit the class recently after learning to read and write, helping her enormously in running her shop.
"Everything has become smooth for my business. I can keep records of everything now, including the list of people who owe me money."
Next month, Tham is going to register for a motorbike driving test and drive for the first time in his life. Thuy's cooking service for parties is growing well. "I can read, write and calculate. I am also confident about communicating."
Thuy and Tham said they wish they'd begun studying much earlier, but added that even now is not too late for learning and doing some business apart from fishing so that they can live a better life.