BRAZZAVILLE — It was only when she realized she'd handed her husband a letter written by his mistress that Alphonsine decided to act. Facing such heartbreak and humiliation, this 54-year-old housewife and mother of seven, decided to join a basic literacy class in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville.

Like Alphonsine, many illiterate women have started going to school to address such educational shortcomings. Their goals are manifold: to assert themselves, to be more independent in their activities — including business — and to contribute to their children's education. Some of them choose the method called “Alpha Express,” taught at the Center Mama Elombé ("Fighting Woman"), in the church Sainte-Marie de Ouenzé. This method promises beginners they will be able to write their names after one month.

This adult literacy center was first opened in 1990, and currently boasts some 685 registered students, 462 of whom are women. It takes them three years to go through primary school, and four years for secondary school. Although it's a public institution, this center doesn't receive any support from the Congolese state. “Although the government promised in 2013 that the UNESCO's Education For All program would be free for everyone, the building as well as the benches and chalk all come from charities or churches,” explains Jean Urbain Trankon, a local technical advisor for literacy and re-schooling.

And though most women share the fact that they'd never been to school before, the reactions of their families may be very different. “I registered to fix a handicap that was holding me back. Unfortunately, it's already cost me my marriage,” one of the students says.

Maniongui Kombo Gladys, 29 and mother of two, is lucky enough to have her husband's full support. “He said I'd be able to work as a cashier and he registered me for these evening classes," she says. "Now I can already read the doctor's prescription when I come back from the hospital with the children.”

In Brazzaville — Photo: Fatou N'Diaye via Instagram

For Colette Bikambi, illiteracy was a veritable business cost. “I'm a shopkeeper. So unfortunately, when I wanted to transfer money, I had to ask other people to fill out the forms for me,” she says.

French help

Amandine Natacha Miénandi, 17, has just started her first year. “I'd like to be a hairdresser,” she explains. “But to succeed, I need to have good basic knowledge of French.”

At another literacy center on the other side of Brazzaville, the motivations are also varied. “Old mothers come here to learn how to read the Bible properly,” says Louisette Loubaki, the center's director. “We teach them the syllabic method. Classes take place in the evenings, three times a week, for nine months. But electricity shortages are too common, and they often disrupt classes.” Still, she says 15 women have learned how to read since opening.

Some of these schools start teaching in the national languages — Kituba and Lingala, for starters. But as learners advance, these are replaced by French, which is also a way to improve the students' oral skills in that national language. It is one more draw for attracting illiterate mothers to go back to school, or go for the very first time.