Africa Unite: 39 words for improved education

Africa Unite: 39 words for improved education

Written by: Mubuso Zamchiya

Liberia. Egypt. Ethiopia. Libya. Sudan. Tunisia. Morocco. Ghana. Guinea. Cameroon. Senegal. Togo. Mali. Madagascar. Democratic Republic of the Congo. Somalia. Benin. Niger. Burkina Faso. Côte d’Ivoire. Chad. Central African Republic. Republic of the Congo. Gabon. Mauritania. Sierra Leone. Nigeria. Cameroon. Tanzania. Burundi. Rwanda. Algeria. Uganda. Kenya. Malawi. Zambia. The Gambia. Botswana. Lesotho.

Congratulations! You have just read the names of the first 39 African countries to gain independence from western colonial rule. You likely did so in less than one minute. But, if you were a third-grade student in a high-poverty Liberian school, you likely couldn’t read these names. Only 21 percent of you and your peers would have succeeded. Just 5.8 percent of you would have succeeded at reading this list if you were a Liberian in second grade.

Of course, I am cheating a little. The names of the some of the countries above are multi-syllabic or multi-worded, both of which increase the reading degree of difficulty, especially for young children. So, here is an easier passage: 

               “Come down,” I said. “Can you see all the people?”

               They asked, “When will we go to the water?”

               But it was a cold day. So, I called each of them. “Look! I am about to write some words.”

This one also has 39 words. This passage is drawn from the Fry 100 Sight Words List. Sight words are high-frequency, commonly-used words that third graders should know and read easily. The words are often taught for memorization because they do not all follow the general rules of spelling, or conform phonetically to guidance on the six types of syllables

Still, there is some good news for children in Liberia. The Luminos Fund, where I am Managing Director, has been active there since 2016, providing catch-up education to out-of-school children who have missed or dropped out of the first years of primary schooling due poverty, conflict, discrimination, and now COVID-19.

Over ten months, Luminos’ joyful, child-centered, play-based approach helps children learn how to learn and become literate and numerate. They then take the government placement exams and enter mainstream schooling in the third or fourth grade, reading at 39 words per minute on average.

Now, 39 words per minute may not sound impressive at first, but it is really good news. You see, when out-of-school children come to Luminos, most can only read 5 words per minute. That means, with Luminos, they make 10-month learning gains of 34 words per minute.

Take a look at the U.S. for context. According to the Oral Reading Frequency Norms (ORF), children in American schools at the 50th percentile start third grade at 83 words per minute and end the year reading 112 (a 29 words per minute gain). They enter fourth grade at 94 words per minute and end reading 133 (a gain of 39 words per minute.)

That is about the same annual reading gain as the Luminos children in Liberia – give or take 5 words per minute in each case. But Luminos gets this done at a tiny fraction of the cost. For reference, U.S. K-12 schools spend $12,612 per student annually, as compared to the Luminos program, which delivers three years of learning in 10 months at a cost as low as $150 per child.

So, here’s the takeaway. As Africans and friends of Africa come together and celebrate Africa Day on May 25th, please take note. If Luminos, as an independent NGO, can cost-effectively bring the most marginalized children in Liberia to reading improvement levels commensurate to kids in American public schools, then what might be possible throughout entire education systems? I mean, what could be achieved if we all unite around one straightforward idea: to concentrate education reform, innovation, and development efforts on improving oral reading fluency for all primary-age children across the landscape of the 54 African countries? Surely recovery from COVID-19 related learning loss would be tangibly within our grasp!

That’s it for my Africa Day message. But, before you go, allow me to make you smile. In 1979, when only three African countries—Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa—remained under colonial and apartheid rule, Bob Marley released a magnificent song called Africa Unite. In its final refrain, the song, at its best, offers some powerfully evocative words:

               “So, Africa, Unite.

               Afri, Africa unite, yeah!

               Unite for the benefit (Africa unite) of your people!

               Unite, for it’s later (Africa unite) than you think!

               Unite for the benefit of your children.

               Unite, for it’s later than you think!”

You are smiling aren’t you? It’s Bob Marley after all. But imagine if all African children received quality education: education that would allow them to read these very same 39 inspiring lyrics comfortably at third grade, even as they sing along to this remarkable Africa Day anthem. Wouldn’t that just light up their faces? We grownups had better not wait until it is too late to make it so.   

Mubuso Zamchiya is Managing Director at the Luminos Fund, a nonprofit that provides transformative education programs to thousands of out-of-school children, helping them to catch up to grade level, reintegrate into local schools, and prepare for lifelong learning. Luminos has set 152,051 children across Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia on a path to lifelong learning.

Anteneh’s Journey from Goat Herder to Student

Anteneh’s Journey from Goat Herder to Student

“My father promised to send me to school one day,” eleven-year-old Anteneh says. Coming from a large family with five other siblings, Anteneh took care of the family’s goats. In Ethiopia, livestock are an important part of small farmers’ livelihood. Goats provide milk and meat, creating a good source of income. Herding goats is traditionally a child’s responsibility. As a grazing animal with wanderlust, goats must frequently move from place to place to find bushes with fresh leaves. Watching over them as they roam the village is a full-time job for children like Anteneh. To support their large family, Anteneh’s mother and father, Aster and Kosie, grow coffee and enset (an Ethiopian staple crop) in addition to keeping a small herd of goats.

Anteneh and his mother, Aster, outside their home.
Anteneh and his mother, Aster, outside their home.

This past year, COVID-19 ravaged communities and countries around the world. To date in Ethiopia, COVID-19 has caused more of an economic and educational crisis than a public health crisis. At Luminos, we are monitoring the situation closely and hope Ethiopia continues to keep COVID-19 cases at bay.

As part of his daily chores, Anteneh collects firewood.
As part of his daily chores, Anteneh collects firewood.

For Anteneh, daily life didn’t change significantly during the pandemic. He says, “Most of the time, I was helping my parents.” Anteneh took care of the goats, completed household chores, and played with friends near his home. Despite his age, Anteneh never had the chance at an education — even before the pandemic closed schools. Parents in rural Ethiopia often make a difficult decision: have their children earn an income to support the family now, or send them to school to invest in their future. In a 2013 FAO study of 3,038 Ethiopian children between the ages of 4 and 15 in rural Ethiopia, 53% of boys aged 8-11 herded cattle. For boys of the same age group, the primary reason for not attending school was because their families needed them for farming, like Anteneh.

Parents in rural Ethiopia often make a difficult decision: have their children earn an income to support the family now, or send them to school to invest in their future.

Inside their home, Anteneh's mother, Aster, prepares a wheat porridge called kinche for breakfast.
Inside their home, Anteneh’s mother, Aster, prepares a wheat porridge called kinche for breakfast.

Anteneh’s father never forgot his education promise. With Anteneh’s older brothers in school, in late 2020, Anteneh started his own learning journey at age eleven in the Luminos catch-up program called Second Chance.

When children miss the first years of primary school in places like Ethiopia, there is no practical way for them to catch up and get back on track. They remain illiterate, out of school, and unable to achieve their full potential.

Second Chance is essential to help out-of-school children like Anteneh. This education program covers the first three grades of schooling in just 10 months, catching up overaged out-of-school children to their peers and instilling the life-long skill of learning how to learn. Over 90% of Second Chance graduates advance to mainstream schools with children their own age. Today, in a Second Chance classroom with 24 other overage children between 9 and 14 years old, Anteneh learns the critical building blocks for education: reading, writing, and math. Building on what he learned counting his goats, Anteneh says, “Math is my favorite subject because I like numbers.”

“Math is my favorite subject because I like numbers.”

Anteneh, Second Chance student in Ethiopia

Second Chance teacher Lominas (center, standing) checks on Anteneh's group during one of their breakout sessions (Anteneh pictured bottom right).
Second Chance teacher Lominas (center, standing) checks on Anteneh’s group during one of their breakout sessions (Anteneh pictured bottom right).

Anteneh’s teacher, Lominas, believes that, “Education is the only way out of poverty, especially in rural areas where there is a scarcity of resources.” She leads her students in group activities throughout the day, and most enjoys crafting interactive math lessons.

For Anteneh, some of his favorite learning activities in the Second Chance program are singing and movement based — he says he is extra motivated to learn by doing something he enjoys. Lominas is quick to support students throughout the lessons. Anteneh says, “I like her because she always encourages us, even when we make mistakes!”

Luminos strives to build joyful learning environments like this in all our Second Chance classrooms: building up students’ sense of self as they engage more deeply with their teacher and peers.

There are over 2.3 million children like Anteneh out of school in Ethiopia, bright and eager to learn. Second Chance exists to help these children catch-up and unlock the light of learning in their lives. Leaving behind the roaming pastime of goat herding for the boisterous classroom, Anteneh reflects that what he likes most about school is having fun with his classmates, in and out of the classroom. “I wouldn’t have that opportunity at home,” he says. Through Luminos’ Second Chance program, Anteneh’s father was able to keep his promise to send Anteneh to school. Now Anteneh is learning alongside his peers and, one day, can pursue his dream of becoming an engineer.

Anteneh smiles outside his home, holding school books and his notebook.

Photo Credit: Mekbib Tadesse

Ethiopia Rising: Exploring Education After COVID-19

Ethiopia Rising: Exploring Education After COVID-19

Ethiopia: the second most populous country in Africa where over 63% of the population is under age 25 and there are more than 40 million school-aged children and adolescents (UIS). In 2000, nearly 60% of primary-school-age students were out of school in Ethiopia, a number that had dropped to 14% as of 2015 due to dramatic government investment (World Bank). Though the country has navigated rising ethnic violence in recent years, such as in the Tigray and Oromia regions, the government has continued to invest deeply in education. Today, the Ethiopian government spends nearly a quarter of its entire budget on education. As H.E. Ato Minister Million Mathewos, State Minister for General Education, puts it, “Ethiopia is rising.”

Recently, the Luminos Fund had the privilege of hosting a discussion on the current and future state of education in Ethiopia as it navigates beyond COVID-19. Guest speakers included Minister Mathewos and Dr. Pauline Rose, Professor of International Education and Director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge.

The Current Education Landscape in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Ministry of Education (MOE) presented the current state of affairs in Ethiopia to frame the discussion, noting that the number of primary schools has increased from 4,000 in 1994 to over 37,000 as of 2018, as has gender parity. While making considerable progress on enrollment, Ethiopia has struggled to keep students in school through graduation. Yohanese Wogasso, Director General of School Improvement noted, “Primary completion rate is a critical area where we are challenged. In 2018-2019 we only had 62% [of students] attend school through 8th grade, meaning 7.6 million students couldn’t complete grade 8.” Minister Mathewos and Yohanese outlined several different priority areas where the MOE is looking to expand its efforts in collaboration with external support: accelerated learning programs (such as the Second Chance program run by Luminos), school feeding programs, secondary school construction, and school improvement including WASH facilities.

Examining the Data

Dr. Pauline Rose noted that one of the incredible strengths of the Ethiopian MOE has been its ability to reflect on both the progress they have made and the challenges ahead saying, “That’s why we see Ethiopia as a leading light on the continent.”

Notwithstanding Ethiopia’s progress, even before COVID-19, the most disadvantaged children in Ethiopia and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa were struggling to complete their primary education. Pulling from her recent research through the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, Dr. Rose noted that this is in part because students from poorer rural backgrounds simply don’t have access to the same resources as more affluent, urban students.

COVID-19 is likely to increase dropout rates for the most disadvantaged students in addition to causing large learning losses for students in the early years of schooling. Accelerated learning programs, such as Luminos’ Second Chance program, are among the efforts Dr. Rose hailed as a learning opportunity for other countries, especially post-COVID-19.

Referencing an August 2020 phone survey conducted with the RISE Programme and the Early Learning Partnership, Dr. Rose explored the digital divide between rural and urban households in Ethiopia. According to the survey, only 58% of rural households had access to electricity compared to 92% of urban households. In both urban and rural households, fewer than 60% of those surveyed had access to a radio and barely 2% had access to the internet. Dr. Rose emphasized that this lack of access to technology and basic electricity is something funders interested in Ethiopia should pay particular attention to before pushing for ed tech solutions. To read more about the REAL Centre’s research in collaboration with Addis Ababa University and the Ethiopian Policy Studies Institute, please view the full report here.

In order to build resilient, inclusive education systems, Dr. Rose recommended prioritizing resources to improve primary school standards. This includes adapting the curriculum to focus on the basics and extending the school day. It may also involve providing additional support for those whose family members are unable to support home learning due to illiteracy, poverty, or lack of access to ed tech. She noted that supporting schools and teachers with resources on tackling learning loss, both academic and socio-emotional, will be another critical step to building a resilient, inclusive education system, as will paying particular attention to the most vulnerable students: those in the rural areas, those in poverty, and girls. Finally, to create a safe learning environment, especially during the pandemic, Dr. Rose emphasized the importance of providing basic hygiene in schools as well as masks and hand sanitizer for the poorest students – something Luminos provides in all of our Second Chance classrooms.

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the discussion, a guest asked the speakers to name one key take-away or piece of advice for the donor community. Dr. Rose emphasized that, “The number one thing is bridge programs [like] accelerated learning programs: something that is possible for children to attend in a flexible manner, that allows them to engage in the learning environment and get up to speed. I think they’re going to be even more vital going forward.” Luminos Strategic Advisor in Ethiopia, Dr. Alemayehu Hailu Gebre, reflected on how the current state of the world requires new creativity in education, explaining, “As we all know, COVID-19 coupled with unprecedented disasters has augmented the problems of exclusion in education. Bringing these children to school requires an innovative approach.” Luminos CEO Caitlin Baron closed out the session:

“The Ethiopian government has made an extraordinary commitment to education over the last few years. Luminos looks forward to continuing to partner with the Ethiopian MOE to ensure that the most vulnerable out-of-school children get a second chance to catch up on education after COVID-19.”

Caitlin Baron, CEO, The Luminos Fund
Luminos welcomes new board members: Erin Ganju & George Kronnisanyon Werner

Luminos welcomes new board members: Erin Ganju & George Kronnisanyon Werner

We are delighted to announce that two new members are joining our Board of Directors this month: Erin Ganju and George Kronnisanyon Werner.

Erin Ganju is a Managing Director at Echidna Giving, one of the largest private funders in girls’ education in lower-income countries. Erin joined Echidna Giving from Room to Read, the internationally lauded NGO she co-founded to advance literacy and gender equality. During her tenures as COO and CEO, Room to Read helped over 12 million children in 15 countries pursue a quality education.

George Kronnisanyon Werner is an experienced public-sector leader and innovator who has spearheaded successful national and government-wide reform programs across a range of areas including health and education workforce reforms. George served as Liberia’s Minister of Education from 2015 to 2018. Since leaving public service in March 2018, he has used his first-hand knowledge to assist other African and Asian leaders to implement transformative reform agendas aimed at developing human capital and maximizing demographic dividends for long-term economic growth.

Erin and George are longtime trusted advisors and friends to the Luminos Fund and were recently featured in our Education Leadership through Crisis video series. To get to know them better, we’ve asked Erin and George a few questions about themselves:

At Luminos, we’re working to unlock the light of learning in every child. What do you see as the power of education? Why is education so important to you?

Erin: “I see education as the cornerstone solution that can help solve so many other issues. If you have an educated population, they are able to develop local solutions that can best address health issues, climate change, political participation, peace, justice and so on. As Nelson Mandela so aptly said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.'”

George: “If you want bridges, if you want hospitals to function well—good doctors, good nurses, all of these people—if you want engineers, and good presidents, you ought to invest in children. Right from the beginning of the pipeline to its end. There is a clear moral purpose to this. I think that once people get the message that we have a moral responsibility to our children not to fail them, that we should do whatever it takes so that every child, regardless of disability, regardless of gender, regardless of whether or not they come from low-income families, must have equal access to quality education. It is our moral responsibility to make sure we have citizens who are not just healthy, but literate and numerate and productive to grow the economy and to make sure that we transmit this from one generation to another.”

What excites you most about the Luminos Fund?

Erin: “The work the Luminos Fund is doing to ensure all children, no matter what their circumstances are, have access to a quality education in their local communities is very relevant. I think your Second Chance accelerated learning program is especially relevant as children are reentering school after the COVID-19 pandemic. I am particularly impressed with the approach Luminos Fund takes to collecting and analyzing data to ensure effectiveness of your programs.  

George: “The practice the Luminos Fund has of hiring high potential young people who are often only Grade 10 graduates to become your classroom teachers and providing them with three weeks of intensive training followed by weekly in-classroom coaching. For countries with massively stretched school systems and average class sizes already in the 50+ range, this is an effective, practical auxiliary option to educate children.”

At Luminos, we value each students’ learning journey and emphasize activity-based, joyful learning. Erin, when you were a student, what was your favorite subject? Why?

Erin: “I loved school as a child and feel very fortunate to have been able to attend great public schools filled with dedicated teachers. I can’t remember really disliking any subjects, but, if I had to choose one as my favorite, I would choose world history. I loved learning about different cultures and important world events, and imagining all the great places I would visit when I grew up!”

Another thing we emphasize in our programs is the importance of reading. George, when you were young, what books inspired you?

George: “The first one that really got to me was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The second one was Camara Laye’s The African Child. It was the first time I came face to face with somebody talking about the nature of an African village and the culture around African villages.”

To learn more about Erin and George, view their interviews from the Education Leadership through Crisis video series. You can find Erin’s here and George’s here. Welcome Erin and George, we’re honored to have you on our Board of Directors!

Podcast Feature: “How social & emotional learning is transforming education across the globe”

Podcast Feature: “How social & emotional learning is transforming education across the globe”

A special episode of the podcast “Let’s Talk About Skills, Baby” launched Monday, December 7 featuring Caitlin Baron, CEO of the Luminos Fund, and Dominic Regester, Program Director of Salzburg Global Seminar and Founding Member of the Executive Committee for Karanga, The Global Alliance for Social and Emotional Learning and Life Skills. 

Created and hosted by Kelly Ryan Bailey, the “Let’s Talk About Skills, Baby” podcast was developed with the intent of learning what skills make individuals successful, how they developed those skills, and their innovative approaches to improving skills-based hiring and learning around the world. In this episode, Kelly spoke with Caitlin and Dominic about transforming education through social and emotional learning (SEL). 

While talking about Luminos’s SEL efforts, Caitlin noted that in our Second Chance program:

“What we’ve seen is that through a variety of evaluations, as many as six years later, [Second Chance] children are still progressing through school at better rates than their peers, and most importantly, they have sustained greater happiness in the classroom, that they have a strong sense of self-efficacy, and that they have higher aspirations for the future.”  

Karanga, which works to equip and inspire practitioners, policy makers, and researchers from around the world to promote quality and equitable SEL and life skills, is working with Luminos to further strengthen our SEL practice within the Luminos Second Chance program. As Caitlin notes:

“In our program, it’s not like from 10-10:15 we do social and emotional learning—there’s no unit in the days calendar. It’s really baked into the ethos.” 

Luminos is honored to be part of Karanga’s Global Steering Committee, a community of 60+ SEL experts, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. Karanga is currently hosting a series of online SEL activities which can be joined at

Listen to the full episode here, or via the “Let’s Talk About Skills, Baby” website

71 Commercial Street, #232 | Boston, MA 02109 |  USA
+1 781 333 8317

The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

Privacy Policy

We use cookies in order to give you the best possible experience on our website. By continuing to use this site, you agree to our use of cookies.