Life Saving Knowledge: Impact of Literacy on Health

The fly was larger than her hand, but it didn’t faze the nurse.

She slapped the illustrated poster once more and then turned to her audience. “Flies carry disease, polluted water carries disease, and uncontained rubbish and feces carry disease. This is why your children get diarrhea.” She paused, looking hard at each of the students. “This is why your children die.” 

Twenty teachers from eight different Papua New Guinea languages were seated in the shade on the Rai Coast, listening intently to the health lecture and furiously scribbling notes. They had gathered for an intense, month-long training led by SIL and local staff, to better equip rural teachers in using the local language in education, through topics like principles and practices of literacy, reading fluency, storywriting, book production, and curriculum and material creation. Other topics included personal development, leadership, finances, and health.

Today, they were talking about the causes, prevention, and cure of diarrhea—the number one killer of children in Papua New Guinea. Later, they clustered into groups as they poured over their notes and strained to translate into their own languages a story which would communicate this vital information to their communities. “Did we get all the meaning?” they asked each other. “Read it again!” They looked forward to checking the stories in their home communities before printing the final version at VERA (Vernacular Education in Rural Areas) course a few months later. 

The next evening, as several of the women students gathered on the cool veranda, a young mother from a local hamlet approached them, clutching a crying infant to her chest. As they visited, the students realized that the baby was dehydrated and suffering from diarrhea. Without hesitation, the women flew into action, sending for a staff member while advising the mother and offering rehydrating fruit according to their training. But when the staff member arrived, there was nothing she could do but smile. “You’ve done everything right,” she told them. “You now know how to protect your children!”