Maria Keita

Ashoka Fellow
Maria Keita
Fellow Since 1993
This description of Maria Keita's work was prepared when Maria Keita was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993 .


Maria Keita is reinventing adult basic education as a means not only to "transfer skills" but also to affirm indigenous knowledge and the oral tradition.

The New Idea

Maria Keita believes that it is absolutely necessary for Africans to reinvent educational practice from an indigenous African point of view, and she is demonstrating the way forward in the field of rural women's literacy. She has developed an original pedagogy that breaks sharply with current pedagogy by affirming the African oral tradition. "The dominance of Western thought," says Maria, "is reinforced by Western success in imposing a written language on oral people. Traditional African cultures are oral cultures. In a world in which 'valued' knowledge is written down, oral cultures can have no real value."Marie sees a direct link between her critique of education practices and the failure of the western model of development. She sees the growing recognition that this model has failed and the new rhetoric of "popular participation" and "sustainability" as an opportunity for Africans to design their own model from first principles. "If we agree that popular participation is the key to sustainable development in Africa," argues Maria, "then we must look for the voices and the means to find new methods and structures that will facilitate involvement of marginalized people, and which will not allow any form of domination."Maria's means involve a highly participatory process in which the learners create their own learning materials by drawing on their knowledge and experience. Lessons are contextualized in common situations that portray the underlying relationships of power and knowledge. Learners role play and examine their role playing in a "learning by doing" way. Literacy and other practical skills are acquired but in a way that affirms what they already know.Maria has the practical and academic credentials required to substantiate her radical views. She spent a decade working in adult education and development with rural Malian women and has sifted that experience through a master's degree in education from Amherst University in Massachusetts. While completing her thesis, she established the Institute for Popular Education to develop adult education programs using her original variant of what is commonly known as action research. The Institute works directly with rural women and, in order to extend its influence, trains popular educators and community organizers working in other organizations. The Institute is also developing a modular curriculum for training teachers in Maria's action research method and is marketing the curriculum to other training institutions.

The Problem

There is no question that the general lack of human services is a major problem in Mali. Large, poor and sparsely populated through much of its arid countryside, Mali has extremely limited capacity to provide such public services as health, education and welfare to its people. To take education as an example, most children in rural areas simply do not go to school. For the lucky few, Islamic schools or nongovernmental development organizations may run a literacy program in their vicinity. Children, particularly girls, are expected to spend long hours working in the fields or in the home.But there is an even deeper dimension of the problem that turns more on the quality of services rather than their limited quantity. The services are not African. They are designed as vehicles to transfer skills deemed important by the western standards without any real attempt to envision the internal needs or visions of Malians. There has been no effort to align education or health services, for example, to an autochthonous vision for society. There has certainly been no attempt to create vehicles and methods of skills transfer that affirm indigenous knowledge. As a result, all human services tend to undermine the creative capacity existing broadly within Malian society and to selectively favor those Africans who have adopted western ways.If one is going to tackle the deep-seated problem of women's subjugation, for example, one must draw heavily upon the creative capacity and cultural resiliency of women. After thirty years of independence and a hundred years of colonial influence, women in Mali are still treated as second class citizens, or as Maria says, as "slaves." Only one in ten Malian women is literate, and 80 percent are circumcised (by removing the clitoris). Rural women work an average of sixteen hours per day due to their diverse and numerous responsibilities. "Skills transfer" alone simply cannot measure up to problems of this magnitude. On the other hand, the skills associated with Western knowledge, such as literacy, business and science are of course useful and needed by rural women seeking emancipation. The strategic task, then, involves re-rendering these valuable skills and lessons from the West into forms that affirm and advance equal dignity and respect in Africa. This task is one that Africans must take principally upon themselves. And to do so, they must move beyond the ways of knowing and doing prescribed from the West and follow a compass internal to Africa.

The Strategy

Maria's strategy has three elements. First, she has developed an original, participatory action research-based popular education program that teaches rural women to read (and much more). Second, she trains development practitioners (in schools, NGOs and government) in her approach. Third, she is exploring ways to generate income (for rural women and for the project) by marketing African culture outside Africa.Her work with illiterate rural women provides her demonstration. Her work with "too-literate" development practitioners aims to shift the knowledge creation paradigm in the country to one that affirms what rural African women already know. Her efforts to export African cultural products finance her work while they explicitly affirm the value of women's knowledge in the outside world. She summarizes her work as a "quest for two things: empowerment through knowledge, and, for appropriate structures to institutionalize our methods."Maria's popular education campaign centers insist that rural women students design the curriculum themselves. Maria sees literacy training as a means to "give these women a voice, to value the knowledge that these women possess, and so to empower them." Instead of providing a text for the women to transcribe, Maria and her team encourage them to talk and then write about what is relevant to their lives and interests.In the next step, Maria presents the women with a specific situation (e.g., a beating by a husband) and asks them to write about it. This exercise is designed to provide the women practice with context and extrapolation, because, as Maria says, rural people "have the knowledge, it is the context that they lack." Her classes are held under the shade trees of the village in the open air and focus on what Maria calls "empowering themes," such as how groups are organized, the family, gender relations and rights.The second component of Maria's program attempts to change the training process for development workers. For too long the training of development agents has focused on technical competence, provided in training led and/or designed by outsiders. As Maria puts it: "The philosophy has been that there is but one truth and that we must transfer competence from those who know to those who do not know." Maria's training starts from the premise that there is not one but several truths. While she accepts the need to transfer certain technical skills, she also focuses on power structures and relations to show how inequalities in this context can block the assimilation of technical skills.At the heart of her training program is a process of action research, by which local knowledge is called forth (e.g., by women writing their autobiographies, by tape recording and transcribing parts of the Malian oral tradition, by development practitioners excavating the premises to the practices that they have followed but never questioned). Maria explains, "We want to use research as a catalyst for the creation of new knowledge and ways of knowing, and for applying this knowledge to change something that must be changed. We do not want to research simply for pleasure as our predecessors have done: Find a group, ask questions, and finally describe their misery in our own terms. For us the research must serve to change something and must involve everyone." The third strategy involves finding low cost ways to export Malian art and design. Here Maria is exploring an Internet-based business to market images of Malian design and art over the World Wide Web. The site will also explain the context in which the art is made and provide profiles of the women artists.Maria has set goals for institutionalizing the processes that she is developing. She believes strongly that truly participatory development, a development that is based on local knowledge and local models, necessitates a new kind of structure. "If we believe in the necessity of matching methods to objectives, then we must find methodologies and institutional structures that reflect our objectives," explains Maria. She has set up an advisory committee with representatives from citizens' groups from Senegal (focusing on desktop publishing and literacy in local languages); from Guinea-Bissau, (focusing on the role of NGOs and local associations in governance and democratization) and from the Center for International Education at Amherst (focusing on nonformal and alternative methods of education).

The Person

Maria was born in Segou, in northern Mali. She grew up with two strongly independent women: her mother, who fought almost continuously with her father; and her grandmother, who was ostracized from the community because of her independence. As a child, Maria did not do housework like most young girls. She spent much of her time reading and writing poetry and stories about "the things that made me feel bad," primarily the fights between her parents. Maria recalls that "I have been interested in women's issues since my childhood because of my mother who really had to battle against my father."After high school, Maria attended the Ecole Normale Superieur in Bamako, where she studied to be a teacher. She was a prominent figure in the student strike of 1980, which eventually closed the school. Maria had planned to attend university in Abidjan but received an offer from the Catholic fathers who years earlier had spoken about her "strange behavior," inviting her to teach at their school back in her home region.After teaching French for a year at the school, Maria became frustrated at the Director's unwillingness to expand the girls' extracurricular activities beyond the traditional cooking and sewing, and she resigned. She began working as a volunteer rural extension agent, disseminating appropriate technology for income generation to rural women. It was Maria's first experience working with rural women as an agent of "development."Maria worked for six years with the American Friends Service Committee focusing on women in development issues, followed by three years with a Malian NGO (Association pour l'Entreaide et du Developpement) working on community projects for rural women.She then won a scholarship to pursue a self-designed master's degree program at the Center for International Education at Amherst University in Massachusetts, focusing on women in development, nonformal education, participatory research and evaluation and critical theory. She founded the Institute for Popular Education while she was completing her master's thesis.