Off the Beaten Path
by Ruth J. Colvin

Syracuse University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-815-60993-3.
Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
Posted on 04/27/2012

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

In the introduction to her memoir, Off the Beaten Path, Ruth J. Colvin writes, "Why can't the people of this world live together peacefully? I submit that one reason is that we know so little of one another: of others' histories, cultures, traditions, and religions."

She should know. As the founder of Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA), she traveled to twenty-six developing countries. In Off the Beaten Path she writes about meeting the people she's teaching and training on their own turf. She has a genuine interest in who they are, and she shows that interest as she uses their life stories to teach them to read and write.

Colvin employs a technique called Language Experience, which is particularly effective for adults who don't know that they have stories to tell. I was first exposed to Language Experience when I volunteered at Project Second Chance, the Contra Costa County (CA) Library's Adult Literacy Program, and it was a delight to read about it in the words of the woman who is one of the earliest experts in the field. Nothing compares to the smile a learner gets as he reads the story he wrote and recognizes his own words, a fact that Colvin reinforces.

Colvin recounts her memories of the people she taught to read and the translators who assisted. In Zambia in 1978, she trained a woman named Margaret Mutambo, who worked with a family planning agency. Margaret saw an unmet need for literacy: "young parents needed to be able to read the literature on contraceptives."

In a Zambian prison Colvin brought the inmates out of their shells, learned that the men were interested in farming, woodworking, and dancing, helped them vote on a subject, and got them talking and arguing until they came up with their own starting sentence, "Farming is important to give us food."

At a Rotary meeting in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, the head of a local construction company told her that most of his men couldn't read or write in the local language, Nyanja. She agreed to work with ten of the men on Saturday mornings, but twenty-five showed up. She introduced herself as "Auntie Ruth," learned their names because the language is "phonically regular," and once again she invented the lesson by asking them what they wanted to talk about.

I visited Zambia in 2008, so I had first-hand exposure to the poverty and eagerness to learn that Colvin describes. Her students were truly grateful, and maybe that's because she, too, was grateful that they taught her their histories, culture, and traditions as she taught them to read and write their native language. Colvin embraced the Zambians differences, which stem from their tribal traditions, rather than trying to impose Western ways. That makes her a heroine, as well as an unofficial international ambassador.

Although some of the transitions in her writing surprised me, I think they also reflected her life's work: get to the heart of the story. Don't worry about fancy, flowing language. It is her heart and where it has taken her that carries this story.

Off the Beaten Path recalls her adventures and experiences in India, South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia, Swaziland, China, Ecuador, Peru, Madagascar, and Cambodia. I focused on Zambia here because I've visited the country. Colvin is a visionary with a passion for sharing literacy, and her story is of particular interest to those who teach, write, or share their own life stories.

Ruth J. Colvin founded LVA in 1962 to train volunteers to teach literacy locally after she read a 1961 Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper article that stated there were over 11,000 people in her county who could not read or write well (based on 1960 U.S. Census figures). She wrote books for LVA and traveled to twenty-six developing countries where she connected with the people, made friends, and had a lasting impact on lives. She's the recipient of nine honorary doctorates and the President's Volunteer Action Award and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1991. Visit the LVA (now ProLiteracy) website.

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