In Libya, child members of ethnic minority groups begin school at a significant disadvantage. While the educational system is almost entirely based in the Arabic language, many ethnic minority families speak only their indigenous languages in the home. Elementary school students find themselves struggling to learn simultaneously, the concepts being conveyed and the language in which they’re being taught,; all in a context divorced from their cultural heritage and identity.
This issue of indigenous language education has been highlighted by ethnic minority activists and civil society organizations for many years, and has been a topic of advocacy campaigns for more than ten years. NDI and USAID have been assisting the Tebu community in Libya to develop their own indigenous language capacity and advocate for their ability to do so since 2017, when the Institute convened a conference with members of the Amazigh and Tebu communities, sharing examples of indigenous groups in other countries, including the Assembly of First Nations in Canada. The Amazigh community, another indigenous group in Libya, has had some success teaching in their native language, Tamazight, since 2011, and shared their own lessons learned and challenges overcome with their Tebu partners. This partnership continued in a series of consultations and workshops over the next three years, as the Tebu prepared to launch their own efforts at systematic and institutionalized indigenous language education.
Relying on skills gleaned from NDI workshops and their understanding of the relevant landscape, Tebu civil society activists began to build support among Tebu leaders and advocate for the inclusion of the Tudaga language in the educational curriculum, sending letters to, and holding meetings with, local and national-level officials of the Ministry of Education in 2018. They also worked in cooperation with pedagogical experts to craft textbooks for the first and second grade, as well as accompanying workbooks. In 2018, draft textbooks were distributed in 10 pilot schools across Tebu areas, and classes began through direct arrangements with school administrators.
While advocacy efforts continued in 2019 and activists made progress in their discussions with central and local authorities, no action was taken to print the textbooks, finalized after incorporating feedback and lessons learned from the pilot phase. USAID and NDI took the lead, printing 6,000 copies of the textbooks and workbooks, and implementing a training curriculum and distribution plan. On October 11-12, 2019, NDI brought 20 Tebu teachers, ten men and ten women, to Tripoli to train them on the curriculum, in partnership with Amazigh educators and Tebu civil society activists. In discussions with experts and one another, they crafted a teaching guide germane to their communities and tailored the distribution plan to the issues they might face in their own communities.
Despite these significant challenges, including active conflict, overlapping authorities and, in some cases, a lack of paved roads and telecommunication services, distribution began in November 2019 to seven municipalities, some of which lie nearly 4,000 miles from Tripoli. This process was carried out in coordination with local education authorities and businesses. “Despite the severe shortages in gas in the south of Libya, where most gas stations are closed and banks have limited liquidity, many textbooks distribution costs were bared by distributors themselves, refusing to take any fees,” said Otman Hamed, a Tebu activists involved in the project. Tebu leaders characterized the arrival of the textbooks in their schools as “a historic day”, with one individual noting “we’ve been anticipating this moment for decades.”
The project has been particularly impactful in Obari which, while home to a sizable Tebu minority, is a majority Tuareg municipality. The Tuareg and Tebu have engaged in violent conflict in the past, as recently as 2014. After significant advocacy efforts, the Mayor of Obari, an ethnic Tuareg, accepted Tudaga language education for all students in the municipality, noting that the project could be a bridge between the communities, and a source of reconciliation. One teacher in Obari noted: “I was amazed that all students were very happy and in tune with the subject. They engaged with full hearts, with no room for hatred and violence.”
The situation is similar in Sabha, a large municipality in the south with many Tebu, Tuareg and Arab citizens. Amina Sidi, a teacher in Sabha, remarked that public feedback toward the project has been positive. “Sabha is an ethnically mixed city, and somewhat segregated; Tebu and Tuareg minorities are concentrated in certain neighborhoods, while the Arab majority lives in the rest of town. Since beginning this project, I’ve been approached by Tuareg parents I know, and told me they not only support Tebu kids learning Tudaga in schools, but their own kids as well. This project is a source of positive coexistence."
While schools have been closed during the current crisis, early feedback on the curriculum has been universally positive. “Usually in Libya, students are very shy in front of teachers, or even afraid of them,” said Idris Sidi Isa, a teacher in Murzoug. “However, recently, I was walking down a street in Murzoug, a student called to me from the other side of the street. I went to say hello, and the child started singing a song we teach in Tudaga class. When other kids on the street heard him, they too came and started singing along. Everybody in the street stopped and watched with big smiles on their faces."
The efforts of Tebu activists, leaders, civil society and educators so far will continue, and USAID and NDI are committed to supporting their aspirations. USAID and NDI have a broad range of programming supporting ethnic minorities in Libya, including the Tebu minority. Despite short-term setbacks caused by the current crisis, NDI and its partners will use this time to gather feedback on the curriculum, consider expansion to new areas, and plan future steps to grow the Tudaga language education program and continue to support the Tebu community throughout Libya. “We are always grateful for NDI and USAID assistance,” said Mr. Hamed. “Particularly in the south of Libya.”
NDI's engagement in Libya is implemented with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS).
Author: John Maisner is a Resident Senior Program Manager with the MENA Team at NDI.