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Professor Ettien Koffi in his office at St. Cloud State University. He has used his skills as a linguist to develop a written language for his Anyi people in the Ivory Coast. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
Summer break doesn't mean vacation for professor Ettien Koffi at St. Cloud State University. He's a linguistics professor who hails from the Ivory Coast, in West Africa. Koffi's a member of the Anyi tribe. And he's spent many summers translating his tribe's oral tradition into written language. Now he's gone a step further to develop a literacy program back in the village where he grew up. Koffi is visiting the Ivory Coast to see how the program's progressing.

St. Cloud, Minn. — As the din of college students recedes at the end of the semester, Ettien Koffi's mind is turning to another place, to the little rectangular clay huts and dusty roads that he calls home.

He's thinking of his native village in the Ivory Coast, and of the literacy program he started there. The work has been a major project in Koffi's professional life, but it has deep personal roots. Koffi's father always anguished over the fact that he never learned to read and write.

"My father wanted to go to school," Koffi explains. "And he would even go stand by the window at the school, and as the pupils were repeating the things the teacher was telling them, he would repeat along with them."

My father wanted to go to school. And he would even go stand by the window at the school, and as the pupils were repeating the things the teacher was telling them, he would repeat along with them.
- Professor Ettien Koffi

Koffi's father never had the chance to go to school. But he made sure all seven of his own kids did attend school, including the girls. That was unheard of in their Ivory Coast village.

Ettien Koffi went on to college. He later came to the United States to get a Phd in linguistics at Indiana University in Bloomington. Along the way, he studied five languages.

But he always wanted to go back to the Ivory Coast and help improve the quality of life there.

He knew that fewer than half the people in his Anyi tribe were literate. That mostly means they're literate in French, which is the official language of the Ivory Coast. But plenty of people in rural areas never learn to speak French, let alone read or write it.

And they don't have the chance to become literate in their local African languages, because many aren't written down, which was the case with the Anyi language.

So Koffi started to study the speech of Anyi speakers. And he devised a written equivalent of the oral Anyi language. It would become the basis for a literacy program.

For Koffi, the benefits of literacy in languages like Anyi are simple but significant; they can include access to information about disease.

"Malaria is a big problem at home," Koffi says. "You can just translate a pamphlet from the World Health Organization ... and (the villagers) can say, 'Oh, they have malaria, let's give them this or give them this.' You know, small steps. I'm not looking for gigantic steps."

But there's another element to Koffi's work in the Ivory Coast. He has translated the New Testament into the Anyi language, with the hope that Christian religious practices, like Bible study, will foster the habit of reading.

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Image The New Testament, translated into Anyi

This part of the project isn't new to the region. There's a long tradition of missionaries who have come to Africa to teach literacy and Christianity.

The legacy of those missionaries still plays out on a continent where Christianity and Islam compete for ascendancy, and local African religions are dying out.

As an African-born Christian, Koffi wants to spread his faith. But he says the spread of literacy is just as important.

"When we are teaching the basics, A,B,C, there is no religion in A,B,C," Koffi says. "You teach the people the ABCs, the syllables, and they know how to read, and they can apply it any way they want."

Those applications could include better accounting methods for small businesses, and more profitable agricultural techniques.

In addition, Koffi hopes that once people know how to write, they'll transcribe some of the local lore.

Koffi will have all these goals in mind as he leaves St. Cloud and heads back to the Ivory Coast, where he'll wind his way along the dusty paths of his village, a spelling primer in hand.

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