Life Begins at 40

EducationCen. African Rep.

Meet the man who finally learned to read aged 40 and why a pair of shoes (or lack of them) stopped him from reading many years earlier.

Jesse is picking up a special certificate – he has just passed ‘level three literacy’. He has just learned to read and write, aged 40.

He is one of the few men in his literacy class in Bossembele Village, Central African Republic (CAR); the men didn’t like to be mocked by women or seen as illiterate. It was pride that meant Jessie didn’t learn to read as a child, but it wasn’t going to put him off this time.

‘I have two children, I share with them every day my story, so that they won’t make the same mistake.’



‘My father enrolled me in school,’ he explains, ‘but I didn’t attend consistently. I felt humiliated to see some other children had shoes, but I didn’t have any.’ 

His lack of a pair of shoes became a ‘deal breaker’ – Jesse just couldn’t face the humiliation. ‘Though my parents were encouraging me, one day I decided to leave the village and abandon school. I came to Bangui, to my uncle’s place.  As his children were going to school, I was wandering here and there and finally I started stealing. I was jailed several times and beaten. When I saw my peers and friends who persevered and completed their studies and were now “somebody”, I felt bad.’

He was just one of millions of men and women without basic literacy skills in CAR. There’s a whole generation of adults who have grown up without any consistent formal education. The two main reasons are poverty and war. Some families have been forced to keep their children at home to earn desperately-needed money, while others have had to flee their homes and villages to avoid the violence. In total just over a half of the adult population can currently read.

Jessie gives acceptance speech


When Jesse heard there was a literacy programme in his local church – run by local Tearfund partner ACATBA – he knew he wasn’t about to make the same mistake again. ‘When I heard about it I was very happy and decided to seize this opportunity to learn how to write and read, because there is no way I can start again in the formal education system.’

As he is handed his certificate to applause from the rest of the graduates, Jesse can barely disguise his delight. He can now write and read in his local Sango language and he’s determined to put it to the very best use he can.

There is one other thing Jesse is determined about; his two children aren’t going to miss out on their chance to read and write, first time around – all for the want of a pair of shoes. ‘I have two children, I share with them every day my story, so that they won’t make the same mistake.’


  • That Jesse's newly-gained literacy will genuinely give him and his family a fresh start in life.
  • For Tearfund partner ACATBA as they try to bring literacy to some of the millions in CAR who have been denied it.
  • For all those whose lives have been turned upside down by the terrible violence in CAR.
Ben Cohen
Ben is Web Editor for Tearfund. This can sometimes feel a bit like being ‘senior hairstylist for Bigfoot’ but he does his best. He writes a bunch of stories for the website, regular emails to supporters and much more besides.



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