From the Field: Tenneh

Sheri and her family play cards. Photo by Mike Leland.

“My son came home one day and asked me to help him with his homework and I couldn’t. From that moment on, I said I am going to learn to read and write so I can help my child.”

As a young girl in war-torn Sierra Leone, Tenneh witnessed more tragedy than many people in Canada could imagine. Due to the intense political conflict surrounding her, she lost both of her parents and multiple siblings.

Tenneh’s early experiences prompted her to find many different ways to survive in her harsh surroundings.  Eventually, in 2003, she made her way to Canada. Upon arriving in the Metro Vancouver area, Tenneh initially felt relief, and was excited about her new beginnings.  However, these feelings soon changed as she faced the reality of moving to a new country that she knew very little about.

While life in Canada was far safer than the one she left behind, Tenneh began to experience challenges of a different kind. Having only gone to school until age 11, her literacy skills were underdeveloped and she had a limited grasp of the English language. She soon realized that she hadn’t met people to help her navigate the new obstacles that arose in daily life – in essence, she needed a support group.

The lack of a support group became increasingly apparent with each week. She couldn’t travel because she couldn’t read street signs or understand directions.  She couldn’t find meaningful work because she was unable to fill out an online application; even grocery shopping was intimidating because she couldn’t understand the labels or read a receipt.

Tenneh began to feel helpless.  “I didn’t know if I was doing anything correctly,” she recalls. “I didn’t know if I was being cheated at the grocery store or if I was going to get lost one day and not find my way home. And I was embarrassed and scared!”

Privately, she began to feel that her situation was increasingly dire. However, thanks to her son, she decided that she was the one who would create positive life change, with assistance.

“My son came home…and asked me to help him with his homework, and I couldn’t,” she remembers.
“From that moment on, I said I am going to learn to read and write so I can help my child.”

After this interaction with her son, Tenneh began to actively connect with the literacy programs in her community; eventually, she was paired with an adult literacy tutor named Diane.

Diane is a former elementary school teacher who, for the last two years, has been volunteering her time to teach adult learners.  “I met Tenneh and I was immediately impressed with her attitude and her work ethic,” she recalls.

The grandmother and a mother of two connected emotionally with her learner after she found out that Tenneh was driven to improve the life of her child. Once this connection was made, they began a literacy journey together.

Tenneh’s work ethic allowed her to make incredible progress after only a short time. With Diane’s help, she went from merely knowing the letters of the alphabet to full reading and comprehension; reading street signs and product labels no longer were an issue.  She also excelled in mathematics and is now using a computer on a daily basis. Most importantly for Tenneh, she can now read books to her son.

Tenneh now has a strong sense of self-confidence, and in her words, is “doing whatever I want to do.” She no longer feels intimidated by the tasks of daily life; she is no longer embarrassed by an inability to fill out an application and can ask a cashier about something on her grocery receipt.

She has found the support group that she sought when she first moved to Canada; as well, she and Diane still work together to reach new goals, and moreover, have become very good friends.

“Tenneh has been empowered,” says Diana. “I am so proud of her … it just goes to show you what literacy can do for someone’s life.”

Decoda Literacy Solutions provides resources, training and funds to support adult learners in British Columbia. For more information about adult literacy, contact us at

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