At 61, Wozoro Fisseha Tessama, a portly, good-natured housewife and mother of three, seems an unlikely person to see coming out of a makeshift schoolroom with a pen and book in hand. But until last year, she, like 93 percent of all 32 million Ethiopians, never had a chance to see the inside of a schoolhouse.
Now she has been swept up in a massive nationwide campaign that aims to eradicate illiteracy in the next six years from one of the world's most impoverished countries and one now in a hurry to overcome centuries of official indifference under the former monarchical system to the welfare or ordinary Ethiopians.
The six-year-old, military-led revolution here has always tended to take on its declared enemies -- human or other -- in Chinese-style "great-leap-forward" zemachas, or war campaigns, and the attack on illiteracy has proven no exception.
The scope and initial success of the latest campaign have already gained outside acclaim. In September, the Delaware-based International Reading Association, a nongovernmental body affiliated with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, gave Ethiopia its annual literacy award.
It praised in particular the "innovative literacy material" -- more than 15 million copies of which were prepared in five languages by the government for the campaign -- and noted the "achievement of impressive results" in the first stage.
In the early November, Ethiopia's revolutionary Marxist government launched the fourth phase of its 18-month-old campaign with the modest goal of consolidating rudimentary skills -- equivalent to those of a second grader -- gained by the first 7 million Ethiopians to benefit from the program.
"We have to strengthen what has already been done," said Gudetta Mammo, the chief executive officer for the campaign. "It is not new illiterates now. We are organizing evening classes in the kebeles, or neighborhood associations, and setting up small libraries with reading materials for those who have started reading."
The Ethiopian concen about such slippage was one reason the International Reading Association had such high praise for the campaign. It congratulated the government for its "systematic planning" in linking the initial efforts to teach people how to read and use numbers with remedial and follow-up courses conceived within "a perspective of life-long education."
The latter was a reference to the simply written books the Ethiopian government has devised and distributed as part of its follow-up program teaching hygiene, home economics, better farming techniques and other skills of interest to the rural and urban populations.
The importance of even the most basic knowledge of the three Rs was brought home in a response from Wozoro Fisseha to a question regarding how she felt about going to school at the age of 61.
"I wanted to come and learn. Before I had to ask other people the number on the bus I wanted to take, but now I can read it myself," she said. "I couldn't telephone to my friends before because I couldn't read the numbers.
"Also, when I go to the hospital to visit a friend now, I can find the number of her bed without asking for it."
Learning to read numbers was probably the easiest part of the program. The Amharic alphabet, also used to write the other main national languages, contains 33 basic letters, each of which has seven variations, for a total of 264 characters.
The Ethiopian campaign got off to an unexpectedly, big start during the summer of 1979 when the government mobilized 240,000 literates -- from civil servants and soliders to sixth graders and sent them out across the country to 34,600 centers with the aim of teaching the first 1 million illiterates.
The basic strategy was to start with the urban and suburban centers and then work outward to cover progressively the entire population, giving 450 hours of instruction in a series of three-hour classes to each participant.
"We hesitated whether we could teach 1 million at once and had only prepared materials for this number," recalled Gudetta, a gray-haired Ministry of Education official who resembles nothing so smuch as a college professor. "Then after one month, we saw there was a shortage of materials and 3 million applicants.
"All the materials we had we gave out, and then we appealed to all those literate to teach with whatever they had available. They wrote alphabets on pieces of cloth, mats, rocks and the sides of tanks. This way we kept them all in the program.
Finally, the government found itself swamped with 5.4 million participants, 73 percent of them females, the most neglected of the Ethiopian population. Only 60 percent of those who took the first literacy test passed and got cerftificates, reinforcing the government's basic conviction that strong remedial and follow-up programs were going to be essential.
The second phase of the campaign, during last winter, added only 770,000 new participants, while the government concentrated on bringing those who failed the first test up to passing.
By the beginning of last summer, it had largely achieved this goal and officially declared the entire small urban population of 2 to 3 literate.
Last summer, the government began the third phase, sending 20,000 high school students, teachers and other professionals to rural areas to begin teaching 1 million peasants in a five-month program. This is to repeated during the next six summers with anywhere between 1.3 million to 2.5 million new participants being added each year until the entire population is enrolled by 1968.
Whether the government can afford the cost of these ambitious goals is questionable. But it has already generated enormous expectations and pressures by holding out the promise of a pen and book to every Ethiopan.