Every day for most of her life as an adult illiterate, Maria Gomes felt cheated by her inability to write up a weekly budget for her growing family's needs, to read the numbers on the money she spent and to count the change she received during her treks to Bissau's central market with part of her husband's $300 annual earnings.
Until independence in 1974, education was an item for the few Africans who had attained middle-class status under Portuguese colonial rule, not for Maria Gomes and 98 percent of the people.
Now independence has brought a demand for education by most of the 700,000 population that far exceeds the government's ability to meet, a phenomenon that parallels the initial school-building explosion that most black African governments experienced on gaining independence two decades ago.
With only 17 university graduates at independence, however, Guinea's efforts to eradicate illiteracy is expected to take years even with the assistance of several hundred volunteer teachers from Portugal and other European nations.
Maria Gomes, for example, attends one of the 30 adult education courses established throughout Guinea by the government two years ago for a modest 1,000 students 18 to 45 years old. The government expects the program to have a trickle-down effect with expanded growth by providing examples of the benefits of literacy to participants' families and neighbors.
"We want our adults to be able to read so they can make educated decisions on their own," said Guinean Minister of Education Mario Cabral. "It is important that they be independent."
Gomes, 35, and 15 other women have faithfully gone for an hour each afternoon to the adult education course taught in a two-room house in her low-income Bissau neighborhood of Reno-Gambiafado in 1979. Theirs is one of two classes taught there by 22-year-old Maria Luisa Tavares, a 10th-grade graduate.
"The objective of the school is to teach them more than reading and math," said Taveres, "but also knowledge that will help them in their everyday life, such as hygiene and the importance of a balanced diet." The examples on diet come from their traditional staples, she said, and include lessons on why fresh fish has more vitamins than smoked fish and why a highly nutritious local kale-like vegetable, called baijique, should be eaten as often as possible.
Guinea's moderately leftist government also requires political education as part of the program, said Tavares, who grew up in colonial Guinea as the relatively privileged granddaughter of a Portuguese immigrant and daughter of a civil-servant.
But she and her students "decided to leave that out and use the time for political education to learn math," she said. "We didn't feel it was as important as math."
Gomes agreed. Two years after entering the program, Gomes now is able to "read" money with ease and her educational interests have broadened, she said. She is able to read parts of letters from relatives and sign her name.
Her taxi driver husband, Francisco, has not had time to attend adult educaiton school, but she is hoping that with education and independence the lives of their five children will improve. "Studying has given me greater motivation to learn more and it will be good for my family," Gomes continued. "Today I can organize my house and count how much food we have and know how long it will last. That is the most important change in my life because of the school.