Makoumbou Flore Michèle

BRAZZAVILLE â€" It was only when she realized she'd handed her husband a letter written by his mistress that Alphonsine decided to act. Facing such heartbreak and humiliation, this 54-year-old housewife and mother of seven, decided to join a basic literacy class in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville.

Like Alphonsine, many illiterate women have started going to school to address such educational shortcomings. Their goals are manifold: to assert themselves, to be more independent in their activities â€" including business â€" and to contribute to their children’s education. Some of them choose the method called “Alpha Express,” taught at the Center Mama Elombé ("Fighting Woman"), in the church Sainte-Marie de Ouenzé. This method promises beginners they will be able to write their names after one month.

This adult literacy center was first opened in 1990, and currently boasts some 685 registered students, 462 of whom are women. It takes them three years to go through primary school, and four years for secondary school. Although it’s a public institution, this center doesn’t receive any support from the Congolese state. “Although the government promised in 2013 that the UNESCO's Education For All program would be free for everyone, the building as well as the benches and chalk all come from charities or churches,” explains Jean Urbain Trankon, a local technical advisor for literacy and re-schooling.

And though most women share the fact that they’d never been to school before, the reactions of their families may be very different. “I registered to fix a handicap that was holding me back. Unfortunately, it’s already cost me my marriage,” one of the students says.

Maniongui Kombo Gladys, 29 and mother of two, is lucky enough to have her husband’s full support. “He said I’d be able to work as a cashier and he registered me for these evening classes," she says. "Now I can already read the doctor’s prescription when I come back from the hospital with the children.”

In Brazzaville â€" Photo: Fatou N'Diaye via Instagram

For Colette Bikambi, illiteracy was a veritable business cost. “I’m a shopkeeper. So unfortunately, when I wanted to transfer money, I had to ask other people to fill out the forms for me,” she says.

French help

Amandine Natacha Miénandi, 17, has just started her first year. “I’d like to be a hairdresser,” she explains. “But to succeed, I need to have good basic knowledge of French.”

At another literacy center on the other side of Brazzaville, the motivations are also varied. “Old mothers come here to learn how to read the Bible properly,” says Louisette Loubaki, the center’s director. “We teach them the syllabic method. Classes take place in the evenings, three times a week, for nine months. But electricity shortages are too common, and they often disrupt classes.” Still, she says 15 women have learned how to read since opening.

Some of these schools start teaching in the national languages â€" Kituba and Lingala, for starters. But as learners advance, these are replaced by French, which is also a way to improve the students' oral skills in that national language. It is one more draw for attracting illiterate mothers to go back to school, or go for the very first time.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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