Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Of what good is adult literacy if it can't be put to use?" by Young Kimaro, columnist, the Daily News Online, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

Of what good is adult literacy if it can’t be put to use?
by Young Kimaro
Development with Commonsense column
March 1, 2008 issue of the Daily News

In 2005, adult literacy rates (of those 15 years or older) in Asia, Europe and North America averaged over 90 percent; in the Middle East and North Africa, 73 percent; Sub-Saharan Africa trailed behind with 59 percent ; and in Tanzania, 64 percent.

For Tanzania that has had uninterrupted stability in a continent that’s in constant turmoil, an adult literacy rate that beats the continent average by only 5 percentage points is hardly an achievement.

If statistics and memory serve me right, Tanzania’s adult literacy rate has been on a cyclical seesaw. It shot up to over 90 percent in the early 1980s, following a drive for Universal Primary Education in the late 1970s that combined with a vigorous adult literacy campaign. A decade later, it had slid down to the 60 percent range.

Another campaign together with another Universal Primary Education drive in the 1990s bounced the rate back up. A decade later it slid down to the 60 percent range again.

The Government is stirring to launch yet another literacy campaign to bounce the seesaw back up. But of what good is billions of shillings spent on adult literacy campaign, to individuals or to the country, if that literacy skill won’t stick?

Perhaps we could learn from a villager who explains why he lost his hard earned reading skills.

“I was so proud to be able to read finally. My children, too, were proud. I wanted to read and learn more about farming, about the world. But after I finished the course I had nothing to read. Not a single shop in my village sells books; no newspaper reaches us. It’s very discouraging.”

No books, no newspapers, nothing to read. Literacy skill, left unused, is lost with time. Guaranteed.

Perhaps our point of attack shouldn’t be another run-of-the-mill “literacy” campaign, but one with a broader perspective, one that will also mind getting reading materials out to villages so that the hard-earned reading skills could be put to good use.

We can’t afford to flood the country with books for adult readers, not for now. But flyers and leaflets should be affordable, especially if inexpensive newsprint paper is used.

These flyers and leaflets could carry practical information on what villagers could do to help themselves. They have to be written in jargon-free, simple and friendly language that even a Standard 3 student can understand easily. Topics they could cover are endless.

What to do to avoid contracting the disease during outbreak of an epidemic; how to treat simple avoid tetanus from simple cuts; what combination of local foods will give children a balanced diet; and so on.

How to terrace a slope to reduce soil erosion and to keep moisture longer in the soil; how to increase maize yields by simply changing planting distances; how to store crops to reduce post-harvest losses by as much as one third; and so on.

What parents could do at home to help their children to perform better in school such as never sending them to school in empty stomach, even if it’s just ripe bananas or boiled sweet potatoes; making sure children review the notes they had taken at school (since most won’t bring books home) that same day; and so on.

Simple stories based on folk tales from around Tanzania or from around the world, written simply so that even parents with newly acquired literacy skills can read to their pre-schoolers.

Parents who read stories to their pre-schoolers will, while they strengthen their own literacy, instill in their young a love for reading which will give the children a competitive edge later in life, in education and at work.

These flyers and leaflets could be posted on bulletin boards in villages that stand mostly empty for want of materials. Maybe extra flyers and leaflets could be available to those who are interested, at cost.

In China, many such bulletin boards carry newspapers for the benefit of villagers. Could that also work in Tanzania to help villagers keep up to date on current affairs while they again practice their reading skills?

If there are no bulletin boards, setting up new ones is no sweat: A few nails, a board, a wall space where there is an overhead cover to protect the board from rain. That’s all it takes.

Choose places where people like to congregate like market places, schools, churches, health centres. These flyers could spice up villagers’ conversations at the market.

Ebu (say), did you see the karatasi (the flyer) about getting your cow to produce more milk? It says you might feed and care for your cows well but if you don’t give them enough water, you won’t get much milk.

I give mine a full ndoo (bucket) each every morning. Isn’t that enough? Not according to the flyer, it isn’t. It says you should give them three or four buckets each every day. More water, more milk. Really?

If these flyers and leaflets are done right, practical knowledge they bring to the people would capture their attention and more will want to read them.

We could then be killing two birds with one stone. Their literacy will be kept up as they read these flyers and, by using the knowledge they bring, villagers could improve their lives.

If our adult literacy program could overcome its “number fixation,” look beyond the classroom, and take on getting reading materials to villages as one of its major concerns, it could launch the entire country onto a path of lifelong learning and empower the people with a ticket out of poverty.

Who said only two birds could be killed with one stone? This could be our third.


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