Ovaiyoza bit her lip to stop it from quivering. She angrily wiped the tears off her face and looked about her, but there was no one to help. Her mother’s fever was getting worse by the hour, and her older brother was not back from the market. Then, it occurred to her what she must do.
She whispered in her mother’s ear that she would soon be back then dashed out of the house at lightning speed. She brushed past market women who had sold off their wares early. They called to her saying that it was improper for her, a girl to be running like an antelope or even worse, a boy. She threw a careless apology over her shoulder and did not stop until the school was in sight.
That was when she realised it was her first time there. She had no idea how to find him. The lawn was well-kept and the compound deathly quiet. She swallowed, then headed for the largest of the detached buildings. Feeling completely out of place, she walked through the halls in silent awe. From what she could tell, this was where the teachers stayed in-between classes; one or two of them were poring over books while a bunch huddled in the unmistakable familiarity of gossip.
Then she found the face she sought.
Her neighbour and one of the most respected teachers in her village, Mr. Adinoyi’s face broke into a smile, and he enquired in her native tongue, Ebira. “Ovaiyoza, how are you? What are you doing here?”
Near tears, she replied, “I need your help, sir. My mother is very sick and I cannot read the dosage for her drugs. There was no one else who could help.”
He shot out of his seat. “Let us go!”
Ovaiyoza’s mother was still in a poor state when they arrived and clearly had been too sick to tell her daughter the dosage she had been told at the clinic. A quick glance at the medicine on the small stool told Mr. Adinoyi that she only needed 2 tablets and she would take 2 more after 6 hours. She had missed her morning dose, which would account for the spike in the fever that got 13-year old Ovaiyoza so worried.
He understood that poverty was a major reason many parents didn’t send their children to school, but on many occasions, he had offered to tutor some of the children in the neighbourhood for free but the parents usually kicked against it, parents like Ovaiyoza’s mother. Nonetheless, he was glad the teenager had thought to call on him. He carefully handed her mother the drugs and within an hour, her breathing evened out, and the fever abated.
What literacy truly means… Don’t assume you know
How many lives have been lost because someone could not read printed letters?
Take a look at the title of this article. Imagine that you didn’t realise ‘LTIRECAY’ was supposed to be ‘LITERACY’. What would your life be like if you were illiterate? Yet this is the reality of over 40 million adult Nigerians, according to UNESCO statistics.
Too many Nigerians only see gibberish when they look at the written word and in the end, that costs us so much as a nation!
You may wonder, “But we are not English, why does being literate really matter? That is where you are getting it wrong. We assume that literacy is about being able to read and write in English alone. Let me give you two definitions by UNESCO:
“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.
Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”
The text goes on to explain:
“Literacy is about the uses people make of it as a means of communication and expression, through a variety of media; Literacy is plural, being practiced in particular contexts for particular purposes and using specific languages; Literacy involves a continuum of learning measured at different proficient levels.”
Two key things to understand is that literacy is about context and functionality. The Nigerian context demands literacy in English because of our colonial history and current standards. Yet, this does not deny that being able to read and write in Yoruba, Hausa, Arabic, Ijaw or Igbo is useful. Those are also forms of literacy but understanding the context of your community makes English literacy imperative. What is the point of being literate in only Yoruba if that is not the general means of communication in the country? It makes one still illiterate.
Similarly, literacy is complete when it aids functionality. This means that when one can interpret written information for varied purposes, then, one is truly literate. Beyond the letters, ability to translate texts for daily life and other defined goals makes the cycle complete. Thus, literacy should improve the quality of one’s life in some way. Let us take the example of the story. If Ovaiyoza had been able to read the drug prescription, then she would have been able to help her mother quickly. That is literacy in action, improving an individual’s quality of life .
So, in my opinion, even when a person does not pass through the four walls of a formal classroom, being able to read and write in the common language is fundamental. This could be what makes the difference in certain life and death situations. Literacy lays the foundation for displacing ignorance, naivety and poverty. It fosters peace because where there is understanding, there is room for better conflict resolution.
For clarity sake, illiteracy robs a mother of a chance of saving her child because she cannot read a drug prescription or she never studied any antenatal material; illiteracy means the prison cells will keep overflowing with misguided youth because they are too uneducated to be employed; illiteracy means higher rates of unwanted pregnancies and preventable congenital defects because a young girl never read how she could do better; illiteracy births the miscreants that serve as tools for destroying our democracy during elections; illiteracy institutionalizes poverty, making it a legacy our children inherit.
Let’s see how others are faring
In 2016, Finland was ranked the most literate nation in the world.
Interestingly, the country has, according to this report, a 4% child mortality rate, one of the lowest in the world; 69% of people aged between 15-64 are employed, and life expectancy for women is 83.5 years while for men, it is 77.5 years.
Let us move away from Europe to the Middle-East. As at 2017 statistics, Saudi Arabia had a 95.33% literacy rate. Like Finland, this Arab nation also has impressive statistics, scoring high in health, safety and economic development.
Of course, it will be erroneous to assume that the sole contributing factor to these amazing numbers is the countries’ literacy rate but isn’t it also curious that nations like Central African Republic and Chad with high mortality rate, poor development and widening economic gaps are the ones with poor literacy rate?
So, now what?
It is quite evident that we need to do better, but without a sense of urgency about this issue, we shall continue to drag our feet while poverty, insecurity and ignorance climb the ladder.
With days such as International Literacy Day marked annually on September 8th, we can all lend our voices to the call for change. This is one of the reasons I am championing a campaign to collect and share literacy stories, where individuals tell in a few words why they are grateful to be literate.When people appreciate the privilege of literacy, they will be moved to ensure it becomes a right for all. To learn more about the campaign or share your story, visit here.
And I daresay that raising our literacy level as a nation can also take place in informal settings with communities organising reading clubs for their children. As a World Literacy Foundation Ambassador, I have come in contact with inspiring individuals who took it upon themselves to teach young children in their neighbourhoods how to read during the pandemic. If that isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what is. Worthy of note is the ongoing campaign for blended learning for primary and secondary schools in Lagos State, Nigeria. The campaign seeks to bridge the educational gap caused by the coronavirus pandemic through the adoption of a learning model that combines virtual learning, radio learning and face-to-face interactions. You can sign the petition now!
Additionally, I propose the use of extension workers as is found in agriculture to not only advocate for literacy in rural communities but to organise neighbourhood lessons for school-aged children that may not be able to afford formal schooling. The agricultural extension model depends on trained indivuduals who are in contact with small-scale farmers to help them transition from traditional methods of farming to improved methods. For communities with little or no access to digital forms of communication, it is an effective way of gunning for food sufficiency. Therefore, I posit that adopting that model for increasing literacy rates is bound to yield tangible results, especially when locals who understand the culture and socio-economic challenges of the communities are used for the role. In February 2020, the Nigerian Federal government committed to train 50,000 agricultural extension workers.
I see no reason why the same commitment cannot be made to literacy. However, in the light of the coronavirus pandemic, it is safe to say that this plan was not implemented. Yet, it is a model worth looking into by other development actors in the education space, but first, there must be a sense of urgency over the growing educational gaps and the consequent economic and social implications.As much as the right to life is inalienable, literacy must also be viewed through the same lens. Literacy matters!