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Through us, the world can read

One day during the rainy season of April 1983, my mother Lucia called me into her smoky kitchen: “John, welcome back from school. Tell me, what did you learn today? Sit down and read me something” she called expectantly in Kikuyu. I unzipped my school bag and removed my only reading book, ‘New Friends’. I read a page as mom attentively listened. I looked up after I was done and was strangely pleased by the unusual smile on her face, her eyes wet (from the stinging smoke of the wood fire I am sure). “John, I can neither read, and nor can I understand what you just read. From now on, I will be reading the world through you, you are my eyes!” Today, on World Literacy Day in 2015, I woke up early to read for her again, something a little more complicated than ‘New Friends’ this time.

Fast forward, just a few years ago, I was walking on the streets of Hannover in Germany when a middle-aged lady stopped me, a paper in her hand. "I am Ursula, could you please read for me this?" she requested shyly. “Meet me at the Hamburger Street beneath by the water fountain at 10.00 am”. The lady thanked me profusely and headed off, presumably to her rendezvous.

Lucia and Ursula sit in different continents, separated by language and culture, but united by illiteracy. They represent the nearly 500 million adult women who cannot read. It is estimated that, globally, 774 million people lack basic literacy, 64% of whom are women (UNESCO (2013). UIS Fact Sheet on Adult and Youth Literacy).  The highest concentration of people who cannot read are in Sub Saharan Africa, where in 10 countries, more than half of the adult population was illiterate in 2013. A quick look through the UNESCO global literacy map indicates just how unequally shared literacy is in the world.

We live in a world of contrasts. In this digital age, 500 million Tweets are shared every day, 20 million applications are installed daily on Facebook, through 54 billion different Facebook pages. Yet, over 120 million youth are illiterate, 61% of whom are female. Many youth in Africa are struggling with unemployment, poor health and lack of access to economic opportunities, while their peers ride the waves of digital innovation and entrepreneurship. Where did these inequalities stem from, how can people within the same country, even living in the same city, be so divided?

Over the years, the Uwezo annual learning assessment has produced evidence to illustrate that the acquisition of literacy levels in our schools is extremely low and slow. For instance in 2013, 25% of Ugandan and 15% of Kenyan children who had completed over three years of schooling (who were in Grade 4 at that time) could not read a sentence. Again in Uganda, nearly 30% of those in Grade 7 finished primary school without the English literacy levels expected at Grade 2.  Looking deeper into this story across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, it emerges that literacy levels are sharply split between private and public schools, wealthier and poorer households, children of more and of less educated parents, and so on. Thus, the divide between the ‘Facebookers’ and the ‘non-readers’ may easily be traced back to the phenomenon playing out in our schools.

As we mark World Literacy Day today, the need to focus on the acquisition of foundational literacy skills has never been as pressing. In order to secure self-esteem, better jobs and higher wages, better health and well-being, and such other outcomes, literacy is requisite. It boils down to each of us reflecting on our individual role in improving literacy. Whether reading for our mothers, or asking our children to read for us, we cannot just sit there and blame our governments. If each of us did something today, surely the world could read.

 

Read more: Africa

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