Today is Internatonal Literacy Day. For most of
us it probably does not mean much.
It didn’t mean much to me before I started
hearing the work in this field some 16 years ago. Almost as long as I could
remember, everybody read. Illiteracy did not exist in my vocabulary. By the time
I reached the third grade, my sister and I were already reading big tomes of
that great Chinese epic, The Three Kingdoms, in our own language, Thai,
to our parents as an after dinner recreation.
My grandmother who would have been 120 years old
if she was still alive today, indulged a good part of her days reading series of
great Thai classics. She read piles of books such as the story of King
Burengnong of Burma whose prowesse won him colonies in 10 directions and women
in more. She read in prose and poetry and quoted from them. Reading was an
automatic, natural act to her.
As a girl, her father wrote letters of the
alphabet on her bare back. He made her trace his writing in her imagination and
pronounce it. She grew up to be a reading junkie. Raised in her large household
in southern Thailand, I couldn’t possibly understand the scope of what
illiteracy could mean to a person, much less to a nation.
Today, UNESCO estimates that there are almost 900
million illiterate adults. Two thirds are women. Not to mention some 100 million
boys and girls who are not in school, most of them girls. No matter how
illiteracy is defined, these people are still the ones whose need in education
has not been met. Raja Roy Singh, the legendary director of the UNESCO Bangkok
Office, once said with a wry smile, ‘We could speak of the percentage of
illiteracy, but for an illiterate, illiteracy is always 100 per cent.' Raja Roy
promoted literacy among women, in particular. He believed that, since they
formed the majority of illiterates, and as the first teachers of their children,
they should be the priority group.
Over the past few decades, experts embarked on
debates about the definition of literacy, ranging from the ability to read and
write one’s own name to functional literacy which UNESCO defines as the
ability to use reading and writing to serve the various functions required in
everyday living. This means that the definition will vary from place to place
depending on the level of development.
Today, people are speaking of legal literacy and
computer literacy. As the word ‘literacy’ and ‘illiteracy’ are
increasingly used in their figurative sense in more ‘advanced’ societies,
the original meaning seems to have dissipated. How many of us can really imagine
there exists a thousand million women and men who cannot use reading and writing
for basic purposes in life? Illiteracy is probably as remote to us as those
isolated third world communities where we might think they live. Behold,
illiterates are widespread everywhere including the industrialised societies,
such as Britain, France, Japan and the U.S. In the UK, for example, 22 per cent
of adults have’low ‘ literacy skills, said Anabel Helmstedt of the Basic
Skills Agency which won the UNESCO’s International Literacy Prize last year.
If we know how it feels to be
illiterate, maybe we’ll think about the word differently.
Qi Yiling, from the mountainous province of Yunnan, China, got into the panic of her life when she could not find her daughter in the
hospital. She went around and around looking at rows of hospital beds. They all looked the
same. They became even more blurred as her anxiety rose. How could she find her sick
daughter, a mere babe of two, when someone has taken away the red candy wrapper she had put on the windowsill as a
reminder? But could she bring herself to ask anyone? And what could she say? Who would know her
daughter? She sweated and flustered. She felt small, humiliated not to mention
confused. In this town everyone seemed so superior to her. The feeling of powerlessness came over
her. She sank to her knees and sobbed.
That was a few years back. Now Yiling has learnt to read and write. She makes money from raising pigs and using new methods in pig raising. She feels fine and talks about taking on new projects.
Then, there is Sid. He was the talk
of the party at an Australian gathering for literacy and non-formal education.
His inspiring keynote address shed light on the complicated social and cultural
complications surrounding the issues. Sid had been illiterate up till he was
sixty. His wife had taken care of all affairs requiring writing and reading. Sid
developed a complicated escape mechanism that allowed no one to detect that he
couldn’t read and write. Then his wife died. With her death came the end of
his pretence. He was forced to learn to read and write. Now, there is no going
back. Sid goes for reading and writing with a missionary zeal. He reads great
literature, newspapers, anything he can lay his hands on –as if to make up for
the lost time. Suddenly, life took on a different meaning. His pleasure has
doubled when he realizes that his experience has been an inspiration to so many
other Australians like him.
Sue Torr, who learnt to read and write at the age of 38, came specially from the UK to Paris to speak to an international audience at UNESCO during the 1999 celebration of International Literacy Day. She explained what it was like to be illiterate. "Everyday of your life is frustration, fear, anger, isolation embarrassment and rage. You have no self-esteem. You lie a lot." Reflecting on her own struggle to become literate, Sue said, " It's embarassing. It's hard to take things in. It's hard to concentrate. You think to yourself, 'Why should I bother?' But for her the breakthrough came and then there was no going back. "Once you feel that you're learning something, you get the feeling that you want to learn it all, NOW. Then you realize for the first time in your life that getting an education is so important."
It is ironic that there are hundreds and thousands of group literacy programmes for adults. But the number of illiterates is not diminishing in a significant way. Illiterates keep producing more and more babies. The World Bank conducted a study, which showed that literate mothers have a significantly lower number of children. The literate populations could participate more readily in family planning programmes. Illiteracy has been identified as the most important obstacle to development activities such as dealing with the shortage of water, farming, or with sending daughters to school.
People ask me, why bother?
Illiterates living in far flung villages around the world, seem rather happy
with their life. Why go and impose on them learning and other things? I used to
be frustrated at such questions. And then I started, myself, to ask the same
question. But over 17 years, I found an answer. So next time someone asks me the
same question, I’ll say, "Why is literacy important for you and me? Are
you sure that they are happy? Living without running water, in dire poverty and
with diseases? Would you be happy doing the same?"
Yes, working in literacy is an
eternal struggle. It’s never glamerous. If it is well done, literacy work
often means getting your hands, and often your feet, dirty. It means unlearning
what you believed about these people. It means showing respect to them and
meaning it. It means consultation because, once imposed, the impact of the idea
is likely to dwindle. It also means eating what the people eat, and sometimes
not eating. It also involves speaking the same kind of language and, working
with people so they could help themselves and reach out to realize their own
aspirations. It is also knowing when to leave them to fend for themselves
confident that they are running their own lives. More importantly, it means
learning from these people, who though illiterate, are not stupid.
|| Mark Gilmer
was eighteen, today a distant memory my youthful student activism
was directed against the war in Algeria. But I needed to do more than
just participate in discussions and demonstrations. It was in the
literacy classes, followed by directing a club for adult Algerians
organised by the CIMADE, a French NGO, that I discovered the possibility
and satisfaction of participating concretely in a large societal
movement. Today after
many years of international service, principally in Africa and some Asia, my professional path culminates at UNESCO Headquarters
where I direct the Literacy and Non-formal Education Programmes. My approaching retirement will allow me to retum to CIMADE as a
Looking back along the path of my professional life, it is possible
to see a pattern, if not a meaning, that was not evident at its
commencement. However, thirty years under the banner of UNESCO, in the
service of basic education, has made me realise that my experiences were
extremely gratifying. I have been lucky. I have certainly received much
experience and can only hope that I have been able to give as much and that my
so-called "expertise" has been able to help individuals gain
entry to basic education through the great door known as "literacy".
It was not in books
that I discovered this link among education, awareness and
enlightenment. It was in the villages and the shantytowns, with the
young and the old, with men and women, transcending continents and
cultures. There was little in common between the old woman in the
mountains in Laos, in the '90s, and the young black South African with
whom I talked secretly during the darkest years of the apartheid, except the
thirst to learn, to know, to open up ... to educational enlightenment!
It was not that they, nor I, could believe that education guaranteed a
better world, but at least we knew that literacy was an essentiel tool
in a world that today depends mainly on the written word regardless of
the influence of radio and television. More than ever, access to writing
opens the doors of knowledge. Pessimists remind us that suffering
started because humanity ate the forbidden apple ... but this was what
has undoubtedly made us human.
I have also
during this long quest for the sharing of knowledge, that the problems
of illiterates are not simply the problems of "others" but
more serious questions of solidarity, international as well as national.
The beginnings of my career were bound up with the dawn of independence
and the development aspirations of the Third World; although some
started off on the wrong foot as some Cassandras, such as my former
professer, René Dumont, repeatedly said. The '70s brought their share of
disillusionment, but at the same time the identification, within the
richest societies, of a new concept of the Fourth World – the world in
which literacy was as rare as it was precious. It is interesting to note
in passing that it was in France, land of culture and social tradition,
that this new world was discovered. However one likes to qualify
illiteracy – relapse, primary, functionally, etc. – it is above all
suffering and deprivation for people who do not have the minimum mastery
of writing to be able to make the most of their daily lives. Even after
a few generations of free and compulsory basic education, the basis of
access to writing remains precarious for individuals and groups who, for
one reason or another, are in difficulty. Education is not hard currency.
It is fragile. All those who have learnt another language know that
without practice it is forgotten. Literacy is the root of education and
needs tending and stimulation to remain functional and buoyant on the
mounting needs of knowledge. Much has been spoken of the torn social
fabric in France and it seems to me that, from time to time, the
educational fabric frays.
The regular symbolic
repetition of International Literacy Day is not therefore just
international and bureaucratic drivel. On the one hand the existing gaps
in the world educational map need to be filled by ensuring a minimum
service to excluded populations. On the other, societies which have
universal basic schooling need to guard against complacency. To quote
the Director-General of UNESCO "The combat waged by UNESCO is first
and foremost that of education for all. Education is a fragile good and
one that is still too unequally distributed. Literacy training is the
gateway to it."