Reflection on literacy Day

After seventeen years of tears and laughter in this business, I am still passionate about my work. The difference is that now I am sure that I have chosen the right path. This work has never been glamorous, if one defines "glamour" in the conventional sense. But there is a lot of satisfaction and an exhilarating feeling that comes from deeply touching real people's lives and problems.

For example, in Oshakati, Namibia as recently as two weeks ago, I was running training seminars for health workers, policewomen, radio programmers, journalists and lots of non-formal educators. The focus of the seminar was how to reach ordinary people about HIV/AIDS prevention. Oshakati is a huge shantytown with no obvious logic or trace of urban planning. It is crowded with the highest infection rate of HIV/AIDS in Namibia. We managed to achieve something out of the ordinary there. For the first time, a series of illustrated booklets on various aspects of HIV/AIDS was written from the perspective of those that face it every day of their lives. The only places we visited were some schools where we talked to a lot of school children, church people, community leaders, people living with HIV/AIDS, volunteers and professional workers.

In this job, you learn to eat when and whatever you can. Once in the Northern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, we reached our destination only to find there was no cooking gas. It was not easy to buy any more fuel. Earlier that day, there had been a riot in town because one of the tribesmen was allegedly physically abused and died in jail. His fellow tribesmen rose up in anger and looted all the shops, creating a local emergency. Alas, no gas. We decided that it was wiser to stay home given the nature of the tensions. So, we went down to the garden, cut and ate a few bananas and went to bed.

In India, very often we visit villages where people are very conservative and caste conscious. Once, the tea was served in a freshly made clay cup. I drank it and put the cup on the floor. In the pushing and pulling of the many literacy learners huddled into the small hut, I stepped on the cup and crushed it. In response to my apology, the host said, "Never mind, the cup will be destroyed anyway, you're an outcast." I had never thought of myself that way, but yes, in this system, I would be an outcast.

Modes of transport can also vary: planes, trains, jeeps, four wheelers, horse, camels, mules and elephants, and, yes, even a human back. Once in northern Vietnam, we were on our way to a black Thai community on the horizons of the vast rice paddies. The sowing season is often wet, and consequently, so are the rice fields. All of a sudden, we ran across a small stream gushing down from the mountains. Before I knew it, all this water was swirling below me. Unperturbed, my host just picked me up and carried me across the stream.

Sleeping conditions are yet another story. On the Himalayan foothills of Bhutan, we once camped out in tents, two to a tent. The night air was so freezing that I prayed fervently that I would have no reason to leave the tent in the middle of the night. I would have disturbed the order of the tight sleeping bag lined with woollen blankets, as well as my companion's sleep. The following days we met on the luxurious soft and plush local carpet of fresh smelling green pine needles.

One of my principles in doing literacy and non-formal education (NFE) work is to always keep the ultimate target group in sight. As such, we often take off to a remote community to visit poor subsistence farmers, or ethnic groups living on the fringe of society. When in Thailand for example, we spend the weekend with different tribal groups in the northern part of the country, around the notorious Golden Triangle.

When we are there, the community welcomes and embraces us fully. We do everything with them, from waking up with the women at 3.00 a.m. to pound the rice, to cooking and eating it with them. Their food is healthy including delicacies such as vine leaves, some eggs, yet no salt, no spice, no condiment. Men, women and children eat together. At night, the women visitors sleep upstairs in the bamboo structure that is so fragile that the heavier ones are often asked to move about one at a time, lest the house collapse. We go to the field chattering away with the local people. Language is not a real barrier; there is always someone around to interpret. At night, after dinner, we get up and sway to the tune of a flute and a rhythmic sound of small drums. And so we visitors go back to our training invigorated. The country fresh air and living close to the ground is beneficial for both mind and spirit. Most importantly, it helps us focus our work on the real people whose lives we have touched. Their needs should determine the direction of our work. And I have always tried to keep this in perspective.

Literacy workers are a dedicated breed. This is one reason why I have always endeavoured to keep the training enriching for those involved, both on a professional level and in other aspects of their lives. Often during training sessions we instigate traditional games and those from island countries teach others from the landlocked countries to swim, go for traditional massage or eat local fare. The reactions are always positive. Each time this happens, I am enormously pleased. If these people are to empower others, they have to feel good about themselves. This is the other group of people that most matters to me.

We have a proper evaluation process for our training sessions. At the end of it, people are asked to choose three separate words to describe the training. The words that people use most, "exciting, confidence building, empowering," warm my heart. But the best words I have heard are "fun, entertaining, relaxing." People learn best when they are having fun.

On a final note, it occurs to me that literacy is progressing well in isolated places around the world. Yet the enormous number of adult illiterates that still exists never fails to sadden me. As long as efforts at eradicating adult illiteracy are conducted sporadically with meagre resources and less than half-hearted support from national authorities and the international community, this number is not likely to decrease. Unfortunately, this has been the case for the last 30 years.
The reluctance of some to discuss this subject indicates that they are ill at ease with it. It is far more comfortable to discuss communication technology! Everyone is modern. Illiteracy is the old fashioned, ugly problem. It reminds one of that distasteful subject, social injustice. And then there are those who would never change the status quo, who would never support literacy for fear of putting their own position at risk.

The authorities always stipulate, often in official policy papers, how important women's empowerment is to their countries' development. Yet experience shows that they rarely act on their word, to their own economic detriment. Illiterate women, for example, have more babies, and are less likely to adopt desirable nutrition and health practices, not to mention safe sex practices, particularly in these days of HIV/AIDS. Many African countries are just beginning to discover the extent of the cost of shouldering the responsibility caring for HIV positive people and those living with AIDS.

Working in literacy and basic education for women has been particularly difficult. Still, this crusade is something I wouldn't give up for the world. When I heard an old woman in a village outside Lucknow, India, say that she learned to read because she wanted to read about Lord Ram, the hero of Ramayana, a new perspective opened up for me. Literacy is both about earning a living and people's spiritual well being. A new literate in India also told me that since she learned to read her husband stopped beating her, and now asks her advice on many family decisions. What has changed? Now she makes him look good and is no longer a perceived liability to him. There are tens of thousands such women. They bring tears to your eyes. Yet I am frustrated that there are still more than five hundred million other illiterate women who have yet to participate in some kind of decent programme.

After all these years, I ask the same question: how can the world community, so willing to invest millions and billions in modern progress, tolerate the fact so many are still deprived of that most basic human right, the opportunity to be literate?