Literacy is mostly appreciated by those who don’t have it

May  2018 / 26 No Comments

Literacy is appreciated most by those who don’t have it

We need more engineers and doctors, but we also need more people who can read signposts, prescription drugs, and apply for a bank loan.

I sat next to this old lady on a flight from Juba to Nairobi. She is probably the same age as my grandma, very calm with a strong and experienced face – she had a very matriachy aura.
It was evident she is a mother of many and must have seen it all in her lifetime in South Sudan.

She pointed to the seat belt while looking at me she fumbled with it and I could see her struggle with fastening it. After few tries, she asked me in her native language to give her a hand. I did not understand the language but from her actions I could pick out what she wanted. South Sudanese speak very many languages but the main languages are English and Arabic. She could speak neither. I helped fasten her seatbelt, my good deed of the day.
As the plane took off, I couldn’t help but think about her journey and how she would”survive” the immigration hassles at the airport.. Visa forms, entry forms, yellow fever card etc. All of these are processes that require an understanding of one of the main languages in East Africa.

I have never looked at these processes from the eye of someone who had no literacy of a language that is used to do the basics. Literacy is most appreciated by those who don’t have it. This statement rings true in South Sudan more than anywhere else. My home country which has a literacy level of 30%, the remaining 70% of the population is not literate.

I recall growing up, the skill of writing letters was something cherished in my community, those who went to school and could read and write were consulted on almost all occasions. A grandmother sending a letter to her son in the US, a father who wanted to send a letter requiring his in-laws to pay a dowry or even the reading of an obituary of a deceased loved one during the last prayer.

When a nation aspires to educate its population, people usually look at it from the concept of more engineers, more lawyers, more doctors and other prestigious titles. All these professions are necessary and it should be our ultimate aim to have more of people taking them. But it is also true that having a population that can read signposts and medical prescriptions is equally important and I believe this is what the grandmother next to meet appreciates most.

For most African countries I have visited, our cities and amenities are designed for people who can read and write,english mostly. This might present us with a serious issue if majority of the population is unable to read and write the very official languages that are supposed to be used for daily activities.

I think we should set aside resources to educate our population and ensure they have basic literacy or we can aim at making our cities and governments accommodative to speakers of the native languages. Keeping in mind that the proficiency of a certain language or lack of is not a measure of importance and intelligence, the old woman has a lot of value to add to society just like you and I.

All my IT knowledge means nothing to her, for her I am as relevant as the help I can render with filling the visa form and directing her to the exit door at the airport. Never take for granted, that is even the least important service you can offer your community is important to someone else, especially those who need it.

Much appreciation to Kendi Gikunda for editing this piece.

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