Ian Cheffy has worked in literacy in Africa for 30 years. After ten years in Cameroon, he returned to the UK where he is now based. His research interests centre on the impact of literacy on adults who acquire literacy in their own African language.
Literacy in your own language can be transformative
I am currently doing research into the changes which people experience as a result of learning to read and write in their own local language. One of the pleasures of this work is that it brings me into contact with people who not only feel a real sense of achievement at becoming literate, but also a very deep joy. For those of us who have grown up in a literate world, it’s easy to take literacy for granted. But this is certainly not the case for everyone. For many adults in developing countries, becoming literate represents something fundamentally significant for them, both personally and as members of their community.
One delightful lady I met in Kenya was Mariam, a speaker of the Tharaka language. She was in her 60s, quite wrinkled, very slight and apparently fragile in build. But looks can be deceiving as she proved with her vice-like grip that took me aback when we shook hands! Mariam was overjoyed to recount how learning to read and write in her native language as an adult, a number of years before, had given her a sense of confidence that she had not previously felt before. Like someone who regains their eyesight after being blind, she said, “Now I can see, and I can believe what I see with my own eyes”. For Mariam, becoming literate was not simply about being able to read and understand written information, it was much more about feeling confident in her life and in her dealings with other people. She no longer had to rely on what she was told. She could see for herself because she could read for herself and she could trust her own judgement. Her smile communicated how much this meant to her!
If one person becomes literate, how many actually benefit?
Who benefits from becoming literate? It may seem an obvious question. Clearly the men and women who take adult literacy classes do. But are they the only ones?
My research in Africa into the changes which adults experience when they become literate in their own language is quite revealing. When we look at the official statistics on the numbers of learners in literacy classes, we are really only seeing a very partial story. They fail to convey the countless numbers of people who are impacted indirectly when people who could not previously read and write acquire literacy. Often, the people who are adult literacy learners are also mothers, fathers, tradesmen and tradeswomen, members and leaders of groups in their community, and so on. And it is through these various roles that the benefit of literacy spreads out from individual literacy learners to their families and communities.
For example, all parents exert great influence on their children. They are strong role models for them - for better or worse - and guide their growth and development. Becoming literate when you are a parent can make an enormous difference to how you bring up your children and their chances in life.
Among the people I have interviewed, there are many who have told me that becoming literate has enabled them to help their children with their homework. But there are more indirect impacts as well. In Kenya, I met Juliah who learned to read and write when she was 30. Whereas beforehand she had never had much idea of whether she was making a profit or loss in her small trading business, acquiring literacy allowed her to keep accounts of her income and expenditure and to run her business profitably. The result, as she was very proud to tell me, was that she earned enough to send four of her children not only to primary school but to secondary school as well. They are all now doing well in their own lives.
Juliah is but one of many who demonstrate how the benefits of becoming literate are certainly not limited only to the individual learner.