Is the mere fact that one can read books and express oneself in writing the key to a job, wealth and personal independence? The notion that “literate = well-off” is widely held but cannot be entirely justified. Using the example of the working career of an illiterate 24-year old, Kasule, Openjuru stresses the importance of seeing literacy in the context of the life of the individual. Literacy only succeeds if it is adapted to people’s actual needs and requirements. Only then can it improve living conditions and contribute to independence. The author is a Lecturer and Head of the Department of Community Education, Institute of Adult and Continuing Education, Makerere University, Uganda.
The non-literate involved in this study was a 24-year-old man who works as a gardener, popularly known in Uganda as a “Samba boy.” He comes from a poor background and his parents, who did not go to school, were also not able to send him to school. Fortunately his half-sisters (the same mother) were able to take advantage of the Universal Primary Education (UPE) policy and go to school so that they are able to read and write. As he is a casual labourer, some of his employers pay him a monthly wage, others pay him for the piece of work done when they need his services. In this way, he is able to raise some money to help his mother with family upkeep. He is not married, and he has no children and is still staying with his mother, who is a single parent.
Kasule depends on literacy mediators, who are either his half-sisters or any other persons, to read and write for him. He says people are always available and willing to help him with his reading and writing needs. He also rarely gets involved with literacy events beyond his literacy abilities. So literacy instances (events) which do not give him time to refer to his literacy mediators will be avoided.
Kasule is numerate, he is able to count his money and to find out how much he has been paid for the work he has done and if it is the amount of money agreed upon. He is able to buy things from the market or shops and get his change without help. His numeracy skills were acquired informally without any formal or non-formal learning arrangements. He only has problems if the transaction becomes too complicated, involving a large amount of money spread over many activities. However, he said he rarely gets involved with such complicated financial transactions. His level of activities does not call for such complex transactions. He said that in his life he only handles small amounts of money, which he can deal with without any problem. So for the moment there is no need for that level of complication.
According to Kasule, literacy helps a person to move around independently, read his own personal documents and look for jobs in big offices without fear. He would also have enough confidence to do many other things in his life. When he was informed that there are some graduates who are completely jobless and cannot even get the kind of money he is earning he maintained that even if graduates are jobless or doing the kind of work he does, and have no money, they still have a better chance than him of getting a good job any time. He believes that people like him are “condemned to poverty” because they cannot do much on their own. When I informed him that there are some people who are very rich but cannot even write their names, he could not believe that there are such people. To him it is impossible for anybody to become rich if they cannot read and write. He said, “such people are thieves.”
When I asked him to tell me what he thinks people who are educated think about people like him, he said, “people who are educated and able to read and write despise people like me. They look at us like ‘bayaye’ (rogue people).” On the other hand, he feels very sorry for those people who are like him, because he understands the kind of problem they are facing. He looks at people who are educated as very superior to him, and he admires and envies them so much.
When asked what he would like to learn if given a chance, instead of literacy, he preferred to learn motor mechanics, and/or driving, which could allow him to earn a better income. He preferred to learn by apprenticeship. He said he only lacked money to go for such training. When he was informed that apprenticeship under the tutelage of a motor mechanic might not require tuition fees, he said he had not found anybody willing to teach him for free.
He rejected the idea of going to a formal college such as a driving or a technical school, because according to him it requires a lot of money and the ability to read and write. He is not interested in such an arrangement because according to him he is too old for that now. His view of starting to learn, especially reading and writing, is about going to a primary school, which is for children not people as old as him. On the other hand going to college is only for people who are able to read and write. This opinion seems to be informed by the popular perception of learning to read and write as a learning activity meant for children, and his personal ignorance about opportunities for adult literacy programmes.1
This will start with a look at the definition of “literacy” and “development”, which are both concepts that are difficult to define. Two perspectives of literacy are used (the new literacy studies perspective and the autonomous model) to understand Kasule’s view of literacy. An attempt will be made to set this view against the literacy and development link debate
Literacy is generally defined as the ability to read, write, and do simple calculations with understanding. According to the New Literacy Studies (NLS) or the ideological model, literacy is a continuum with no single, simple, individual competency which can be called literacy. In this model literacy is a social practice in which people engage in their own different cultural ways. According to this definition, a person can be classified as literate so long as they have acquired mastery over a secondary discourse that need not involve printed materials. It could involve the ability to read and follow directions, to make predictions, to explain events, and to interact in social settings involving non-verbal communication, including sign language, Braille and any other symbols and signs. This is a very unlimited definition of literacy that could be difficult to deal with.
On the other hand, the “autonomous” model looks at literacy as a single technical skill, which is the same across different cultures. It associates literacy with progress, civilisation, individual liberty, and social mobility. It sees the consequences of literacy in terms of economic development, and the development of cognitive skills. In this model actual reading, writing and counting are what matter most, not just relations with written materials, signs and symbols.
Development can be defined as the general improvement in economic, social, and political conditions of the whole society in terms of reduction or elimination of poverty, inequality, injustice, insecurity, ecological imbalance, and unemployment within the context of a growing economy. Equitable distribution of the Gross National Product (GNP) is one of the factors, which can ensure development. Development includes economic development measured by an increase in the GNP of a country, social development measured in terms of social well-being, and political development measured in terms of good democratic practices. Development can also be defined in terms of physical needs and self-fulfilment. Development is a way of life, which can be seen in the life pattern of the entire society. At the individual level development can be seen in terms of meeting the basic individual needs that improve personal skills and income, leading to improved family and personal well-being. This should also translate to individual liberty and ability to participate and become part of the wider society.
Kasule associates literacy with improved personal welfare in terms of improved job opportunities, personal independence in terms of freedom of movement and interaction with important people, i.e. people who can give him jobs, confidence, and personal self-worth. Getting a job was one of his major concerns; he is not convinced that it is difficult even for people who are not only able to read and write but well educated to get jobs. Kasule’s faith in the possibility of getting a job if he is able to read and write is one that is bound to lead to frustration. This is true because the Ugandan economy is characterised by high unemployment even for highly educated people. There is no chance for Kasule in the Ugandan job market what ever the job is; it will not be better than his present work.
Kasule comes from a generally poor economic and social background. Most people who are not able to read and write usually come from such similar backgrounds. Coming from poor parents leaves the child to grow up as a non-literate person adding to the large army of people who are not literate. Poverty is then the cause of illiteracy and illiteracy is a symptom of poverty and not vice versa. Kasule is a non-literate because his parents were poor. Now he thinks his non-literacy is the reason why he is poor. This is not very correct because there are a lot of people in Uganda who have completed secondary education but are just as poor, and on the other hand there are others who are illiterate yet they are very rich businessmen. So literacy alone is not a sufficient reason to explain poverty.
Kasule works as a manual labourer, which by its very nature requires very few literacy skills for him to perform well. His type of job has few complicated literacy events and practices. He personally said that he seldom initiates or gets involved in activities that involve too much reading and writing. This shows that his life is structured around social and economic circles whose literacy practices he can participate in comfortably. Such practices include the use of literacy mediators in the person of his sisters and getting involved with transactions that involves small amounts of money, and reading or interpreting road signs when he moves outside his workplace. It is not possible to know if knowledge of literacy can help him to come out of this level of interaction because this is currently his way of life. His way of life gives a very low value literacy, and his current literacy practices are serving him well.
Again, Kasule is interested in job training and not literacy. Although he admits that reading and writing are very important, for obvious reasons he prefers job training to learning new literacy skills that could involve him in actual reading and writing. His choice to learn driving and/or motor mechanics is based on the confidence he has built around his present literacy practices or working with the written world. According to him he can easily became a driver because it does not require elaborate reading and writing compared to working as an office filing clerk or records assistant. It could be true that becoming a motor mechanic or driver could improve his condition of life by improving his financial position. In his view, he is able to cope with the literacy practices required of a driver or motor mechanic. He observed that those occupations do not involve a lot of complicated literacy practices. He could continue to depend on his present literacy practices while improving his well-being. To Kasule literacy is for the moment and the near future irrelevant as a tool for improving his personal well-being.
His choice of apprenticeship was a very careful one because apprenticeship does away with complicated literacy practices involving actual reading and writing when learning. Apprenticeships only require an ability to observe and practice what has been observed with greater reliance on the mastery of the process being observed. In most cases it is a one on one method of training, which creates a greater closeness between the learner and the mentor/tutor, who can easily act as a literacy mediator in the literacy practices of their trade. This may save the learner from learning nonsensical literacy not relevant for his/her work. Take note that the process of learning literacy in this case would be informal, practised as part of the apprenticeship and not a special programme. In this way he can learn the literacy practices associated with driving such as reading the driving rules, interpreting road signs, processing vehicle documents, renewing his road licence and driving permits, etc., which can easily be mastered without the necessity for him technically getting involved with literacy. It can also be done through a literacy mediator.
Already from his daily experience of moving around town, he has mastered the road signs and regulations enough to enable him to operate as a driver. He has confidence in his ability to perform the above task or to learn the literacy tasks associated with the job quickly. He does not actually need to be technically literate in terms of actual reading and writing to be able to demonstrate his economic usefulness as a driver or motor mechanic or both. This emphasises the point that literacy is presently not very relevant for improving his economic well-being.
When it comes to handling situations which demand reading and writing he depends on his half-sisters as his literacy mediators. Again, this is not very unusual because most people who are not able to read and write do likewise. This however leaves one problem of personal independence or privacy for a non-literate, and this could explain why his single most important benefit of literacy is independence. For example, he would like to be able to read a medical document2 without referring it to another person, and to be able to move around freely without seeking help from another person. This independence could also help him to obtain a job. His prime concern is personal economic well-being and freedom. It could also be true that his choice of job training could have been influenced by his present situation of poverty. In such a situation, the need for survival is more crucial than educational needs.
It would be good to observe that the conversation revealed that the young man comes from a home and goes to work in a job that does not involve a lot of written materials. In addition he would prefer to do that type of work which will not involve a lot of written material (driving and motor mechanics). Finally, he operates in an economy, which is characterised by unemployment even for degree holders. In this kind of environment what chances are there for literacy to make any sensible contribution to his personal welfare and development? He does not come from a sophisticated background (most people in the family are not educated). He currently conducts himself in an unsophisticated ways (that is, he does not come into contact with printed matters and his life style does not encourage the use of such material). Literacy will therefore make very little difference for him. Effectively he rarely encounters frustration from being a non-literate. The chance is that he will not be able to sustain any literacy skill since there seems to be no pent-up energy waiting to be unleashed into action by acquiring literacy skills. He personally makes no pretence of this and his lack of interest in literacy shows it. This is what happens with most participants of some literacy programmes or with people who drop out of school early. This shows that the environment for practising literacy and the socio-economic conditions in which the literacy is going to be used are more important than the literacy skills themselves.
Kasule thinks those who are educated and able to read and write despise those who are not able to read and write. He also said that even if a graduate is jobless such a person is still better than he is. On his part he both admires and envies those who are educated and are able to read and write (literate). He feels very sorry for people who are like him. He perceives lack of reading and writing skills as being a disadvantageous and inferior position. This thinking is most likely an outcome of his reflection on the way society treats people who are not able to read and write (non-literate). This kind of thinking can be located within the autonomous model of literacy. The thinking within the autonomous model believes that economic progress can be made only at a certain level of literacy in the society. This is the dominant way of understanding literacy in Uganda currently. The evidence of this school of thought in Uganda can be seen in the government’s choice of approach for a literacy programme being implemented by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. The functional literacy approach to literacy is being used to implement the government literacy project. Okech (1999, p. 9) expressed this very clearly when he said as much in his evaluation report: “Illiteracy reduces whatever few chances are available for employment.” He went further, making the situation of the illiterate even more bleak when he said, “it (illiteracy) makes self-employment difficult since literacy and numerical skills are needed in order for one to run a successful business.” This is a very typical attitude of the autonomous model of literacy, which sees the consequence of literacy in terms of economic development. This perception makes the non-literate look at themselves as inferior beings, really unfortunate, needing help and not very useful to the economy of their country.
This is a very unfortunate perception of the literacy problem, and it is being perpetuated by the very system that purports to be solving the problem. All the time people who are not able to read and write are being informed generally by society and by the programmes which are designed to “save them from condemnation” that they have no way out except to learn how to read and write. This was properly expressed during the conversation when Kasule constantly maintained, sometimes with very strong sentimental statements, that those who are not able to read and write are condemned to poverty, and that no illiterate persons can become rich unless they are thieves. He feels so unhappy with his situation and for people who are in his kind of situation as well. It is incredibly amazing how a particular thought pattern pervades an entire community and informs all programme provision in some kind of self-destructive design. There is a possibility of non-literates sitting back in resignation and self-condemnation in the name of literacy. Literacy, in this perception, is counter-productive for development, which it purports to serve most. This school of thought, in addition to asserting that economic development is strongly dependent on literacy, also looks at cultures which are based on non-reading and writing literacy practices as inferior. It also excludes those who are not physically able to read and write from participation in the economic activities of their nations.
To avoid this scenario, literacy and literacy practices must first be properly infused into the community’s way of life before they can become relevant as a tool for development in that community. Of the two, literacy practices are the more important because naked literacy is not of any use to a person and therefore to development. So, instead of worrying about literacy it would be better to encourage the integration of literacy practices into the life of the community before commencing any literacy programmes. In other words, creating a literate environment is more important than creating literate people and throwing them into a literary desert. For example, computer literacy without the culture of using computers will atrophy, rendering the knowledge irrelevant to any human activity.
This means that literacy can only have meaning in a society that has fully incorporated literacy into its culture, especially rural life. That is, the culture is such that literacy is incorporated into its functioning or operations. In this way, a small dose of literacy skill will be enhanced by the participation of neo-literates in daily life which involves a lot of reading and writing. They will also have their capacity to participate in the development of the community improved. Literacy will only be a catalytic factor or a stimulant, and not a generator of development as is argued by the (autonomist) autonomous model of literacy
These changes should be accompanied by addressing some of the inherent structural problems which affect productivity and the distribution of resources within the economy, and other such factors that cause socio-economic inequalities and unemployment. If they are not eliminated, they will act as an impediment to literacy programme efforts. Literacy can then be introduced to facilitate egalitarian participation in the economy.
I now firmly conclude that literacy has no fixed definition and that its definition varies with the culture and that even within the same culture. The definition of literacy goes on changing over time as the society progresses culturally. Most intriguing is that even within the same time and culture, literacy can be defined differently by different literacy programme providers depending on the availability of resources for implementing the literacy programme. For example, it can be as simple as encouraging the development of mediator literacy networks, which will enable a particular community to access and share some useful information. Finally, there seems to be very little direct connection between literacy and development. Between the two, I would say that development promotes the literacy and literacy does not promote development. To help the Kasule’s we need to promote development based on sound literacy practices. This will naturally attract Kasule to literacy and we may not need to intimidate him into learning literacy.
Okech, et. al.(1999) An Evaluation of the Functional Literacy Programme. Kampala, Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development.
1 There are practically no adult literacy programmes for the urban poor in Uganda.
2 Kasule is not aware that the literacy practices in the hospital are illegible for most non-medical people.
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