Midzi Davidson David

Following a review of the historical background to the Zimbabwe ­Literacy Campaign, the following paper examines the major problems that have arisen in the literacy campaign in Zimbabwe, and suggests that the authorities reconsider a number of recommendations made in the past. The author is Chairperson of the Department of Adult ­Education, University of Zimbabwe, and has been involved in various basic literacy programmes.

The Zimbabwe Literacy Campaign: Problems and Ways forward

It is pertinent first to look at the historical dimension of education in Zimbabwe, before and after independence. Before independence, the education system was geared primarily to meeting the socio-economic and political needs of the White minority rulers. The segregated provision for Africans was inferior to that for Europeans, as part of the policy of keeping the majority African population subservient to the minority. The result of this denial of education was exploitation, manipulation and oppression.

The Literacy Campaign in Zimbabwe

After almost a century of colonial rule, the new Government took steps to reverse this situation. In recognition of the importance of literacy for the overall development of the country, the Government launched a mass literacy campaign in 1983 with the aim of eradicating illiteracy within a five-year period. This was a challenge, as out of the four million people in the productive age group, 2.5 million were deemed illiterate or semi-literate. However, although the term “campaign” was used, it did not share the features of a campaign identified by such writers as H.S. Bhola. The time frame was short, as it should be in a campaign, but the nation did not focus its energies on the task by committing all the resources at its disposal to large-scale activities. Zimbabwean politicians were reluctant to give the campaign the necessary political and material backing because they were aware of the danger of raising expectations too high: as Nyerere observed, if people are aroused and cannot get the change they want, they will become discontented.

When the literacy campaign in Zimbabwe was launched by the then Prime Minister Mugabe in 1983, he directed that responsibility for running the campaign should be shared between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Community Development and Women’s Affairs. This marriage ended in 1988, when the Ministry of Education took over the campaign in an attempt to resolve some of the difficulties caused by joint responsibility.

The Strategy Adopted towards Learners

Nyerere, Bhola and others agree that planning with the people will undoubtedly produce better results than planning for the people. In the case of adult education on a scale as large as the Zimbabwean campaign, the potential clientele differs so greatly in ability, age, previous experience, etc., that providers face intractable problems in trying to plan centrally. However, it is evident that the Zimbabwean campaign was launched without prior consultation with the supposed beneficiaries. Needs analysis, planning, publicity and evaluation proved inadequate, and the objectives were not agreed between the organizers, the educators and the learners. It is suggested in the research literature that the involvement of these three groups is essential to the planning of an adult education programme. The top-down approach used in planning the campaign in Zimbabwe therefore caused problems because the authorities did not know what the people wanted.

There was hence a general confusion of aims. The approach adopted by Zimbabwe in its literacy campaign was officially in line with the Government’s socialist ideology, while the environment in which it operated was essentially pro-capitalist. The majority of participants associated the campaign with academic achievement, and wished to learn in a formal setting, rather than in whatever accommodation was available. As a result, the pedagogical approach was neither sufficiently academic to satisfy learners’ aspirations nor functional enough to meet the organizers’ objectives. And if learners’ individual goals are in conflict with the organizers’ goals, then a programme may be a waste of valuable resources.

People’s reasons for joining a literacy programme are more complex than is suggested by this analysis, however. Their motives vary widely, along with their expectations, so that the literacy planners in Zimbabwe should also have planned according to the different needs of the learners. There can be no central prescription in adult education programmes.

As a result of these problems, when the campaign failed to fulfil its stated goal, it turned into a continuing programme. In essence, however, nothing changed in terms of approach or strategy. The programme, as it now stands, has simply taken over some of the problems of the campaign, most of which emanate from the lack of involvement of the three essential groups of players mentioned above.

Problems with the Structure of the Campaign

There were a number of fundamental problems, some of which became apparent early in the campaign:

  • Inequitable distribution of literacy materials: there appeared to be an abundance of literacy materials in one province and no materials in another.
  • Coordination of the campaign between the two ministries: neither ministry wanted to accept the blame for any problem that appeared. It was also difficult to coordinate the 14 other ministries and non-governmental organizations that were members of the National Literacy Coordinating Council. There was ineffectiveness and apathy in the coordinating committees at provincial, district and village ­level, so that the campaign lost its momentum.
  • Bureaucracy: delays were experienced in decision-making and the implementation of tasks because of the bureaucratic procedures within the ministries. The first National Literacy Campaign was, for example, extended by three years. This caused a significant number of participants to drop out of classes as their expectations were dashed by the delays in the evaluation exercise. They could not tell whether they were making progress or not.
  • Voluntary teaching and attendance: this strategy was unsuitable and unacceptable in a people’s society, as both voluntary tutors and voluntary learners develop a “take it or leave it” attitude. Both tutors and learners were against this principle, which also led to widespread drop-out.
  • High staff turnover: because of low motivation among District literacy coordinators and voluntary tutors, there was a high turnover among the former, and widespread drop-out among the latter. Most of the professionals in the literacy campaign left for greener pastures because of the problems which the campaign was facing.
  • Mobilization for the campaign: although the masses at the grassroots generally became aware of the campaign, they lacked the ­support of the authorities at the national and provincial level. The mobilization of resources for the campaign was weak because the two ministries were doing their mobilization differently while pursuing the same goal.
  • Publicity: the campaign needed, but did not receive, strong and sustained support from the mass media. These are the most powerful tool for communicating to a large audience, but the authorities did little to make use of them.

The Problem of Funding

Resources for adult education are always laughably small in relation to need. However, as Nyerere and other campaigners have realized, adult education cannot happen without resources. National funding for the Zimbabwean campaign did not match that devoted to students in the mainstream, i.e. in the traditional formal sector, and most of the funds for the campaign came from external sources, chiefly UNESCO and Unicef.

This situation was made worse by the droughts of 1983-84 and 1992-93, when funds for many programmes were redirected to drought relief. The economic structural adjustment programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank also had a negative effect on adult education because they obliged the Government to cut spending. One of the first victims was the literacy campaign. The budget allocation for nonformal education, and for literacy in particular, was therefore not commensurate with the very ambitious targets set by the planners of the literacy campaign. The result was inactivity in literacy classes.

The Way Forward

The discussion has identified major deficiencies in the literacy campaign in Zimbabwe. The purpose is to enable those who theorize about learning, and those who actually design learning programmes, to do so in a more informed manner.

Some of the problems bedevilling the literacy campaign in Zimbabwe were of our own making, as well as being caused by historical and political developments. Socio-economic factors, environmental factors and the pedagogical approach adopted all contributed to the difficulties.

The best starting point for the future is to reconsider some of the many recommendations made at numerous literacy workshops and seminars at home and abroad. The following are among the most significant:

  • The authorities should make use of the experiences gained since the introduction of the campaign and set new objectives. These should encourage progress, since literacy is not one identifiable goal but part of a continuous learning process. Suitable promotional language should not portray illiteracy as a social illness which can be permanently eradicated with the right intervention. This can only lead to disillusionment and damage to long-term learning efforts. Adult literacy should not be viewed as a prerequisite but as a concomitant of other development programmes.
  • National commitment and support are essential for any significant literacy effort. This commitment should be applied not only to literacy as such, but also to other areas of social development which are known to make a positive contribution to literacy.
  • Adult education professionals should be hired to lead, direct and evaluate the literacy programme at national, provincial, district and village level. However, this policy should not prevent non-professional educators from participating in the teaching/learning process. Non-professionals can greatly extend the coverage of campaign ­activities.
  • Salaries for these professionals should be commensurate with their qualifications. In this way, staff retention would be enhanced.
  • A coordinating body is needed. This should replace the National Literacy Coordinating Council, which was ill-funded and ill-equipped to execute its functions effectively and efficiently.
  • Publicity is crucial to the success of a campaign. The mass media should therefore be used to the fullest extent possible. The success stories of Coca-Cola and Colgate Palmolive illustrate the power of the media. In Zimbabwe today, most of the general public refer to any soft drink as Coca-Cola, even though there may be ten different flavours on the shelf. The same goes for different brands of toothpaste, which are all referred to as Colgate. If literacy campaigners can hire professional communicators, similar levels of awareness may be achieved.
  • People’s differing needs must be met. Despite the use of mass publicity, programmes need to be offered regularly in different locations and tailored to people’s widely varying needs.
  • Advice and counselling should be available. If the necessary funds can be found and training given, guidance should be available locally so that potential learners can develop realistic educational plans and be encouraged to overcome anxieties.
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