Gratien Bambanota Mokonzi

The following paper is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there is a large number of adult illiterates. This will go on rising in the future because many people have no access to the education system even as children. Such a situation can only be changed successfully if a democratic society is created. Drawing on Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the author argues for an adult education that aims to enable people to change their situation and to help build a fairer society. Dr Gratien Bambanota Mokonzi teaches in the Faculty of Psychology and Education at the University of Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Besides teaching a course on literacy and development in the Faculty and conducting research in that field, he leads numerous training sessions for literacy educators, principally at the request of NGOs working in adult education.

The Need for Consciousness-raising Literacy in the Democratic Republic of Congo


Ever since the wind of perestroika blowing from the East obliged the late President Mobutu to decree in 1990 that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) should adopt democracy, there have been constant calls, particularly from political parties, civil society associations and certain political leaders, for the organisation of literacy programmes for adults. The National Sovereign Conference held in 1992 recom mended in fact, in the report of its Education Commission, that institutions should be created to combat primary and secondary illiteracy (relapse into illiteracy) throughout the country. Similarly, Article 44 of the new Constitution of the DRC promulgat ed on 9 March 2006 stipulates that

"the eradication of illiteracy is a national duty for which the Government shall draw up a specific programme".

The call for the eradication of illiteracy made at that particular period in the history of the DRC would seem to reflect a number of the convictions stated by Cairns (1989) in the form of questions:

"When the majority of the population is illiterate, how can the aims and ambitions of the nation be met? And in these circumstances, how can equitable development be achieved? How can individuals and society as a whole have any hope of genuine freedom?"

However, given the history of the DRC and the goals set for its future, particularly in the Constitution of the Third Republic, literacy needs to raise consciousness, to be "conscientising" , if it is to play the part generally assigned to it today (i.e., supporting democratisation and national reconstruction). This is the argument put forward in this article. Let us therefore begin by examining the current literacy situation in the DRC.

Literacy in the DRC

As we stated in an earlier article (Mokonzi, 2005a), according to the results of the survey carried out by UNICEF in the DRC in 2001, one adult in three (32 %) cannot read or write. As in most Third World countries, illiteracy affects women more than men. In consequence, 44 % of women as against 19 % of men are illiterate, a parity index of 0.69. 1 These UNICEF estimates broadly agree with those of UNESCO, which give an illiteracy rate for the DRC of 34.7 % among the adult population aged 15 years and above, over the period 2000-2004. Over the same period, the rate for men amounted to 20.2 %, and for women to 48.1 %, a gap which produces a parity index of 0.65.

Estimates by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics show that literacy work among adults is gradually improving the situation, so that the illiteracy rate for the adult population as a whole should be around 20.8 % in 2015, 13.8 % for men and 27.7 % for women. This will enable the DRC to meet the target of reducing the rate of illiteracy by 50 % in comparison with the situation in 2000, 2 together with a gradual reduction in the disparity between men and women ( cf. Table 1 and Figure 1).

Table 1: Changes in the illiteracy rate in the DRC between 1970 and 2015

Year Illiteracy rate
Illiteracy rate
Illiteracy rate
 1970 77.2 64.4 88.6 32.0
 1980 65.9 51.5 79.2 42.9
 1990 52.5 38.6 65.6 56.0
 1995 45.4 32.4 57.7 62.6
 2000 38.6 26.9 41.8 68.7
 2005 31.9 21.8 41.7 74.6
 2010 25.8 17.3 34.1 79.7
 2015 20.8 13.8 27.7 83.9

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Literacy and Non-Formal Education Section,

Figure 1: Changes in the illiteracy rate in the DRC between 1970 and 2015 by gender

Nonetheless, given the current socio-political context in the DRC, it is reasonable to doubt these estimates of the UNESCO Institute. For over 20 years, work with out-of-school young people and adults to combat illiteracy has been one of the most neglected sectors in the DRC. In consequence, the struggle against illiteracy relies largely, if not exclusively, on prevention, i.e., on primary education, which is not currently effective in either quantitative or qualitative terms.

In the light of this lack of effectiveness, the proportion of illiterates in the adult population will probably rise in future, unless action to combat illiteracy is stepped up in the meantime. In support of this forecast, let us look at two phenomena tending to result in illiteracy: non-enrolment and school drop-out. The net enrolment rate in primary education was 17 % in 2001, and the retention rate in fifth grade was 25 % ( cf. UNICEF MICS2 survey). The proportion of individuals who are potentially illiterate, and therefore not taught literacy by the formal system, can be deduced from these two figures ( cf. Figure 2).

Figure 2: Scale of illiteracy according to net enrolment rate 

Thus, if we take a population of 100 children of 6 years of age and an enrolment rate (Enr rate) of 17 %, we can say that 83 Congolese children will not have access to primary education. Thereafter, since drop-out is very high, some 75 % over the first four years of schooling, of the 17 children entering school, only 4 will reach primary grade 5 without repeating a year. In other words, 4 children out of 100 have the chance of escaping from illiteracy, while 96 are in danger of being illiterate in adulthood.

Even if we accept the gross enrolment rate of 84 % given by UNICEF, the situation is no better, since 79 children are still potential candidates for illiteracy ( cf. Figure 3).

Admittedly, the situation depicted above is not an exact picture of reality since some pupils reach Grade 5 after four years of schooling, and others after five, six or more. But that is beside the point. It is still the case that pupils reaching Grade 5, even if it is their sixth year at school, do not all escape illiteracy. In other words, some of them cannot read or write ( cf. Mokonzi & Issoy, 2002; Mokonzi, 2005c) because the quality of Congolese education has declined sharply over the last twenty and more years.

Figure 3: Scale of illiteracy according to gross enrolment rate

In short, the literacy situation in the DRC does not permit of the optimism suggested by the estimates from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

Consciousness-raising Literacy

If we want literacy to raise consciousness, we need to ask the following question:

"How can we make learning activities the instruments of change and the tools of liberation?"

This means thinking of reading, writing and calculation not as the destination but as the point of departure for an approach that aims to examine and improve the social situation in its entirety.

Seen from this angle, the definition of literacy adopted by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN, Nicaragua) is appropriate:

"Learning about life, because through the literacy process, the individual discovers his or her intrinsic value as a person, a driver of history, an actor called on to play a significant social role, and an individual with rights to claim and duties to fulfil".

(Cardinal & Millier, 1982)

In addition to reading, writing and calculation, consciousness-raising literacy therefore aims at moving from an old order, which debases people, to a new order that will liberate them. The old order to be dismantled and overturned is a society marked essentially by a range of social injustices, that is to say, by various forms of marginalisation and alienation, and subject not only to the oppression of the masses by a handful of individuals, but also, as a result, to widespread lethargy.

One of the harmful effects of this order is the creation in the oppressed of what Freire calls

"a dominated consciousness, a slave consciousness, a primary consciousness".

This leads them to internalise the opinion that the oppressor has of them, namely that

"they are good for nothing, know nothing and can learn nothing, are sick, idle and unproductive...". (Hautecoeur, 1978, p. 143)

Primary consciousness does not therefore allow the oppressed to have a critical understanding of reality because it prevents them from analysing it systematically and having an objective view of it.

On the other hand, the new order that needs to be established encourages the development of critical consciousness, and therefore of people's freedom. It leads to social justice and gives people back their humanity. Critical consciousness is the antithesis of dominated consciousness and permits rigorous analysis of reality in the aim of going to the root cause of social problems and of putting forward ap propriate solutions. This consciousness inspires a desire for change and accepts that oppression and poverty can be overcome.

In short, the acquisition of literacy is not (or should not be) a purely mechanical act by means of which one learns merely to read, write and add up, but it is also, and above all, a process of becoming aware. It is a process in which people learn to make a critical analysis of various problems (political, economic, cultural, etc.) in their community and to change reality. This is a fundamental principle: literacy and consciousness-raising must never be separated one from the other.

It should be said at this point that dictatorial regimes do not generally favour the systematic education of the masses, and still less the development of consciousness-raising literacy, since these give people the tools to examine and question power relationships.

The emergence of critical awareness through consciousness-raising literacy requires learners to go through several different stages of learning, participating in pre-literacy, literacy and post-literacy.

In pre-literacy, target learners need to be encouraged to take part in so-called "preliminary studies" , by exploring their surroundings, identifying obstacles to development and examining the motivations of participants. These studies are intended to lead to the development of a literacy programme focusing on the problems of the population. In the context of consciousness-raising literacy, particular attention needs to be devoted, according to the Freire approach, to identifying the issues affecting them as part of these preliminary studies.

The method for researching these issues suggested by Freire requires the involvement of both teacher and learners:

"the more people are actively involved in researching their issues, the deeper becomes their awareness of reality, and by spelling out the issues that are meaningful for them, they take control of them".

(Freire, 1972, retranslation)

In literacy, learners take part in lessons in the form of discussion and debate: discussion of the generative topics collated during the preliteracy stage.

Taking part in this discussion makes it possible to analyse the social situation systematically, and this leads, in turn, to critical understanding. Such a teaching method means establishing a particular relationship between the teacher and the learner. Rather than a top-down relationship between someone who knows everything and someone who knows nothing, a dialectical relationship is needed between two people learning together to analyse the (specific) social situation and to suggest how to move beyond it, to grow and develop. Dictatorial teaching, which is inherent in a dehumanising society, must therefore be replaced by democratic teaching, which is inherent in a humanising society.

Lastly, in post-literacy, learners may take part via discussion clubs. These can bring together neo-literates and other members of the community and can aim at discussing societal problems, proposing appropriate solutions, and making the commitment to apply them. In this stage too, preference should be given to the discussion method. Furthermore, it is helpful to read newspapers, to listen to the radio and to analyse statements by politicians and senior administrators, etc., in order to collect topics for discussion.

The Need for Consciousness-raising Literacy in the DRC

The history of the DRC, like that of Africa, is composed of a series of brutalities: brutal slave trade, brutal colonisation, brutal struggle for independence, brutal rebellions, brutal dictatorship, etc. Because of these brutalities, the DRC has gradually become an immobile society, that is to say, a society full of contradictions that prevent both the liberation of individuals and the progress of society as a whole.

This was one of the findings of the 1992 National Sovereign Conference of the DRC. The report of the Education Commission contains the following statement:

"Congolese society is a dominated society, immobilised by all kinds of contradictions and paradoxes. It reproduces itself automatically and is becoming more febrile because it is fed on an ideology of exploitation and enslavement. It is also characterised by a symbiosis of all forms of evil in all areas of life. It is a society in which the universal values of truth, goodness and beauty have vanished from the scale of reference. A society in which the interests and functions of the state have been privatised by a minority, and the people are disoriented and subjected to all kinds of chicanery, and are dying in a dehumanising jungle as a result."

In the individual, this situation leads to submission, fear and fatalism... in a word, the dominated consciousness that we spoke about earlier. The statements made by the political leaders freshly installed in power in the new Third Republic therefore stress the need for a change in mind-set if national reconstruction is to be possible.

However, this change in mind-set itself requires the emergence of critical awareness. The DRC today requires citizens who identify with the following discourse:

"It is I who will become aware of my needs, my potential and my shortcomings; it is I who will mobilise myself and acquire certain tools; after a given time, it is I who will make a commitment to the development of my environment and social change".

(Hautecoeur, 1978, p. 144)

In terms of literacy, the development of such an awareness cannot come about through traditional literacy classes, nor through functional literacy restricted to production (for economic purposes), but demands consciousness-raising literacy, combining reflection with action as part of a process of transforming the social situation in its entirety: literacy which, as Blot (n.d.) states, invites neo-literates to ask themselves questions about the nature of the society in which they live, and to become involved in the organisations of that society in order to change it.

The current historical phase of the DRC is conducive to the systematic organisation of such literacy activities. The history of literacy has in fact shown that the mobilisation of resources, the concentration of energy, enthusiasm and commitment are only found during periods of radical change in society (Cairns, 1989). This is particularly evident in the experience of the USSR (in the 1917 Revolution), China (in the 1949 Revolution), Nicaragua (in the Sandinista Revolution), etc.

The phase of its history that the DRC is currently going through is surely favourable to the organisation of consciousness-raising literacy campaigns. According to the spirit of the new Constitution adopted by referendum in December 2005, the Congolese people intend in the near future to build a state:

  • in which national unity is consolidated
  • which is resolutely engaged in the battle for development
  • in which fundamental rights are guaranteed
  • which promotes parity between men and women
  • and in which pluralist democracy is established

While having the ambition of becoming a powerful state, the DRC also wishes to have a positive relationship with other countries in Africa and the world, and to be internationally competitive at the same time.

There is indeed a growing feeling that the majority, if not all, of the Congolese people aspire to radical change. The acceptance of the new Constitution by 80 % in the 2005 referendum eloquently shows that the people are fully behind the Third Republic, which intends, as indicated above, to base itself on the rule of law. It is this aspiration which was seen already in the memoranda addressed to the late President Mobutu in 1990, which subsequently underlay the general and sectoral policy declarations and the proceedings of the National Sovereign Conference, and which is apparent again today in the criticisms addressed by the average man and woman to the leaders newly installed in power.

Ultimately, in this current phase of political and trade union pluralism, we need people to have critical awareness. This is all the more important because when politicians seek public support for supposed change, they may be less interested in freeing people from oppression than in winning them over and in gaining power to satisfy their own interests. Consciousness-raising literacy has been shown to be one of the methods of forming this critical awareness, which people need if they are to be free for the long term.


The political desire and the aspiration for change are key factors in the success of literacy programmes. These factors are currently evident in the DRC, in the new Constitution, which raises combating illiteracy to the level of a national duty, in policy statements by politicians, and in declarations by civil society bodies. However, given the long history of domination experienced by the Congolese people, the kind of literacy that should be offered them has to be consciousness-raising, has to allow them to develop critical awareness so that they can dismantle the status quo and establish a new order that is more humanising.

Consciousness-raising literacy means involving the target population in all stages of learning, so that they take part in the design of the programme, particularly in deciding on the set of issues to be addressed, in discussion of generative topics during lessons, and finally, in debate via discussion clubs. It is this kind of literacy that will support today's nascent democracy and the urgent need for national reconstruction. It is therefore an area of work of huge importance for the Third Republic.


Blot, J.Y. (n.d.). Une alphabétisation libératrice pour transformer Haïti . Le monde alphabétique , p.86-92.

Cairns, J.C. (1989). Literacy campaigns: Assessment and lessons for the future. Prospects, XIX(4) .

Cardinal, F & Millier, V. (1982). Nicaragua: literacy and revolution. Prospects, XII(2).

Conférence Nationale Souveraine (1992). Commission de l'éducation. Rapport final, Kinshasa.

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed . Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Hautecoeur, J.P. (1978). Analphabétisme et alphabétisation. Québec: Service Général des Communications du Ministère de l'Education.

Mokonzi, Gr. B. (2005a). Les exclus de l'école congolaise. Ecole Démocratique. Hors série. 9-15.

Mokonzi, Gr. B. (2005b). L'éducation pour tous d'ici 2015: quelle chance de réussite pour la République Démocratique du Congo? Ecole Démocratique. Hors série. 4-8.

Mokonzi, Gr. B. (2005c). L'école primaire congolaise et la lutte contre l'analphabétisme. Ecole Démocratique. Hors série. 31-35.

Mokonzi, Gr. B. & Issoy, A. A. (2002). Contribution de l'enseignement primaire à l'alphabétisme: cas des écoles primaires de la ville de Kisangani en République Démocratique du Congo. Scientia Paedagogica Experimentalis , 39(2) , 181-195.

UNESCO (2006). EFA Global Monitoring Report 2006 . Paris: UNESCO.

UNICEF (2002). Enquête nationale sur la situation des enfants et des femmes (MICS2/2001). Rapport d'analyse. Kinshasa: UNICEF.

1 This index is obtained from the relationship between the literacy rates for women (56 %) and men (81 %).

2 This is one of the goals of Education for All (EFA) adopted by the World Education Forum held in Dakar from 26 to 28 April 2000.