The Literacy-Language Story
During my career at the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) in Paris, I had the opportunity to follow the literacy–language story from an international angle and so I offer these comments by way of history and context.
1. The success of Tanzania’s literacy programs for schoolchildren and adults during the Mwalimu years (mid 1960s-mid 1980s) aroused great interest and respect at UNESCO, both among the member states and within the Education Sector in the Secretariat.
2. It was obvious to literacy experts from around the world that the fact that these programs were carried out in Kiswahili was a major reason for the success. The advantage of teaching any subject, above all literacy and numeracy, in the language already spoken and understood by students and teachers was clear. This perception led to the design and promotion of mother-tongue methodologies as these provided the fast track to achieving literacy. Of course, in the case of Tanzania, Kiswahili was not strictly speaking the unique mother tongue but it was as good as any because it was used in schools and was the the national and official language of the country’s adults.
3. Tanzania’s Adult Education Campaigns were also recognised for the way in which lessons were organised and teaching materials tailored for adults, mainly peasants, (textbooks, radio programs, night classes, reading groups etc.) . It was further noted that in setting up the Institute for Adult Education very early in the campaign, Tanzania had provided an essential institutional base from which to plan, finance and monitor such a nation-wide effort.
4. By 1980, Tanzania had achieved 90% literacy among schoolchildren, girls and boys alike, and about 80% literacy among adults. In Sub-Saharan Africa and among the Least Developing Countries (LDC) Group, Tanzania was alone in having a linguistic medium which it had put to good use despite very meagre resources in (hu)manpower and money to start with.
5. The only other success story was CUBA. When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, the country was 50% illiterate, especially in the rural areas where the majority and the many Cubans of African descent lived. In 1960, Castro spoke at length about his country’s ambitions at the UN General Assembly in New York and promised his mesmerised audience that the Cuban revolution would eliminate illiteracy in one year.
6. The following year, 1961 became the Year of Education. All secondary schools and institutions of higher learning were closed and the students, mainly teenagers, were sent into the countryside with special uniforms and an oil lamp to use at night. It was not easy for these teenagers and some 40 of them died but by the end of the year, some 100,000 student teachers had crash-coursed one million peasants to read and write and count.
7. Not only was illiteracy eliminated but Cuba went on to develop a unique system of life-long learning and continuous education which remains FREE and unmatched in its Caribbean and wider Latin American (and US) neighbourhood.
Of course, this drastic and spectacular campaign was only possible in Cuba and only during the first revolutionary flush (as Castro himself was to admit some years later). For most developing countries, the Tanzanian system was the more rational choice.
8. Tanzania, however, was not so lucky as it turned out. At the peak of its success in the field of literacy, it suffered severe body blows delivered in the period 1980-85 by way of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and the subsequent political changes which moved its priorities from state-led to privatised management in education. Thanks to massive –and unwarranted-cuts in education budgets AND unrelenting demands for debt service, forced by the World Bank/IMF’s one-size-fits-all recipes year after year, literacy rates among children plummeted by 30%.
9. This was just the beginning. And Tanzania was not alone; all over Africa, no matter what the political character of the government, education and health budgets were slashed by up to 40% and poverty levels increased. By the mid-1990s, the situation in some countries moved from the absurd to the tragic as in Mozambique, for example, where 33% of its export earnings went to service the debt and 3% to education and health sectors for the citizens!
10. Although the Washington Consensus changed its punitive pressure after 1986 when the Mwinyi government signd on its dotted lines,the national education system has never really recovered in quality and in leadership, thanks to deliberate attacks from the usual suspects for the usual ideological reasons. The unregulated, ‘anything goes’ privatisation of education has done further damage, especially in the two areas primarily responsible for earlier successes, in Tanzania and Cuba, namely political will from the leadership and state accountability. Free and universal primary education disappeared and absence from school set in for girls kept at home by parents unable to afford the cost. By 1998, Tanzania had to turn to the International Labor Organisation (ILO) to deal with the problem of child labour which was becoming acute especially around the expanding mining sector locations.
11. The cynical manipulation practiced by the rich Western countries during those heady SAPs days (when they ganged up behind the Bank and Fund against countries like Tanzania and Jamaica that openly questioned their anti-education agendas) was degrading to observe. And listening to their mantra blaming state-promoted education for being « too socialistic » was also painful, considering that in every single Northern country demanding privatisation for Africa it was the state that had-and still played the leading role in educating the vast majority of its citizens through the public school system.
12. The impact of this hypocritical policy on Tanzania’s entire education system has been devastating and long-lasting. It has at best caused confusion about the purpose of education and at worst, has led to abysmal drops in the standards of teaching. (Under new leadership, the World Bank finally admitted that it had « misread » the situation in Africa.)
Literacy is not a banal skill; literacy and numeracy are the first lights of dawn that switch on in our otherwise sleeping brains. To be able to read, write and count is to have access to our own human potential in order to take ownership of our own existence and no longer be creatures at the mercy of ignorance, fear, exploitation and violence. Literacy is not only life-changing, it is above all brain-changing for it is the key to the opening up of the human brain’s extraordinary range of capacities and functions.
Similarly, language is not merely a means of communication; language structures the mind and opens up the memory; language translates the past and envisages the future and makes understandable the world beyond. And this is what humanises us so that we do not become talibanised; so that we can conceptualise the vision and create the motivation «to follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bounds of human thought. »
Where are the teachers that can help our kids and teenagers do just that? For let us make no mistake: an education system is only as good as its teachers.