Literacy: African style

The annual Time of The Writer Festival, held in Durban recently, was a time to reflect on the works of emerging and established writers from around the world. It was a time to showcase the power and meaning behind the written word, and the general process of writing. For a week, what has taken human society thousands of years to develop and cultivate – writing – became the centre of attraction.

Yet despite my admiration for the directors and participants of the festival, I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of a proper and full address of a pressing issue on the African continent: literacy. It is all very well and good trying to promote a culture of reading, but literacy and being able to read comprise two very different aspects of processing the written word.

Africa’s illiterate are a segment of the population who hold an unfairly inferior position within the mind of society. Millions of people are left within a sphere of “being” that many people fail to fully comprehend and understand. “Exactly, what is literacy?” is what I kept asking myself during and after the festival.

“What does it mean and require in order for a person be considered literate?” For most of the modern world, we consider literacy as being primarily about being able to communicate sufficiently well in a colonial language. Ah, there is the catch. Speak and write a colonial language, and you are literate – and (although through our ignorance) lose part of your identity. This is the part of literacy that for me, most people fail to understand – that language and being able to use language comprises more than just words and communication, it comprises our identity, and this is where I feel that festivals such as Time of the Writer could greatly improve their cause. By actively debating what constitutes literacy, we could perhaps come to a more appropriate solution to illiteracy.

A possible solution? Literacy: African style. Use what we have in Africa to solve Africa’s literacy problem. Instead of using European languages as a benchmark of whether one is literate, shouldn’t Africans make use of their own languages and develop their own, culturally sensitive, definition of what constitutes being literate?


One of the writers featured in the festival, Ngugi wa Thiong’o stressed the importance of writing in one’s mother tongue. It is a concept that governments should explore further in their quest to bring all the people under the literacy wing. We should not forget that literacy incorporates identity as well as ability. In Africa’s plight to meet the requirements of the working world, it should not forget the importance of considering this deeper aspect concerning literacy. In other words, when heads of state, delegates and spokespeople speak of eradicating illiteracy in Africa, they must remember what comes with the promotion of languages. They should consider exactly what they mean when they install programmes that will solve this problem.

This aside, there is a more “tangible” motivation to promoting literacy and learning in African languages. Firstly, many studies have shown that by teaching in the mother tongue of learners, learning is greatly enhanced. And secondly, it gives the learner a sense of cultural identity. Granted that there is no one superior culture, Africa should not ignore the reality that there are many cultures on the continent, and that as globalisation sweeps across its soil, it cannot allow its many cultures to simply evaporate as everyone whips out their pistols to slaughter the illiteracy bad-guy.

So what are governments doing about literacy? Some of the writers expressed that governments throughout Africa are not doing enough to promote African literacy, in African terms. Instead literacy is handed over to the Western canon, and African languages are left in the background as mere conversational languages. Renowned South African author Ronnie Govender said that African languages need to come into their own, and that we need to allow them that right. However, allowing them this right seems to be somewhat complicated. There are more than 2 000 languages spoken in Africa. And therefore naturally, the question is, where do governments, without enough funding and resources, begin to promote African literacy? According to Senegalese author, Aminata Sow Fall, the promotion of literacy is one of the priorities of the Senegalese government, yet South African writer and journalist Fred Khumalo expressed concern at budget cuts that are going to reduce availability of urgently needed library material to South African students. So then in addition to the previous question, one must also ask, what are governments doing with the funds available for promoting literacy?

Perhaps the solution is to look to the authors and writers of Africa, to take on the initiative. Aminata Sow Fall asked that her last two novels be produced in such a way that costs were reduced, and therefore made a little easier to access by people. Perhaps in order to develop an African literacy, authors and writers need to first write more material in their mother tongue, and thus show the people of Africa the need for multilingualism in combating illiteracy and in so doing providing material to promote and develop literacy, African style.

Jonathan Dockney is a student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

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