Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Beyond reading, writing & empowerment: Thoughts for International Literacy Day 2010

Until I started knocking on people’s office doors to ask about what was being done to celebrate this year’s International Literacy Day in Malawi, September 8th, I hadn’t thought of how differently various people might interpret the concept “literacy”. Picking up the phone to tell a director of a ministry department about what I had come for, one secretary didn’t bat an eyelid to add “adult” to the word. It didn’t matter that I repeated the phrase “International Literacy Day” several times. And she was not the only one. Several people heard it as “International Adult Literacy Day”.

Obviously a basic meaning of “literacy” starts out as learning how to read and write, and in Malawian discourse, the type of literacy most commonly heard on the street and across the airwaves is “Adult Literacy”, Sukulu ya Kwacha. No doubt adult literacy is crucial an issue as is emerging literacy, what we teach toddlers in nurseries and Standard 1 classrooms. But literacy is an extremely broad term, and covers probably each and every area that requires specialized knowledge across the breadth of human productivity. Viewing literacy in this manner forces us to consider the importance of learning more complicated knowledge systems beyond the ability to read and write as a child or as an adult literacy learner. It is not enough to know how to read and write; one needs to develop life-long intellectual habits of reading regularly and utilizing modern technologies including computers and the Internet.

A crucial factor in developing and maintaining such intellectual habits is a thriving book industry.  There was a time in Malawi when we had what could be considered a thriving book industry, considering our development stage and years from independence at that time. When I was growing up in the then Municipality of Zomba, I had access to four excellent bookshops, and a well-stocked library, within walking distance. A Malawi Book Service bookstore easily competed with a Times Bookshop a stone-throw away from each other along the M1 road in the centre of town. At Zomba Zero the CCAP Church ran a CLAIM Bookshop not too far from the Times and MBS Bookshops, and straight down the road from Zomba Zero to Chancellor College was the MBS University Bookstore.

It was the same when I travelled to Blantyre, where I was able, in one day, to visit Times Bookshop, Central Bookshop, and a few other bookstores and libraries. Even when I travelled to rural parts of Malawi such as Mulanje, Ntcheu or Kasungu, I was still able to find well-stocked bookshops ran by the MBS, CLAIM, or Times Bookshop. Today, only the CLAIM bookshop and the National Library Branch still stand in Zomba. The Malawi Book Service and the Times Bookshop no longer exist. Central Bookshop had two shops in Blantyre and one in Lilongwe. Today two of those don’t exist anymore. When I visited Maneno Bookshop in Lilongwe in June, I saw more books from other countries, and very few from Malawi. It was the same at the lone Central Bookshop at the Chichiri Mall in Blantyre. At Maneno I saw children’s books from Kenya, and almost none from Malawi. At Central Bookshop I was told that people called to ask about the next issue of People Magazine, while stacks of Malawian magazines lay unsold.

There are reasons of political economy and recent socio-economic changes that explain problems in the book industry in Malawi. This is despite the gallant efforts of the Malawi Writers Union (MAWU) and the Book Publishers Association of Malawi (BPAM) to keep book production in the country afloat. The National Library Service has also grown in strength and outreach, as have several efforts by enterprising Malawians who establish private bookshops and open libraries in schools. The last ten years have seen the introduction of Teacher Development Centres (TDCs) that serve between ten and twenty neighboring schools, and libraries are an unfailing feature of these centres.

The most inspiring Malawian success story on the international science and technology circuit, that of William Kamkwamba, owes its origins to a TDC library. It is a pity that none of the bookstores I have visited in Blantyre, Zomba and Lilongwe recently stock Kamkwamba’s co-authored book (with Bryan Mealer) The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Kamkwamba’s story always elicits jaw-dropping silence and attention, whether here in Malawi or in the United States. There his book has become a best seller. I look forward to the day when every young Malawian and school-teacher will read the book and feel inspired by how a quest to enhance one’s literacy and knowledge wowed the world.

Part of Kamkwamba’s story was made possible through the power of the Internet, in particular Malawian and African bloggers. Digital literacy is a must for any society that wishes to enter the 21st century. Digital literacy involves knowledge of how to use computers, which can start with as simple a step as setting up an email account. It is disappointing that very few Malawian teachers have email accounts, let alone access to the Internet. This is understandable for teachers working in the remotest parts of Malawi where trading centres don’t even have electricity. But many centres that have electricity have seen entrepreneurial Malawians set up Internet cafes, with Internet charges as low as K5 ($0.03) per minute. I know of one teacher who taught in Kasungu in the early 2000s when there was no Internet cafĂ© at Kasungu town. This teacher would take the bus every Saturday morning and go to Lilongwe, a 2-hour journey each way, so he could access the Internet. But I also know teachers today who reside within walking distance of free Internet access, and they have never used it.

Young Malawians, like their counterparts the world over, are taking to the Internet and 21st century technology much more rapidly than grown ups. I know of primary school pupils who have email addresses, and their teachers don’t. It is the same with other educators in the system, and in the society at large. Everyone who has a business in Malawi has a cellphone, which they proudly brand on their products, shop walls and in newspaper advertisements. It is still very rare, in 2010, to see Malawian advertisements carrying email addresses and website URLs, notwithstanding the proliferation of relatively cheap Internet access in cafes across trading centres in almost every district.

This year’s theme for the International Literacy Day is “Literacy and Women’s Empowerment.” UNESCO in Paris will on Wednesday September 8 award Literacy prizes to women’s projects that are promoting women’s empowerment through literacy. A Malawian group, Coalition of Women Farmers (COWFA), is this year receiving the 2010 Honourable Mention of the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy for its Women Land Rights Project (WOLAR).

These Malawian women have charted a new way of looking at literacy. They are challenging our stereotypes of women as helpless, hapless victims who are hopelessly disempowered. They are showing us how empowerment is not a one-way, transmission-style process, but rather a self-motivated aspiration. As Julius Nyerere once wrote, people cannot be developed. They can only develop themselves. It is the same with empowerment. Women cannot be empowered by someone else; they can only empower themselves.

A profile describing the project undertaken by the Coalition of Women Farmers observes that only four percent of Malawian women own land, yet 70 percent of Malawian subsistence farmers are women. But it is also well known that Malawian women take up the responsibility of providing food for their families. Given the food crises Malawi has experienced in the first half of this decade, and the surpluses of the last four years, the empowerment of women in land ownership is one way of establishing a social structure that could ensure that food is available to more Malawians throughout the year. Using literacy to achieve that goal reinforces the understanding that reading, writing and numeracy should not be for their own sake, but rather for greater transformation and socio-economic well-being. Literacy is part of the framework within which each of the eight Millennium Development Goals ought to be understood and integrated, if they are to be seen as more than top-down, donor-driven rhetoric. 

That is how we ought to look at literacy, and address what many Malawians see as the absence of a reading culture. We should view literacy as a process of not just knowledge consumption but production as well, embracing new technologies to facilitate grassroots participation and promote human dignity, especially that of women, children, and those with special needs. More importantly, we should use modern literacies for the promotion of social justice and uMunthu-peace.  As we Malawians like to say, kuphunzira sikutha; learning never ends.