The Unseen Issue - Africa’s Massive Illiterate Youth PopulationSep 08, 2021 05:00PM ● By Belinda Nzeribe
I met Sunny, a sixteen-year-old boy at one of our literacy intervention projects in a Lagos city public school. When he joined our remedial program he was still reading at a kindergarten level, and he had less than three years to finish secondary school. Every day he came to learn how to read in that small, stuffy class with students way younger than him. He never missed a class, and months later, as we prepared to round off our literacy project in that school, he was confidently reading his class texts and helping with the other slower students. The next year we returned for another literacy project in the school, and Sunny came to visit our team. He proudly told us he came third in his class in the last examination. This was an amazing achievement from a boy who could barely make sense of the words in his textbooks and was only reading two to three-letter words the previous year.
There are millions of Sunny’s in public schools, from metropolitan Lagos to the rural village of Binaba in Ghana, who fall behind in their reading levels and are unable to learn in class but still attend school every day. Schooling, but not learning. One day they may decide to drop out after failing too many subjects. Or they are moved from class to class until they graduate but remain illiterate. In these fast-changing times, how can anyone rise above their station if they cannot read to access knowledge, or utilize technological tools? In the words of Frederick Douglas, knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.
Literacy is a human right. The sheer number of low-literate children in schools who aren’t learning is shameful. Schooling and not learning is immoral. One of the ways used to perpetuate the 400 years of Black slavery in American colonies was forbidding slaves to learn to read or write. Clarence Lusane, a professor of political science at Howard University, explained that slave masters believed an educated Black slave was a dangerous person. In some colonies, teaching a slave to be literate was a crime, and the tutor either received a substantial fine, served prison time, or got twenty lashes. The slave who was being taught suffered physical harm, often losing body parts for daring to learn to read or write.
It’s 2021, and a shocking number of Africa youths can’t read and can’t write a coherent, short, simple sentence on their daily activities. With the challenges of poverty, overcrowded classrooms, and unqualified teachers, six years of primary school is not enough for many children to build literacy skills. There are other obstacles to educating young people in Africa's public schools: weak pre-primary foundation, indifferent education administrators, ineffective or zero remedial learning programs, poor learning infrastructure, poverty, and insecurity. In northern Nigeria, the kidnapping of schoolchildren by bandits and Boko Haram has disrupted safe schooling in the region. Going to school is a life-threatening endeavor for every child.
But, out of all these challenges, it is the indifference to the struggling reader that is most concerning. What is the essence of going through school and leaving barely literate, with nothing to show for all the years of attendance? In Lagos, I observed an inability to empathize with the plight of illiterate students. With an almost non-existent literacy remedial program in place, the mentality guiding the education system seemed to suggest, “You can’t read? Too bad we can’t help you. Promoted to the next class.” It’s free education after all, and there are numerous poor children waiting for their turn.
Most children who attend public schools in the country are from the low-income strata – wards of security men, petty traders, artisans, cleaners, drivers, low-skilled laborers. In many cases, the children are sent from villages to work as house helps in middle-class homes. The situation is compounded when the public school system is unable to brighten the future of these low-literate children. It’s easier to upgrade school infrastructure that’s fallen apart, especially when a new government is in place. Organize inadequate training programs for the teachers and give prizes to some of them to ginger the unproductive others. But rarely is the literacy of at-risk children a priority. They seem to be forgotten, like when you keep waxing the body of a car but never clean out the inside.
A simple solution is to invest more in the education of Africa’s young people. In its Agenda 2063, the African Union recognizes that the future of the continent, in part, rests on the skills, knowledge, talents, and commitment of its young people. The public school system must stop giving the cold shoulder and collaborate with private institutions to specifically increase literacy rates in schools. But it is also unconscionable to rely solely on external charity to fix the literacy challenge. The state has the responsibility of instituting a remedial learning program for its high-need students. An illiterate child may become an illiterate adult. Literacy is hope. Every child should at least complete primary school education with the ability to read and write.
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