New Internationalist

The Magic Word

Issue 180

new internationalist
issue 180 - February 1988

The energy of Alpha inspired other arts.
Photo: RED
The magic word
Literacy campaigns push back the boundaries of ignorance
and give people more chance of controlling their own destiny.
So runs the rhetoric. But, as Daouda Api explains, the lucky
charm of literacy often fails to work its magic.

Imagine an African peasant farmer trying to scratch a living from a few unyielding hectares. What do she, her husband and children need to overcome their poverty? Access to the more fertile land taken over by foreign-owned companies? A political process that offers them power over their own lives? A basic health service and clean drinking water? Or do they need a mass literacy programme?

Since 1946 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been promoting literacy 'both as a human right and as an instrument of liberation and development'. Literacy is seen as the key that will somehow free the 'victims of discrimination, oppression and indignity that illiteracy breeds'. On this basis, precious resources have been allocated to mass literacy campaigns all over the Third World.

Many of these campaigns have been deemed successful by UNESCO's own criteria. Yet the people targeted by them still live with economic stagnation, political repression, malnutrition and ecological crisis. The simple fact is that many of the values of the mass literacy movement have been ill-conceived. They have reflected the wishful thinking that informed liberal development politics in the post-war period. They have not been relevant enough to the needs of the world's poor. And they have been characterized by a Western bias that permeates education in general.

After four decades of UNESCO orthodoxy the three 'sacred myths' of literacy need challenging. First, the view that oral culture is irrelevant or even hostile to the acquisition of literacy. Second, the implication that indigenous languages have no part to play, and that mass literacy campaigns should use the official languages of government which are a direct legacy of European colonialism. And third, the idea that literacy automatically creates social mobility, greater productivity and an end to poverty.

The spoken word
For most of the world's people spoken language has always been the most important form of communication - a reservoir of historical tradition and rich culture, as well as the basis of everyday life. Most theorists and practitioners of mass literacy seem to accept the existence of a 'great divide' between non-literate and literate peoples. They assume this oral culture to be inferior and a major contributor to the 'backwardness' of so-called primitive societies.

Critics of this view, such as British educationist Brian Street, argue that no such divide exists. He demonstrates instead the extent to which oral and literate forms of language complement each other: 'The development of writing takes place within an oral framework of thought and this may continue to dominate the uses of literacy'. As long as people are told that their own oral language skills are irrelevant then demystifying the particular demands of reading and writing will remain.

The empire's language
The second great myth of mass literacy campaigns is the denial of indigenous languages. This is a by-product of the general educational systems established by European empire builders. These were closely tailored to meet the economic and political needs of the colonizers: education became one of the major instruments for extending colonial power. For Nigerians, for example, the mission school became the stepping stone to a position in the lower ranks of the British colonial administration. If they learned to write English and accept a whole package of European cultural values - including Christianity - economic advancement and higher social status would follow.

The French strategy in their colonies was slightly different, in that it aimed to create a tiny, assimilated elite of 'Black Frenchmen' (sic). The geography and history of France dominated the curriculum - 'our ancestors the Gauls' - as well as an appreciation of Racine and Baudelaire. Under both French and British rule, however, colonial education created a class who served the colonizing power and owed their allegiance to it. The growth of even limited literacy - and particularly the introduction of written records - laid the foundations for the dispossession of land, the setting up of a centralized bureaucracy and the suppression of indigenous cultures.

Given the colonial context, it should not be altogether surprising that literacy experts have rejected the use of indigenous languages to propagate education. Quite simply, mastery of colonial languages gave a few people unfettered power. Language and literacy was the terrain on which the struggle between exploiter and exploited took place.

But for the vast majority of people - particularly in rural areas - indigenous language remains the most potent expression of their aspirations. Too few mass literacy campaigns have even acknowledged this fact; Grenada, Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso are among the few exceptions. Unless this question is taken seriously then the acquisition of literacy can become simply a more subtle means of social control and cultural denial.

The illusion of prosperity
The third 'sacred myth' of literacy is that transferring a set of technical skills to illiterates will of itself create the necessary conditions for economic growth and prosperity. This assumption underlies literacy programmes both in the developed and developing world. In the US, for example, the Adult Basic Education Programme claims that 'anyone who becomes literate is automatically better off economically, is better able to find employment and become a better citizen'.

Educationists have allied with development theorists to extend these ideas to the Third World. They claim that literacy brings 'enhanced cognitive and intellectual competence' and creates the adaptable, more productive 'Modern Man' (sic). They also suggest that there is a critical literacy threshold of 40 per cent: in other words two- fifths of a country's people need to be literate if it is to 'modernize' and make an 'economic miracle' possible.

These mechanistic ideas formed the basis of UNESCO's highly influential 'functional literacy model', adopted by countries as diverse as socialist Tanzania and monarchist Iran in the 1970s. This model was intended to enhance the practical skills and productivity of predominantly rural populations. But the campaigns they inspired have helped to show that the forms and practices of literacy can never be 'neutral' - they always have a political or ideological bias.

The Shah's dreams
In Iran during the early 1970s the Shah's regime launched an ambitious literacy project. The underlying motives were mixed. The Shah wanted to transform Iran into a modern state, downgrading agriculture and investing in industry. He hoped this strategy would attract foreign investment by multinationals which believed that the more literate people there were, the bigger the market for consumer durables would become. But at the same time literacy would get more villagers to 'participate' in the cash economy - and would help the Government to control the outlying areas.

Thousands of young people were drafted into the 'Army of Knowledge' which was to bring literacy into the countryside. The teaching materials attempted to introduce commercial farming methods, greater bureaucratic controls and instil the superiority of 'modern' ideas. The contempt of urban, middle-class educators for rural peasants was barely concealed: 'the psychological attitude of the Iranian villagers creates a great obstacle to rural reconstruction'.

Many of the conscripted literacy teachers resented being sent to the countryside and their impact was more often than not damaging. 'They are young and inexperienced and they come mostly from cities and know little about the problems of rural people. They lack the ability to adapt themselves to, and identify themselves with, the community in which they work.'

The authoritarian nature of the Iranian example is typical of many literacy programmes in the Third World. The relationship between Government educationists and villagers was a political one, and created the seeds of resentment and conflict that eventually spilled over in 1979 with the overthrow of the Shah. Reading over the literature of that period, it is remarkable just how crude and ethnocentric the thinking behind the literacy campaigns and education programmes were. And yet they were founded on the theories and practices worked out by UNESCO 'experts'.

A liberating force
Despite the rhetoric of UNESCO that literacy is an instrument of liberation, most governments have consciously avoided programmes that might promote independent thinking or encourage political action. Yet if it goes hand in hand with a commitment to redistributing power and wealth, literacy becomes one of the tools a government can use to create a new society.

The critique of the development model of UNESCO led to a number of radical literacy campaigns influenced by the pioneering work of Paolo Freire in Brazil. Socialist governments in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Grenada all implemented programmes that were avowedly ideological in character. They aimed to raise people's consciousness of their position in society.

Collective discussion of what caused, for example, the appalling deprivation in the shanty towns became the starting point for using the new skills of reading and writing. Teachers became 'facilitators', and most classroom materials were based on texts produced by the students themselves. In these concrete examples, here at last was literacy that enabled the poor to see themselves as the makers of their own history, with the power to change their world.

But even the radical orthodoxy of Freire himself - at least as it is expressed in the celebrated book Pedagogy of the Oppressed - has recently been challenged. Critics claim that Freire's ideal was a 'classless' environment for literacy campaigns, whereas in reality it inevitably tended to be urban, middle-class people who were passing on the skills. Freire has been forced to admit that his practice can only really work if other conditions are also present. He said of the Nicaraguan literacy campaign: 'literacy only has meaning in a society undergoing revolutionary change'.

An African success story
A powerful, though less well-known, example of a literacy campaign within a revolutionary context can be found in Burkina Faso. The colonial education system remained virtually intact after nominal independence in 1960: two-thirds of university students studied law or the liberal arts in a country where peasants make up 90 per cent of the population and agriculture is the mainstay of the economy. Literacy, in common with all other economic and political interests, was a male and urban preserve.

The revolution of 1983, led by former President Thomas Sankara, brought a new direction. The power of traditional chiefs and the urban élite was replaced by Committees for the Defence of the Revolution in every village and workplace. Women, peasants and young people were drawn into the political arena for the first time. Sankara's Government launched a series of onslaughts on the worst ills of chronic underdevelopment: 'commando' campaigns to immunize children against the common killer diseases, to roll back the desert by planting trees, to encourage peasant farmers and drive towards self- sufficiency in food. Literacy has become one of the tools for maintaining the momentum of these revolutionary changes. The task facing the Government was huge. Burkina Faso had some of the lowest literacy levels in Africa only one out of every 10 citizens could read and write any language. In February 1986 project 'Alpha Commando' was launched from 1,000 literacy centres throughout the country. This programme targeted 36,000 leaders of rural organizations such as CDRs, credit unions and cereal banks. Materials were produced in sane of the major national languages and focused on practical skills such as malaria prevention and new methods of soil conservation. According to Agriculture Minister Seydou Traoré, Alpha Commando 'emerged out of a concern for forging a new type of Burkinabê farmer, politically conscious of a role in building a national, independent, self-sufficient and planned economy. This new type of farmer is one who refuses to submit to nature, who rebels against passivity and fatalism and who dares to innovate.'

Learning from the experience and shortcomings of the Alpha Commando, the Government is now moving towards another mass campaign. In January 1987 a pilot project in the village of Nomgaana gave 48 villagers (half of them women) an eight-week intensive course in literacy. This was followed by four further weeks which trained them to pass on these new skills to other villagers. And the method has now been adopted nationally: literacy instructors are trained by a core of part-time teachers based permanently in the countryside.

The use of indigenous languages in the Burkina literacy campaign is both practical and political It means that peasants do not have to learn a second language - French - before they come to grips with the written word. Indigenous languages are also seen as a powerful means of developing pride in the country's own cultures and thus strengthening a sense of Burkinabê national identity (in all its diversity). In the aftermath of Alpha Commando the emphasis is on producing follow-up materials in these languages: not just educational texts but newspapers in Mooré, Dioula and Fulfuldé.

At the same time, the complementary role of oral culture is encouraged in a myriad of ways. As Thomas Sankara explained 'In all aspects of development, culture must play the critical role. Culture is one of the best mediums we can utilize to communicate with our people. In a society such as ours, based on oral tradition, we must use our cultural expressions as a means of getting messages across and to transform attitudes on basic issues.'

Musicians and theatre groups tour the country putting on lively performances wherever people gather - under a tree or the night sky; in a schoolroom, a sports stadium or purpose-built cultural centre. These are then followed by animated discussion, calling upon members of the audience to comment upon the social messages carried by the performance, including the literacy debate itself. It is in this way that the apparent divide between literate and non-literate cultures simply disappears. And it's not just theatre. The very vitality of Alpha Commando has nurtured an explosion of artistic creativity in a whole variety of cultural forms - vividly printed textiles, documentary films, vast mural paintings and celebratory songs. 'For us, culture has no walls, no barriers. It is everywhere a part of our life and our struggle.'

The radical literacy campaign in Burkina Faso does not pretend that the process is a 'neutral' one. The form as well as the content of the training is avowedly partisan and committed. And the Burkinabês believe that the problems within the campaigns themselves can only be resolved through political choices and decisions. In this way, then, literacy has been demystified and stripped of its special status as a 'lucky charm' for development.

By itself mass literacy does not bring about economic development. Nor does it ensure freedom from exploitation and oppression. Deep structural changes will be necessary in developing countries if literacy is to go beyond the citadels of the élites. But literacy and the written word do have a part to play. As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano observes: 'If what is written is read seriously and to some extent changes or nourishes the consciousness of the reader, a writer has justified her or his role in the process of change: with neither arrogance nor false humility, but with the recognition of being a small part of something vast'.

For the rural people of the Third World time is short. But a mass literacy strategy stripped of its 'sacred myths' could give new expression to a vigorous culture of resistance.

Daouda Api is a member of RED, an independent organization of black people studying educational and cultural issues. He carried out extensive research in Burkina Faso in 1986.

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