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Filling open minds


Hendra’s mother, like most women of her age, never went to school and calls herself, without the slightest embarrassment ‘illiterate’. She sits on the steps of her house, this illiterate person, with the doves cooing over her head: a wiry women, with no ounce of spare flesh, and cheekbones like small boulders under the skin, smiling the lurid purple smile of the dedicated betel-chewer.

She is totally unpractised in the art of introspection. Like most peasant women, she can chat happily for hours about things that are happening around her and about other people. But questions to do with her own thoughts and feelings are a novelty.

She squints in concentration, as if she were trying to interpret the emotions of a stranger. The furnishings of the Western mind, clogged with facts, factoids and fictions, layered with hypocrisies, and so clouded by past and future that the present hardly exists, do not encumber hers, which seems weightless by comparison, and roomy, so that she must hunt about inside like a housewife suddenly asked to find traces of her own footprints on a clean floor.

Finally she answers my question. ‘No. Not being able to read or write has never made any difficulties in my life. No…’ she shakes her head, ‘I never wanted to go to school.’

Had she ever felt, well, inferior, left out, because of being illiterate? ‘No, why should I? No-one else could read or write then. None of the women I grew up with can.’

Well, does she feel the lack now, with literate daughters? Another shake of the head. Was it difficult, not being able to help with their homework? ‘But I did,’ she says. ‘I was angry with them if they didn’t do it.’

Everyone laughs. What pointless questions this visitor asks. This is just the way of things, they all know that. Older women have white hair, wrinkles and cannot read, younger women have black hair, no wrinkles and can read. It is natural.

Well then, if she were in her daughters’ place now, would she like to learn to read? She nods, of course. And how does she think that ability would change her life? She looks puzzled for a moment, aware that there ought to be an answer to this because, otherwise, why would the government be teaching her daughters? But she can’t think of it and, shrugging politely, she goes off to make tea.

Certainly Hendra, Titik and Ambar, after leaving school, could lead their daily lives without ever needing to read or write again. Their particular village is innocent of letters; there are no books or documents, or even road signs. And literacy has no obvious use in the rice fields or the cigarette factory. Indeed, the only printed matter for miles around appears on the village gates in the form of governmental exhortations to greater patriotism, harder work, cleaner living and smaller families. After constant exposure to this, it is hard to avoid a certain envy of the illiterate, her mind gloriously uncluttered by slogans that are, like most slogans, actual impediments to thought.

When she comes back with the tray of glasses she says, smiling with satisfaction at having solved the riddle, that reading and writing are modern, and these are modern times.

Hendra, handing round the tea, smiles in pleased agreement. ‘That’s right,’ she says, ‘it is modern. Like the pipes that go from the hole in the ground.’

Everyone laughs again, though they avoid comment. Instead, Hendra’s mother launches into praise of modern medicines, the ones she can get at the clinic. They are so easy compared to the days when she had to make her own brews: searching for plants, chopping them, pounding them, boiling them. How much easier to have an injection.

But did they work, those herbal medicines? Oh, yes, they worked. She sometimes buys them still, at the market. But the injections – so easy.

And learning to read and write is not so easy, is that it?

Hendra and her mother splutter into their hands and the air vibrates with unspoken words: nor so useful, either.

Ex-Daily Telegraph and Guardian columnist, Jill Tweedie lives in the UK and now spends most of her time writing both fiction and non-fiction books, including In the Name of Love and Letters from a Faint-hearted Feminist, the latter of which was made into a comedy television series. Her most recent novel Bliss, was published in 1984.

New Internationalist issue 149 magazine cover This article is from the July 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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