Meet Naisiae. Naisiae is about 28 years old, although she is not sure because, in her community, they do not celebrate birthdays on a calendar. Naisiae lives in a small manyatta (hut made from sticks, cow dung, and grass) on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, with her four children
In the surrounding enclosure of thorn bushes (called a boma) are three other manyattas: One for her husband, one for his first wife and their three children, and one for his second wife and their four children. The boma is situated in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. Every morning when Naisiae wakes up, she looks out at the snowy peaks of the mountain and imagines what it would be like to climb to the top.
Naisiae remembers going to school, but she was very little. She borrowed her school uniform from a neighbouring girl who was bigger. She only went to school for four years. Naisiae dropped out of school when she was 9 years old because her father was sick and she needed to help her mother.
Access doesn’t equal learning
Despite spending four years in school, Naisiae is unable to read. “My teacher spoke in English and it was difficult to keep up,” she tells us. “When I got home, I couldn’t practice my schoolwork because I had lots of chores and I had to help look after the cattle”.
“I could have done well in school,” Naisiae tells us, in Kimaasai – her mother tongue. “I learn how to do things quickly. I think of ways to solve problems. People ask me for advice. But my family wanted me to be married more than they wanted me to get an education. That’s the way it is here.”
We ask her why she thinks reading is so important. “Nobody’s ever asked me what I thought before” she laughs. She pauses. “When you can’t read, you can’t really do anything for yourself. You will always have to rely on someone else.”
Trapped in the treadmill of illiteracy
We ask Naisiae to describe how not being able to read affects her. “I cannot own a mobile phone because I cannot read the SMS messages. My family has one mobile phone and someone has to help us read what it says. We have M-Pesa (a mobile phone-based money transfer service) but we can’t read what the messages say. We had a neighbour help us but he cheated us and took some of the money”
“If I hear information that I want to remember – like on the radio, or in Church – I have to store it in my memory because I can’t write anything down. I cannot read the Bible. In the room where you wait to see the doctor, there are lots of posters with writing. I can only look at the pictures.
“The biggest problem for me is that without being able to read, bad people can lie and cheat us. We had a problem last year because someone tried to snatch our land by telling us a lie. My husband stamped his finger on the papers (as a signature, because he cannot sign his name) thinking that this was a good deal. Luckily we caught the trick – but it is very dangerous. We don’t know if the information we are told is true or not”.
“It is very important to me that my children are able to read,” Naisiae tells us. “It’s the only way they can be independent. It’s the only way that they can check the information that people tell them.” If Naisiae’s children do not learn to read, it will be difficult for them to participate independently in their own reality. If they are always having to rely on someone else to navigate their world for them, they will be forever trapped.
The bigger picture
Naisiae is just one of 7.8 million adults in Kenya that lack the minimum literacy levels required to participate in national development, Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi announced in 2014. Globally, there are about 781 million illiterate adults, roughly one hundred times more than the number in Kenya.
In addition to the 781 million illiterate adults, 250 million children across the world lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, half of whom, like Naisiae, have spent at least four years in school. It is important that Naisiae’s children don’t join the ranks of the 200 million young people who have left school without the skills needed to thrive.
One way to ensure this is by measuring learning progress early on in children’s primary school careers. Early monitoring allows corrective measures to be taken early on. Without acquiring basic literacy skills, time spent in school will be wasted. Beyond that wasted time, is wasted potential. Imagine the potential of 250 million bright, literate young people. It is world-changing. Amartya Sen observed “A child who is denied the opportunity of elementary schooling is not only deprived as a youngster but also handicapped all through life”
It’s simple, really.
Literacy becomes the practice of freedom.
Hannah-May Wilson is a Program Manager in the PAL Network Secretariat. The PAL Network brings together nine countries working across three continents to assess the basic reading and numeracy competencies of all children, in their homes, through annual citizen-led assessments. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org