Updated: Nov 22, 2021
Whereas in the USA we have the luxury of arguing futilely about whether to ban the masterful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, children don’t have a single book to their name, and/or they cannot read a book even if they had one.
What is literacy? On its face, it is the ability to read and write. It is, of course, more complex than that. Underpinning its 2030 Sustainability Goals, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) defines literacy in the modern age as “a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication."
While literacy rates in the highly industrialized countries tend to be 95-100%, developing nations have much lower levels, with some exceptions, e.g. Cuba, which has 100%. Literacy rates in sub-Saharan Africa average around 65.5%, with some of the highest levels in Botswana (87%), Zimbabwe (84%), Gabon (82%); and in the next tier, Kenya, Egypt, Eritrea (all 72%); Ghana, Cameroon, Angola (all 71%).
Included in the lowest tiers are Côte d’Ivoire (41%), Chad (38%), Burkina Faso (29%), Guinea (25%), Niger (15%). Significantly, these are all ex-colonies of France, which is quite satisfied with the status quo of poverty and illiteracy in those countries because it makes it easier for them to be exploited, a prime example being Niger.
Literacy continues to rise in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), and although the increases year on year have been small, at least they’re going in the right direction.
Unfortunately, a sharp gender gap exists in literacy, so while literacy trends upward for women and girls 15 years old and over, rates among male counterparts are 1.2 - 1.4 times higher.
Why are the literacy rates low in sub-Saharan Africa?
According to UNESCO, 27% of the world’s illiterate people live in SSA. It is stunning and appalling that in Niger and Burkina Faso, 90% of women and girls are illiterate. On the whole, in SSA, here are a couple of facts:
• More than 1 in 3 adults cannot read.
• 48 million youth (ages 15-24) are illiterate.
• 22% of primary aged children are not in school, about 30 million kids.
A number of factors contribute to this status, and while I won’t delve too deeply into all of them, some are worth mentioning.
Poverty, obviously, is the major factor, relating to literacy in a chicken-and-egg fashion. In much of SSA, people are too poor to send their children to school, because, make no mistake, school fees, tuition and books are rarely free.
Child labor, a politically loaded term because it’s sometimes used in the sense of indentured servitude. In the SSA context, however, children may be asked to help their parent(s) or other relative(s) with their trade, whether it be farming or other livelihood.
Generational illiteracy means the passing down the inability to read from parents to offspring. An illiterate parent will not have personal knowledge of the advantages of being able to read in the world at large, and they may not realize what their kids are and will be missing.
Government inadequacies lead to problems of distribution and supply, particularly to remote rural areas. In his article, Tony Read (an appropriate surname indeed) of the World Bank Group writes, “. . . despite decades of funding by governments and DPs [development partners], few low-income SSA countries have been able to establish sustainable systems for providing textbooks and other essential TLMs [teaching and learning materials] on a regular basis.
The efforts of NGOs
Several NGOs are attempting to compensate for the gaps and deficiencies in the provision of TLMs to schools and school libraries, particularly in rural areas. One is the African Library Project, another is World Reader, which focuses on both digital and hardcopy reading.
During my travels to Nigeria, I serendipitously discovered an NGO called African Rural Volunteers (ARV). This encounter came about because it turned out my Nigerian travel guides, enterprising brothers Evans and Confidence Aguiyi, who run their own company You Come Africa also run ARV. I hadn't known this before my journey, but I was immediately interested.
Evans Aguiyi, who is very passionate about his cause, points out that, “In most rural communities, there are not enough teachers, quality of education is low, and the schools lack or in most cases don’t have functional libraries. Most families are poor and can’t afford good quality reading books, textbooks, novels, or story books."
ARV partners with UK's Book Cycle, which in turn partners with Thrive Africa, a Ghanaian charity whose vision is to improve children’s education and women’s empowerment across Ghana, and who engages in library building and other projects.
ARV is a very comprehensive NGO with a number of different facets. Apart from donations, there are opportunities for volunteers to sign up for orphanage care, teaching, soccer coaching, construction, and so on.
ARV’s Book Project includes distribution of the books provided by Book Cycle with the ultimate goal of building mini-libraries stocked with these books. But this takes money. Book Cycle provides the books but not the funding for the clearing them from the ports and distributing them. Without that, the books are more or less useless.
Anyone who has traveled in SSA knows how difficult access to many rural areas can be. Invariably, tough off-road SUVs must be used to get through bush and bad roads. Gas isn’t cheap, either; in Ghana, for example, fuel prices run around the same level as here in the US, but unlike the US, those prices only ever go in one direction: up.
Evans Aguiyi relates a story of Sade (pronounced "sha-DAY;” yes, like the singer), a teenage Yoruba girl he met in Ilara-Akaka, which is a town in Ogun State, Nigeria. Sade was without a home after her family abandoned her for unknown reasons. She had no financial means whatsoever, but what she wanted most wasn’t money, it was a book of her own. ARV was able to provide her not only books, but a solar lamp for night reading. In the midst of an awful circumstance in her young life, Sade looked to reading for solace. What a poignant and heart-rending story.
So, if you’ve skimmed through most of this post, here’s the bottom line: there are kids in SSA hungry for knowledge and the ability to read, and you can help. Every dollar counts: even a small amount can go a long way in Africa. Even better, sign up to support the cause with a small monthly recurrent amount--as little as $8 a month can help children like Sade receive the gift of reading. The sooner the better, because ARV is hoping to get these books at least partially distributed by the holiday season. (Christmas is very highly celebrated in much of SSA.)
Your dollars will immediately help to implement ARV’s mission. The donation process is quick and simple--I know this because I’ve given to the cause myself, so join me and many other donors worldwide who are stepping up with support of $25 or more in order to make a difference in the fight against illiteracy in sub-Saharan Africa.
Here’s the donation link: https://www.paypal.com/donate/?hosted_button_id=PSNSMF9TFLFCE
For an idea of the monumental task at hand, check out this video starring Evans Aguiyi.