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I’m a big supporter of literacy projects, whatever the language, and whilst oral storytelling imparts a number of literacy skills, the ability to actually read is fundamental, and often something that readers take for granted.

With literacy in mind, I thought I’d share something that I read on the BBC today, a story about a woman named Florence Cheptoo who lives in an isolated rural village near Chesongoch, in Kenya. As a child – especially a girl-child living in a rural location – education wasn’t considered particularly important, which meant that at the age of 60, Mrs Cheptoo had managed to raise a family, run a subsistence farm and be a contributing part of the “global village”, all without being able to read.

This all changed when, at the age of 60, her granddaughter brought home books from her school’s lending library, and Mrs Cheptoo realised that she couldn’t help her read. Teachers began adult literacy programmes, and for the first time in her life, Mrs Cheptoo can do things that many of us take for granted, like:

  • Learn more about the medicine she takes
  • Read newspaper headlines and find out about the world beyond her village
  • Read maps
  • Sign contracts with her own name
  • See if she was being cheated in written contracts, or with payments
  • Read the Bible and read storybooks for the first time
  • Read her grandchildren’s school reports

Reading about what this woman has done in her life without being able to read, and what she has the potential to do now that she can, is something that’s both inspiring and re-affirming.

In some parts of the world, we seem to have gone straight from no education or limited formal education, resulting in people who can live happy lives, but who can’t read, which means that they miss out on many of the benefits of self-learning that reading brings – being able to read about whether your politician is a corrupt so-and-so, for example, of whether your child is lying about the contents of a teacher’s letter.

On some level I can’t help but wonder whether the technological revolution is all a bit useless in places where people don’t have the ability to read.

Perhaps, along with all the technology exports we also need to think about how to bring reading skills to the masses. Because it’s tough to navigate Google or buy something online or take an online course if you’re not sure how to read or write – a shame for people wanting to take part in the consumer market, and possibly devastating for the people and companies investing in commercial and altruistic products and who want to reach the vast markets in areas where literacy hasn’t previously been valued.

So, my plea: literacy first, please!