I was made to understand that literacy is the ability to read and write. Meaning a person who is illiterate is one that cannot read and write. It is also said that the majority of Malawians are illiterate. Looking at the way illiteracy is painted in Malawi, especially on international platforms, you would assume that the country is full of dumb, hopeless people.
Of course, literacy is mainly defined as the ability to read and write but, in another sense, it is also competence or knowledge in a specified field. So, if a person is able to work in a particular field, that person is literate in that field. The farmers, fishers and businesspeople we consider “illiterate” because they do not have standard education – for instance, a certificate, diploma or degree – are quite literate people in their respective fields.
The economy of the country largely leans on agriculture; essentially what that means is that Malawi’s well-being at large rests on the people that are engaged in farming and related activities. These people are mostly smallholder farmers that are labelled illiterate and have their contribution and efforts taken for granted just because they are “illiterate”.
But are they really?
I have also noticed that most people who come from the village or even those you find deep in the villages on visits actually can read or write or both to a certain extent.
Most houseboys and maids who come from the village can operate phones, follow a list of shopping materials, follow instructions, read or write a note, understand what is going on television, browse books and newspaper and pick up one or two things and the like. I am thinking this is literacy on its own and some become sharper with practice.
The problem is the perception of the public, especially the “learned” community. I t is wildly believed that if these people do not have the standard education papers, then they are completely useless. It is also assumed that these apparently illiterate people deserve lowly jobs only and cannot be given the opportunity to do other jobs that are considered “prestigious”. Someone once said you would be surprised that a local farmer knows way a lot about farming than someone with a degree from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Frankly speaking, I was not surprised because I have seen for myself so many times people with no standard education doing a better job at something than those with the actual education for it. You find mechanics trained on-the-job by Teveta being more skilled and thorough than someone who has a mechanical engineering degree from The Polytechnic.
Formal theoretical knowledge cannot on its own do the trick for everyone. You will also find a learned person failing to organise a simple event and find an “illiterate” person doing wonderful work at it.
A well-known player who is now making Malawi proud on the African and world football map and now largely based in South Africa was persecuted in Malawi for failing to pass his Junior Certificate of Education (JCE) examinations. The social media was awash with insults about his inability to pass his JCE examinations. Cyber bullying has after all become a favourite in the country. Only a few people looked at his skills but most were more interested in highlighting the fact that he had not gone far with his formal education.
The player’s football skills are impeccable from what we hear from football experts, even people who are not football fanatics know that he is a young player to reckon with. Sadly, we failed to maximise this potential; instead it took a South African team to make him shine and highlight where he has “literacy”, that is football. He now started his own clothing line too; it took another country to nurture him to maximise his potential.
Getting an education is essential and completing standard education is ideal, but not all people have access to the education opportunities. In Malawi, the main reason for low “literacy” levels is poverty but I have also seen way too many people who have resources and finances at their disposal but do not succeed with education or are simply not interested in formal education. I think we should maximise whatever potential people have and stop focusing on a single path of development.
Having potential is not enough; maximising it is the real prize.
I rest my case