Thursday, September 24, 2015

Empowering Ghana Through Reading
By Edward Agyemang-Duah
Thursday, 24 September 2015 13:02

The stories of the two illiterate celebrities, Corcoran and Floyd Mayweather are not different from those of great men in several nations who made it in life without the skills of literacy.

What has not been properly told has been the full story they hardly tell: of a quiet world of shame, fear, and loneliness that these famous people experienced before they learned to read. For most of these celebrities, they were able to succeed in spite of their literacy handicaps largely because they were people of great intelligence, ability and determination.

Make no mistake, however, that while it lasted, the handicap of illiteracy made life stressful and less enjoyable for them.

I could go into details about the various incidents in Ghana’s Consultative Assembly that caused considerable stress and anxiety to those with low or zero literacy who were members of the Assembly.

In my own travels, I have met in planes and airports several well-dressed Ghanaian men and women who have sought help from neighbouring passengers or passers-by, simply to fill immigration or arrival forms required for processing on arrival.

On a trip to Pretoria through Johannesburg airport a few years ago, I was accosted by a well-dressed Ghanaian lady who was on our flight from Accra, and needed help and direction to go to the relevant departure gate, in spite of clearly written notices on gates, departures, etc. I sympathised with her and walked her all the way to the desired gate, to wait for her flight to Port Elizabeth. And there are several such all over Ghana and elsewhere, including well-dressed personalities, who could easily pass for teachers or even university lecturers but who are unlettered.

Practical uses

Reading develops and enlarges the mind, and helps the young ones to develop and enhance their language and cognitive skills. It is a great learning tool, transporting the user into worlds beyond one’s own. In a world virtually deluged with information, it takes reading to navigate, assimilate and analyse the avalanche of information churned out by the minute into the universe. Above all, it enhances one’s self-image and self-confidence, making the beneficiary less liable to manipulation.

Come with me to coastal towns like Cape Coast, where the most decrepit old man or woman may be seen adjusting their reading glasses to read a newspaper, or a book. Cape Coasters known for their aborofosem, due to the early contact with European traders and missionaries, can really tell you the benefit of reading.

But in very practical terms, you would need one day, to read and understand the instructions from a medicine bottle, which can be scary if you are illiterate and need to take care of a child. You may need to fill a simple application form, or read road signs as a driver, or impart reading to your child at home.

A few months ago, there was a strike action by drivers which led to several days of disruption in local transportation in various parts of the country. Included in the drivers’ grievances was the new policy at the Drivier and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA), which required that an applicant for a commercial driver’s license now needed to be able to read and write before he was considered for a driver’s license. The argument was that you needed to be able to read written road signs, and, as well, be able to pass the theory part of a driving test, which demanded the capacity to read, understand and answer written questions about driving. It basically meant that illiterate drivers stood the risk of losing their source of livelihood, due to illiteracy, which DVLA officials incidentally thought was a major cause of road accidents in the country.

I of course do not know the basis of the DVLA policy, or the quality of research that threw up those findings, but I can point to a huge percentage of very competent drivers who never went to school, and have somehow coped in this complex global village. To require a 50 or 60-year-old driver to now go and learn to read and write before his family can eat, or before he can pay his child’s school fees, is very unfair and a mark of insensitivity.

Literacy rates

Since independence in 1957, the literacy rate in Ghana has improved considerably, putting Ghana on a higher pedestal for meaningful development. It has been observed, for instance, that there was a rapid improvement in the country’s literacy rates between 1960 and 1984, but the improvement has stagnated in the recent past and has not kept up with population growth. According to the 1960 census, 73% of Ghanaians aged six years or older at the time never went to school. By 1970 the illiteracy rate had happily decreased to 57%. By 1984, it had fallen further to 44%. Between 1984 and 2000, the percentage of illiterate Ghanaians fell slightly to 38.8% .

Currently, Ghana’s adult illiteracy rate is approximately 29% (the literacy rate being 71%), among those who are 15 and above.

On the continent of Africa, Ghana ranks 18th in literacy ratings, the highest in West Africa, but falls below countries in North Africa, southern Africa and East Africa.

But the illiteracy rate has always been higher among women than men. Whereas the illiteracy rate among men is 23%, it is as much as 54% among women.

The general primary school completion rate is 71.1%, but once again, the gender-based details do not favour women. Whereas the primary school completion rate for youth male is 76%, that for female is 68.8%, according to current World Bank indicators.

If Ghana has had an improving literacy rate over the years, it is ironic that the culture of reading is rather declining. Of course a reading culture is not the same as literacy rates. You may be highly literate, but have no reading culture.

Signs of low reading culture

But signs of a declining reading culture are somewhat evident in our Ghanaian world:

• The declining numbers of those you literally find reading anything: from newspapers, newsletters to books.
• People’s habits while they idle, or are waiting at the airport for a flight, train, or how they occupy their time on a bus in a long distance journey, or on a long distance flight. How many Ghanaians or Africans do you find reading under these circumstances, and would not rather watch a movie.
• The diminishing number of seasoned publishing houses, and well-stocked bookstores.
• The diminishing number of newspaper subscriptions and readers. A static number of public libraries, and community libraries outside academic institutions.
• Falling educational standards partly attributable to a waning student interest in reading beyond the prescribed text.

There is indeed a growing antipathy towards books and we must all be familiar with the joke that says, ‘If you want to conceal your treasure away from an intruder, hide it in a book.’ For those who have sought solace in this admonition, and have thereby secured precious moneys in books, the uncomfortable reality these days is that robbers begin their exploration of your house, by first ransacking your library if you are an academic, looking for hidden treasure.

Cell phone penetration

Significantly, despite a fairly low literacy rate in Africa and a general decline in reading, the same cannot be said of mobile phone penetration. In Ghana, mobile phone penetration rate increased from 63% in 2009, to 85% in 2011, to 91% in 2012. As of February 2013, the penetration rate in Ghana was estimated to be more than 100%, much higher than the literacy rate. In truth, instead of book reading, cell phone browsing is becoming a major substitute for reading as a hobby. While literacy is still required in the use of the mobile phone, illiterates have adopted various coping strategies in the use of the phone as I found out. It is rather the literate students that actively browse, and use data bases on the net, and can truly be said to be approximating one type of reading or another.

The reality of course is that children and students benefit better from electronic gadget when they are firmly established as book readers in the first place. While the net and its many applications may give you access to a wealth of information, its numerous chat rooms may also undercut your sensitivity to standard language use, and your diction. Spellings and grammar may also be adversely compromised.

• The writer is the President of the Central University College
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