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What is it like to be Illiterate?

ďAnyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.Ē

James A. Baldwin

It is difficult for most of the people reading these words to imagine what it is like to live on less than a dollar a day in a poor country, not knowing where the next meal is coming from, nor how to pay for clothes, medicines or school fees, or seeds and fertilizer -- or labour, if you're sick and unable to work your fields.

It is virtually impossible to imagine what itís like to be illiterate, and how terrifying and incomprehensible the world must seem.

Not having been to school:

A woman in Kabala, Sierra Leone. It is virtually impossible to imagine what itís like to be illiterate.

  • you wonít know what education is, and you wonít see why you should send your children to school -- it will cost you money and the children will not be available to help you in your home or working your crops;
  • you will know little or nothing about concepts such as hygiene and nutrition, and the measures necessary to protect your health, let alone have any concept of what legislation is, or civil society, or literature or art;

  • you will have limited powers of thinking, not because youíre stupid, but because youíve never been taught to think and to reason in a organised and systematic way;

  • your life will be deeply influenced by myth and superstition, and by spells and evil spirits;

  • you will probably not be very good at expressing yourself clearly, which may make your relationship with others, including your close family, difficult and fraught*;

  • you wonít be able to count money or sign your name (you use a thumb print on official documents); you canít read notices, street signs, car number plates, nor use a tape measure or scales -- as such you are not very employable (if paid work is available), except as a labourer; and

  • you will have no understanding of your basic human rights as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions, and if you are a woman, this will include your rights over your children, property, inheritance and your body -- the right not to have sex or be physically abused -- and possibly your right to chose who you marry and at what age.

And for all of these reasons, you will probably have low self-esteem and a low status in your community. This is particularly the case if youíre a rural women living in Sub-Saharan Africa, or if youíre disabled and considered by society as a burden. (In many countries disabiity is seen as Godís retribution for past sins, which means you may not get a lot of sympathy from others.)

* A number of women on our learning programme have told us how they are now better able to communicate with their husband and children, and that this has reduced tension in the family.

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