The power of literacy in the transformation of a nation

“LITERACY IS not a luxury; it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens,” Bill Clinton said on the International Literacy Day, 1994. 
Stephen Mugisha
Stephen Mugisha

“LITERACY IS not a luxury; it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens,” Bill Clinton said on the International Literacy Day, 1994. 

In relation to these words, this column examines the crucial role that a reading culture may play not only in promoting the generation of free and creative thinkers in societies, but also as an important tool in social-economic and political advancement of society. 

The fact that literacy and reading facilitate effective communication and critical thinking needs not to be emphasised.  When we talk of power of literacy, it’s more than understanding the vocabulary and syntax of a written message. Critical reading entails the reader understanding the purpose of the message and appreciating the context that it was conceived in. Literacy without critical understanding of the message is nothing more than noise in our ears! 

In this respect, homes and schools have the responsibility to help children/students understand that biases and perceptions of the world are fundamental to the messages that are expressed. Such biases need to be identified and examined for their impact on the individual, society and the world at large.

As such, early literacy programmes should be introduced and emphasized; through such programmes children should be exposed to moral lessons through stories that are intended to direct them to live successful and productive lives. They should be given short story books that tell them the science and history of the society and the world around them. The Ben Carson story through his book “Gifted hands” tells it all. I would recommend parents to buy this book as a gift to their children, especially the teenagers.

Exposing the child to the power of literacy at an early age plays a vital role in the choices they make later on in their adult life. 

Accordingly, teachers and publishers should control the sort of literature our children get exposed to. 

For example, in Rwandan context, we should focus on children’s literature that addresses topics such as peace, unity, never again to genocide, reconciliation, gender equity, environmental conservation, effects of drug abuse, reproductive health education, paying attention to HIV/Aids and other issues that shape  the youth such as children’s rights, among other emerging themes.

This will equip young people with life skills necessary to help them cope with their body changes as adolescents as well as skills to resist peer pressure from friends. The obvious benefits are that this helps our children to make informed decisions when they are still young and later on in life when they are adults, consequently making them responsible citizens. 

Thanks largely to our culture, most parents still regard it as a taboo to talk about sexual matters with their children, while religious leaders tend to talk about HIV/Aids as retribution for sin rather than as a health and social issue that concerns us all. 

The stigma some adults still place on HIV/AIDS effectively blocks communication with young people. 

Indeed it is not surprising, therefore, that some studies have shown that parents and religious leaders provide the least important sources of information for the young people (AMREF, technical briefing paper (September, 2004), A Better Fate For Young People). 

I encountered this reality with my own son who is in his early teens of recent when I asked him where he gets information related to sex education. He mentioned books and friends and I was embarrassed that I came third! It was after this encounter that I realised that parents have a lot of homework to do in respect to actual parenting.

One of the probable models of disseminating correct information to our children would be through the use of books, which can only be effective if a culture of reading is promoted in homes and schools. 

The youth are faced with multiple challenges, both social and biological and there might be no single strategy to counteract such ills but rather combating them through integrated strategies. 

As such, using the power of literacy would be one strategy that would promote self-awareness amongst the young generation that would help them make informed decisions in life. 

Benefits of promoting a reading culture are immense and immeasurable. Let us not live in a knowledge desert in the information age.

The writer is an educationist, author and publisher

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