Africa is undergoing a process of change, as the continent aspires to be completely peaceful and prosperous by 2063. This may seem an overly ambitious goal, given the multifold challenges from both within and outside. In addition, there is an intense debate underway as to whether these social, economic and cultural changes are liabilities or assets in terms of real national and continental unity and sustainable development. The provocative question is how to transform a liability into an asset for nation building. In my humble opinion, only functional literacy and a continuum of education can successfully address this issue. It is my understanding that, while literacy is an asset for a person’s journey through life, basic/functional literacy is the key to open the floodgates of an ocean of knowledge and wisdom in context.
Many African countries consider schooling to be the answer. Schooling is one form of education, but it is not the only one. It is therefore time to challenge this notion. We need to go beyond expanding formal schooling, to find and build an innovative societal grid of transition and transformation through literacy learning that adds value.
So much more than teaching the alphabet, it is these literacy-learning circles that do respond to crises such as worsening and accelerating population displacement and migration, to conflict and violence, to climate change and to increasing inequalities. Learning has an impact on development, and it fosters harmonised social and cultural orientations towards globalisation. It helps to build new roles for families and communities in changing patterns of living, and it can align communication and business in a competitive knowledge economy. Learning has the capacity to revolutionise opportunities for subsistence and develop agriculture towards improved productivity, thus enhancing food security. This is why the demand to create a viable, inclusive literate environment for all, as well as to promote adult literacy and education, is still at the top of the list of priorities on the African development agenda.
Even so, most adult literacy programmes are poorly organised and fail to attract learners. The majority of adult learners are also not motivated to attend adult literacy classes or circles. Creating a policy and a physical environment is not enough. Self-improvement and social development are crucial to spark people’s motivation to learn. The key point lies on how it is relevant to the actual life of the learner in context. This is the engine of adult learning. Without motivation, there is no drive to learn and change. Finding out how to motivate adult learners in order to make them fully engage and persist in their own learning process is more critical than constructing bricks-and-mortar facilities. If we wish adult literacy and education to play a part in the African development agenda, we must build on the inner compulsion that arises from adults’ everyday lives. Listening to learners and their learning aspirations is the foundation for turning problems into a promise to enhance life in Africa.
Samuel Asnake Wollie is the Chief Education Programmes Coordinator at the UNESCO Liaison Office Addis Ababa.
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