Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Face Of Literacy in Africa


Whereas in the USA we have the luxury of arguing futilely about whether to ban the masterful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, children don’t have a single book to their name, and/or they cannot read a book even if they had one.

What is literacy? On its face, it is the ability to read and write. It is, of course, more complex than that. Underpinning its 2030 Sustainability Goals, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) defines literacy in the modern age as “a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication."

While literacy rates in the highly industrialized countries tend to be 95-100%, developing nations have much lower levels, with some exceptions, e.g. Cuba, which has 100%. Literacy rates in sub-Saharan Africa average around 65.5%, with some of the highest levels in Botswana (87%), Zimbabwe (84%), Gabon (82%); and in the next tier, Kenya, Egypt, Eritrea (all 72%); Ghana, Cameroon, Angola (all 71%).

Included in the lowest tiers are Côte d’Ivoire (41%), Chad (38%), Burkina Faso (29%), Guinea (25%), Niger (15%). Significantly, these are all ex-colonies of France, which is quite satisfied with the status quo of poverty and illiteracy in those countries because it makes it easier for them to be exploited, a prime example being Niger.

Literacy continues to rise in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), and although the increases year on year have been small, at least they’re going in the right direction.

Line graph showing increasing literature rates in sub-Saharan Africa
Twenty-year literacy rates, sub-Saharan Africa (World Atlas)

Unfortunately, a sharp gender gap exists in literacy, so while literacy trends upward for women and girls 15 years old and over, rates among male counterparts are 1.2 - 1.4 times higher.

Why are the literacy rates low in sub-Saharan Africa?
According to UNESCO, 27% of the world’s illiterate people live in SSA. It is stunning and appalling that in Niger and Burkina Faso, 90% of women and girls are illiterate. On the whole, in SSA, here are a couple of facts:

• More than 1 in 3 adults cannot read.
• 48 million youth (ages 15-24) are illiterate.
• 22% of primary aged children are not in school, about 30 million kids.
A number of factors contribute to this status, and while I won’t delve too deeply into all of them, some are worth mentioning.
  • Poverty, obviously, is the major factor, relating to literacy in a chicken-and-egg fashion. In much of SSA, people are too poor to send their children to school, because, make no mistake, school fees, tuition and books are rarely free.
  • Child labor, a politically loaded term because it’s sometimes used in the sense of indentured servitude. In the SSA context, however, children may be asked to help their parent(s) or other relative(s) with their trade, whether it be farming or other livelihood.
  • Generational illiteracy means the passing down the inability to read from parents to offspring. An illiterate parent will not have personal knowledge of the advantages of being able to read in the world at large, and they may not realize what their kids are and will be missing.
  • Government inadequacies lead to problems of distribution and supply, particularly to remote rural areas. In his article, Tony Read (an appropriate surname indeed) of the World Bank Group writes, “. . . despite decades of funding by governments and DPs [development partners], few low-income SSA countries have been able to establish sustainable systems for providing textbooks and other essential TLMs [teaching and learning materials] on a regular basis.
The efforts of NGOs
Several NGOs are attempting to compensate for the gaps and deficiencies in the provision of TLMs to schools and school libraries, particularly in rural areas. One is the African Library Project, another is World Reader, which focuses on both digital and hardcopy reading.

During my travels to Nigeria, I serendipitously discovered an NGO called African Rural Volunteers (ARV). This encounter came about because it turned out my Nigerian travel guides, brothers Evans and Confidence Aguiyi, who run their own company You Come Africa also run ARV. I hadn't known this before my journey, but I was immediately interested.

With Evans (R) and Confidence (L) in front of the National Museum in Benin City, Nigeria  (Photo: KWEI QUARTEY)
Aguiyi brothers, Confidence (L), Evans (R) and me (Photo: Kwei Quartey)

Evans Aguiyi, who is very passionate about his cause, points out that, “In most rural communities, there are not enough teachers, quality of education is low, and the schools lack or in most cases don’t have functional libraries. Most families are poor and can’t afford good quality reading books, textbooks, novels, or story books."

ARV partners with UK's Book Cycle, which in turn partners with Thrive Africa, a Ghanaian charity whose vision is to improve children’s education and women’s empowerment across Ghana, and who engages in library building and other projects.

ARV is a very comprehensive NGO with a number of different facets. Apart from donations, there are opportunities for volunteers to sign up for orphanage care, teaching, soccer coaching, construction, and so on.

ARV’s Book Project includes distribution of the books provided by Book Cycle with the ultimate goal of building mini-libraries stocked with these books. But this takes money. Book Cycle provides the books but not the funding for the clearing them from the ports and distributing them. Without that, the books are more or less useless.

Anyone who has traveled in SSA knows how difficult access to many rural areas can be. Invariably, tough off-road SUVs must be used to get through bush and bad roads. Gas isn’t cheap, either; in Ghana, for example, fuel prices run around the same level as here in the US, but unlike the US, those prices only ever go in one direction: up.

Evans Aguiyi relates a story of Sade (pronounced "sha-DAY;” yes, like the singer), a teenage Yoruba girl he met in Ilara-Akaka, which is a town in Ogun State, Nigeria. Sade was without a home after her family abandoned her for unknown reasons. She had no financial means whatsoever, but what she wanted most wasn’t money, it was a book of her own. ARV was able to provide her not only books, but a solar lamp for night reading. In the midst of an awful circumstance in her young life, Sade looked to reading for solace. What a poignant and heart-rending story.

African kids crowding around to receive a book
Young students clamoring for books (Photo: African Rural Volunteers)
For an idea of the monumental task at hand, check out this video starring Evans Aguiyi.


  1. Sobering, Kwei. You didn't mention South Africa which is also in the top category. However, disappointingly, the rate fell from almost 95% to 87% over the last five years of the decade. I'd guess that trend continued over the two covid years.

    1. Oh, yes, apologies--I missed that. Yes Covid won't have made it any better.

  2. I have previously written about a wonderful organisation in Minneapolis/St Paul called Books for Africa. Over its existence of just over 30 years, it has donated something like 53 million books to Africa. Recently it has also started donating e-readers and computers. Yesterday I delivered 10 tablets to a most remarkable school in the sprawling township of Kyelitsha just outside Cape Town. I will write about the school and its founder soon.

    As I am always asking for support for Books for Africa, here's the link to an effort to fund a container of books (about 40,000) for a project in Kubu's homeland, Botswana. I thank those of you who have already donated - nearly $3,000.

    I wish you all a very festive holiday season and a healthy and happy 2022. May it be better than the current year.

    1. Wonderful--thanks for the link, I'll check it out

    2. I signed up with them and I'm donating a small amount monthly

  3. An important post, Kwei. Thanks to Stan, I've given to that charity, and feel great about doing so. Every time I watch my 8-year-old granddaughter get lost in a book (which is often these days) it makes me think of how important it is to do what can be done to fight illiteracy--if we want any hope of making this a better world.