Scholars share African perspective in literacy conversation

With a new grant of CA$700,000 (US$527,000) from Global Affairs Canada, Context Matters is set to begin its second half-decade of studying literacy in Africa. Context Matters (CM) is a programme created by CODE, a Canadian NGO that focuses on early grade literacy in Africa with special concern for girls’ literacy and gender equality.

Research is planned for both Liberia and Sierra Leone – both of which are post-conflict, fragile states – and in refugee populations in Sub-Saharan Africa.

CM research studies such as ‘Adolescents’ literary practices in and out of school in Uganda’, conducted by a team led by Dr Rebecca Nambi, who teaches in the College of Education and External Studies at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, differ from the large studies conducted by the World Bank or the European Union.

In addition to identifying obstacles girls face in learning to read, and understanding promising practices that facilitate acquiring literacy, CM builds academic capacity among African scholars studying the teaching of reading in Africa.

“The World Bank’s or European Union’s projects cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, and often involve researchers from elsewhere. Even when the research is done in Africa, it’s often completed by researchers from elsewhere,” says Scott Walter, the executive director of CODE, founded in 1959 in Toronto, Canada, and formerly known as the Canadian Organization for Development through Education.

Support with academic publishing

“What’s unique about the Context Matters programme is that our grants are relatively small, about CA$10,000 [US$7,500], and they are meant to be used by African scholars over the course of a period of 24 months.

“The grants give academic scholars and educators the opportunity to work in collaboration with their own communities to explore solutions that can be used in a practical way as opposed to producing a massive study that often gets put on the shelves of ministries of education.”

As Ugochukwu Okoye, who directs the CM programme from CODE’s office in Ottawa, Ontario, told University World News, CM will sponsor its scholars to attend international literacy conferences and to have their work published in reputable literacy journals.

“At the same time that we want scholars to research and generate context-based evidence for literacy projects on the ground, we want our researchers to be able to join the global conversation, sharing the African perspective around education and literacy,” says Walter.

Colonial past

Central to understanding the challenge of teaching literacy in Africa is the continent’s colonial past. In many countries, the primary school curriculum has been nationalised and is taught in mother tongue languages; primary schools in Ethiopia teach in 13 official languages, for example, with Oromo or Amharic being spoken by 63% of the population and Kafa or Silt’e being spoken by 2.3%.

However, midway through primary, the language of instruction shifts abruptly to either English in former English colonies like Kenya and Nigeria, or French in countries like Senegal and Mali.

Referring to Africa’s Anglosphere, Walter says that, while primary students study English, it is one subject among others.

Expecting students in grades four or five to study all courses in which, for the most part, the reading materials are in English, had been catastrophic for the nation’s education goals.

“It simply is not true that most students have mastered spoken English well enough to learn the material, and even fewer have mastered reading.”

Still less do African students have the cultural literacy an American student would have to understand texts written by Americans or Britons for American or British middle and high school students, says the Nigerian-born and educated Okoye, who is now studying for his PhD in anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

“There’s a disconnect between the literature and literacy materials which they use and the reality within which they [the students] live.”

CODE helps address this disconnect by funding African writers and illustrators to produce contextually and linguistically relevant reading and learning materials – hundreds of texts in multiple countries – for the primary school grades.

Even in Liberia, the oldest African republic, which was settled by expatriated American slaves, English may be the medium of instruction in all grades but it is not the true lingua franca: a creole language is.

“So, you had generations of children learning a language that they couldn’t understand. And, so, among other things, this contributed to the high dropout rates and school failure,” Walter told University World News.

A major consequence of this colonial holdover is the catastrophic rates of illiteracy across much of the continent. The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update, published by a consortium that includes UNESCO; the humanitarian aid organisation UNICEF; and the World Bank, reports that, in both low- and middle-income African countries, the learning poverty rate has increased to 70%; ‘learning poverty’ is defined as being unable to understand a simple written text at 10 years of age. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the figure rises to 89%.

Because of learning poverty, the United Nations has declared a ‘learning crisis’ that recognises that Sustainable Development Goal Four, to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all – ‘universal secondary school completion by 2030’ – is out of reach.

“The United Nations is making an extraordinary admission,” says Walter. “They’re telling low-income countries to forget about universal secondary education by 2030. In fact, forget about universal primary education by 2030. The majority of your kids can’t read and write, so that’s what you need to focus on.

“How can this be? The answer is that, while there are way more African kids in school than ever before, they’re simply not learning. And they’re not learning because their teachers are unqualified. Rather, there is little or no access to relevant teaching and learning resources.

“We’re not saying this [Context Matters] is a silver bullet. But we are saying that righting this ship requires evidence-based [teaching strategies and materials] better informed by contextually relevant research – in other words, African educators with the means and capacity to investigate African problems in order to come up with more African solutions.”

Focusing on girls

In keeping with CODE’s emphasis on girls’ literacy, most of the research projects in the Context Matters programme focus on girls’ empowerment and equity, says Walter.

Among the Context Matters research projects is one conducted by professors Daniel Sidney Fussy and Hassan Iddy Hassan, both of whom teach in the faculty of education of Mkwawa University College of Education in Iringa, Tanzania.

Their study, ‘Investigating Girls’ Literacy Practices In and Out of School in Rural Tanzania’, carried out between 2019 and 2020, was only the second study of Tanzanian indigenous peoples to utilise the Standpoint Theory, which is regularly used in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Standpoint Theory holds that individuals’ expectations and perspectives are the product of their social context, including political power; it foregrounds respectful and culturally safe research with – not of – indigenous people by recognising how they create objective accounts of their world.

Fussy and Hassan surveyed 295 girls in grades one through four in a school in Choma village in the rural Igunga District of Tabora region in north-central Tanzania; additionally, they interviewed the students’ parents and teachers as well as school officials and religious and village leaders.

The research showed that the girls had access to a variety of print materials and used print more than any other literacy materials, such digital media. The girls do not engage “with traditional literacy materials like poems, folklore, proverbs and metaphors, music, dance, legends, myths or rituals,” write Fussy and Hassan. They do, however, engage with text-based storytelling, drama and songs.

The challenges to girls’ literacy were interconnected. The first, note Fussy and Hassan, is the patriarchal nature of their families and communities. In addition to being responsible for many household chores, “girls are normally considered inferior to boys, leading to their denigration, whether overtly or covertly, through words and actions”.

An education officer working at ward level told the researchers that “parents from our Sukuma [a Bantu ethnic group] communities believe that, if you are a girl, you should not go to school; instead, you have to get married.

“They say: ‘When you go to study, who will you marry? Who will marry a scholar? If you go to school, you will finish our cows and never get married’. Then the girl gives up after being told that.” Despite many teachers’ efforts, these attitudes tend to prevail at school.

Though they do not use the term colonialism, Fussy and Hassan observed its effects. Their data “revealed that only a few students are conversant with the English language. During debate competitions, subject clubs and morning speeches, all students were observed struggling to communicate their ideas in English.”

Although, as Okoye told me, “our goal is to generate evidence that supports ways to achieve gender empowerment in the context of African societies,” the evidence Fussy and Hassan produced led them to call for a campaign to raise awareness to change “local attitudes among parents towards girls’ education” to ensure that girls and boys enjoy equal educational opportunities.

Such a campaign requires, they note, working with religious and local leaders and others who are respected and trusted in the village as “their involvement can help reduce or eliminate negative attitudes” toward educating girls.

Negative gender stereotypes

In their study, published in 2021, professors Yewulsew Malek Mehari, Mekonnen Esubalew Tariku, and Yigzaw Kerebih Belete, showed that the school texts were massively skewed toward negative female gender stereotypes.

‘Gender Representations in Ethiopian English as a Foreign Language Materials: Perceptions and Perceived Effects’ also showed that “female students were affected negatively” by these stereotypes and that they were being influenced by them.

Mehari and the other researchers all teach in the department of English language and literature at Debre Markos University in Debre Markos, 300km north-west of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

This study is divided into two parts. The first is a content analysis of pronouns in two textbooks and one reference book designed to teach English to Ethiopians. Both the grade nine and grade 10 English textbooks were published by Pearson, Ltd UK in collaboration with an Ethiopian publisher. The English as a foreign language reference book was published in Ethiopia.

They found that, when referring to both sexes, the grade nine textbook used masculine pronouns 66 times and did not use the feminine pronoun at all. The grade 10 textbook used masculine pronouns 27 times and did not use feminine pronouns at all.

All three books used more male first names, with the grade nine textbook using 290 male names and no female first names. The reference book used 449 male names and 257 female names.

The figures for positive description of males versus females was 15:6 for the grade nine textbook, 33:19 for the grade 10 textbook and 13:9 for the reference book. Males were depicted negatively less often than females in all books, the ratios being 3:19, 14:19 and 5:27, respectively.

The illustrations examined under the rubric of ‘Gender Representations in Social Roles/Actions’ show that each book depicted more males than females “doing outdoor activities” while the majority of representations of females showed them doing “indoor activities”, many linked to household chores. The reference book showed the greatest difference: depicting men doing indoor activities 38 times and females 56 times.

Mehari and the other researchers found that posture analysis of the images showed women often looking “subservient and vulnerable” (appearing to beg or by looking down). In the grade nine textbook, by a ratio of 5:2, women “were portrayed in low-status places such as private or enclosed spaces”; males, by contrast, were seen in high-status places such as stadiums. Female figures were more likely to wear shabby clothes than were male figures.

The study’s respondents told the interviewers that they noticed these differences. And, indicating a high degree of consciousness about the impact of such imagery, that if textbooks were to effectively counter the patriarchal norms of their culture, “females need to outnumber them [men]”.

Difficulty in decoding and interpreting written English did not prevent several girls from identifying the impact of unequal and traditional use of pronouns. One student justified the call for more female pronouns because having them would “compensate for previous underestimation of girls”, Mehari writes.

Other findings include: girls felt that when they were referred to by masculine pronouns (groups) they felt that they were being represented as males; one girl noted that proper nouns that show inferiority of men or women should not be used in English textbooks, and students preferred “police officer” to “policeman” and “chairperson” instead of “chairman”.

The researchers concluded that the reading materials not only reflect the male-dominated social tradition but that, they “might negate females’ empowerment” (emphasis in original) and contribute to the high rate of girls dropping out because they are sensitive to the underestimation of females embodied in the textbooks.

The traditional presentation of girls and women leads, the authors suggest, to “psychological barriers to education such as the inferiority complex”.

Mehari and her co-authors recommend preparing policy briefing documents to inform the government that the effect of the reading materials runs counter to Ethiopia’s stated position, via its signature on such documents as the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (2004), on gender empowerment and equity.

Additionally, they recommend sharing their findings with educators to make them aware of the effect of these textbooks. They also call for “psychological support” to girls so they do not develop inferiority complexes.

Researchers ‘walk a fine line’

CODE’s researchers have to walk a fine line, Okoye told University World News. For, even as they seek ways of improving girls’ literacy, with the ultimate intent of empowering their learning, the context of these girls’ lives remains at the forefront of their analysis and recommendations.

“When we talk about girls’ empowerment,” Okoye says, “it’s in a different context in the case of Africa than it is in the West. African societies are predominantly patriarchal. Western views of empowerment, Western feminism are products of Western culture. You cannot take the same ideas and apply them to gender equity in Africa; if you do, you will be met with stiff opposition because it’s seen as a threat to the predominant patriarchal system.”

This does not mean, he continued, that literacy for girls and empowerment for women is impossible in traditional African cultures and African Islamic cultures. Rather, it means that empowering girls will take different shapes, depending on the context.

“One of our goals is to be able to generate evidence that supports those ways of achieving gender literacy and empowerment within the context of the culture the girls live in.”

By way of example, he pointed to his native Nigeria where, recognising that women are most often the primary caregivers and run the home, NGOs have tailored economic programmes to what is possible. Women who, for religious reasons, are not allowed to leave their homes unaccompanied, are taught how to make body creams or handbags. These home-based businesses provide, Okoye says, a certain amount of economic empowerment, a certain economic independence.

“Women are the entrepreneurs of Africa,” says Walter. “No matter what the context of their society, if they’re going to do micro-enterprises at home, they still have to have access to learning and learning tools, and the ability to use the internet and look for market possibilities. They require the foundational – literacy – skills to be able to do that.

“How it is best for them to acquire these skills is not for us to say. Rather, Context Matters’ research is intended to help local activists or individual educators to say: ‘How can we make this work?’ within their own society and afford a way for them to share African studies of literacy with their colleagues around the world.”