Unbroken Chains

By Martha Poller. Martha, 64, is a lecturer at NIMT, a vocational training centre in Namibia. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” – Victor Hugo.

Victor Hugo also said, “Rich minds think before they act, rich souls love before they hate, and people rich in both do not go to prison.”

Grace was born in the late sixties in a country that did not care about her education. While other children of her age were going to school, she was herding sheep in the veld. At night she went home to an illiterate mother that had no sentiments for either reading, or storytelling. She grew up in an environment where the pages of old magazines and newspapers were merely used to start a fire, nothing else.

What happened to her and her peers? Fifty years later we have an illiterate group of people, grossly bereaved of their rights in society. They suffer from low self-esteem and an unwillingness to contribute to the community they live in. They, themselves, do not realise what influence the lack of school has on them. They accept their crippled lives reluctantly and sink deeper and deeper into isolation behind the iron prison bars of their lonely souls.

According to a report of UNESCO Institute for Statistics in 2015, the literacy rate of the world population was 86.3% for all human beings – 90% men and 82.7% women were literate. Oddly enough, in Namibia more women (84.5%) are literate than men (79.2%). Perhaps this declares the reason why so many unemployed men drink and are in and out of jail continuously.

Fights, assault and domestic violence are further results of the frustration and anger that these people feel against society. They feel robbed of the many opportunities and the different lifestyles that educated people can afford.

Grace once tried to apply for an office job. It was nothing fancy, but she was fed-up with doing domestic work and decided to give it a shot. The first thing that was expected of her, was to fill in an application form … which she could not do, of course. She returned home, ashamed of being an adult woman and not knowing how to read or write. Suddenly she realised that she will never be able to do anything else but domestic work, a work that pays only the minimum wage.

Unfortunately, she has never learnt to discern between what she wants and what she really needs. She is always in trouble for buying the most absurd things on account and for not paying her regular monthly instalments. It is a vicious circle of buying and destroying stuff in carelessness. It sometimes seems that the more she buys, the less she has and her unquenchable thirst for new things is never satisfied.

Grace once landed herself in hospital. She had overdosed on prescribed medicine. No, not because she wanted to end her life, but because she was not able to read the prescribed dose on the bottle. What a frightening idea that you can lose your life because you cannot read!

In an effort to be recognised in society, she appointed herself as the number one guest on every social event, including funerals and weddings in town and surrounding areas. Not that she does something extraordinary at these events! She clothes herself nicely and spends her last money to get a lift to wherever the event takes place. She is not able to serve the community in any productive way; thus, she has decided to make these social events her mission. In some strange way it makes her feel important and good about herself.

She married a man that had passed the lower grades in primary school. They have four daughters. When the girls were in school, she was always complaining about them not studying. What made her come to that conclusion? She was not able to understand one single word in any of their textbooks. Of course, all of them dropped out of school at a very early stage. According to ProLiteracy, these girls had a 28% chance of succeeding in school. Children of illiterate parents usually display behavioural problems and drop out of school early, so this was no extraordinary behaviour of them.

Quite often children of illiterate parents become ‘street kids’ as they are generally known in Namibia. These children survive on wandering the streets, begging and/or stealing from people. Tourists are easy targets and they usually hand out money and food abundantly. More often than not, these street kids become involved with drugs and alcohol at a very young age. Often their parents are home, intoxicated, and they send their children to bring food from the streets. There have been numerous efforts to put these children in school, but they don’t stay – they are too used to the freedom of the streets. They are not really criminals, but in order to survive, they might turn to criminal offences like stealing, housebreaking, drug trafficking or other illegal activities.

Child marriages are not strange amongst illiterates. The girls leave school early and cannot find employment with their poor grades. The parents cannot take care of them and they are kicked out to make a living on their own. These girls either settle for a marriage with an older man, or they turn to prostitution. This thought is quite sickening, because, according to 2016 statistics about 10% of 2.48 million (250,000) Namibians are living with HIV. In Namibia the maternal mortality rate has almost doubled between 2000 and 2006 and rose to 200 deaths per 100,000 births. HIV AIDS is implicated in 59% of maternal deaths and 14% of infant deaths.

Illiteracy can be seen as a cruel kind of bondage, almost slavery. They are forever and ever tied to their literate partners. They can never operate independently, because they always need someone by their sides to help or navigate them through the mysterious maze of letters and figures. They need assistance to do the simplest things – things that we others take for granted: ‘Please, read this text message for me.’ or ‘What does this dress cost?’ or ‘Please help me to read this recipe’ and on and on.

From the above, it is clear that illiteracy and the unemployment rate are irreversibly connected to poverty and, quite often, criminal lifestyles and incarceration. There is but one way to eradicate all these things: Educate our people – teach them to read and write! However, the challenge is to convince them that a better future can lie ahead of them once they have mastered the basic reading and writing programme.

Maya Angelou, the American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist said: “Elimination of illiteracy is as serious an issue to our history as the abolition of slavery.”

12 comments on “Unbroken Chains

  1. Helena on

    This is so true espeicially in rural and soutthern parts of Namibia.A very insightful article.So said that that the ones who break free from this cycle ,somehow disregard the strugle that got them there and sell corruption and shortcuts as the way out of this gripping norm

  2. Marie Szewzyk on

    The article on literacy or illiteracy is indeed food for thought. The UNESCO statistics quoted for average literacy of the world population, namely 86.3% seems to be high if you think of Africa on its own. Maybe UNESCO meant the ‘first world’ ? I would agree that illiteracy, poverty and violence go hand-in-hand. If one can unlock a child’s mind and soul from birth, it will be a different human being growing up. Education is the key to a better life. Thank you Martha Poller for this informative article.


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