Early this month of September anno domini nostri Christi 2021, Malawians joined the entire world in commemorating and celebrating literacy day. Debates were recorded and broadcast on national public TV in which the participants extolled the virtues of literacy in personal, national regional (not provincial), and international development.
Our indefatigable leader of delegation, the Genuine Professor Dr Joyce Befu, MEGA-1, has directed that we, her hands and boots in the mud, should expand on the topic to emphasise why literacy is critical.
Most people, including literacy scholars, tend to limit their discussion to the ability to read and write at a certain material of a certain difficulty at a certain age and level of formal education. However, this is not enough for personal, national, and regional international development.
The ability to read and write in one’s language and others’ languages is very important because it assists one to be aware of knowledge hidden behind those languages’ codes. Literacy, as Stuart Hall, Roland Barthes, Ferdinand de Saussure, and other luminary semiologists (or semioticians if you love Americanisms) would have put, is the ability to decipher the communication code and derive meaning therefrom.
To do so, one has to learn the codes and the communication environment in which they are used. One learns these as part of one’s cultural upbringing or as part of one’s formal education. A Tonga child born in Utonga will learn and understand Chitonga naturally because Chitonga is part of his or her linguistic environment. To learn Chichewa, and Chitonga, the Tonga child will have to be taught these new but local Malawian languages in school or during peer-learning processes. To learn English, the same Tonga child will have to add new terminologies and structures to his already dense Tonga, Tumbuka, and Chewa multilingual dictionary.
According to the contrastive linguist, Francis Chilipaine, when these many languages are not learned properly or fully, the lexical items, and syntactical structures keep knocking against each other resulting in errors of expression that we often see and read about.
As such, learning and teaching contrastive morpho-syntax of local languages and foreign languages at an early moment in the education continuum is important.
Apart from this linguistic literacy, students need to learn numeracy in their early life. This will develop their ability to reason and understand multiplication, subtraction, addition and other operations. In later life, as they acquire more advanced formal education, this foundational numeracy literacy will assist them in data analysis, logical and evidence-based argumentation.
Mathematics educationist, Elias Kaphesi, has argued that mathematics is a language, meaning that like the ‘linguistic language’, understanding mathematics requires deciphering, interpreting and understanding the relationships among ‘mathematical’ codes. Ordinarily, therefore, a person well-groomed in linguistics should find no problem in understanding and excelling in mathematics.
In short, in Malawi children must learn language and mathematics early while their brains are uncorrupted. Literacy, to self-paraphrase, is not just about language, but also about anything requiring code interpretation.
Apart from those core areas of literacy, our discussions need to include other literacies. Motivational speaker, Henry Kachaje, says Malawians need money and financial literacy. Money and financial literacy need to be understood as early as possible in a child’s life.
Money, whether exogenous or indigenous (ask Prof Chinyamata Chipeta what indigenous money is) should be distinguished from wealth.
Many people do not have money but have a lot of wealth. In the Lower Shire Valley, Karonga, and Mzimba, for example, families are blessed with livestock comprising dozens of goats, pigs, cattle, hares, and other small ruminants. They also have plenty of poultry, guinea fowl, chicken, and the highly demanded quails (zinziri or timbuwi). But year in year out, the same families beg government to assist them because they are poor. We are wealthy poor people. We keep and treat our livestock and poultry as pets and cannot translate them into money.
For our country to develop, we need linguistic, mathematical, financial, money and wealth literacy.
Remember Vincent Wandale, president of the Republic of Thyolo and Mulanje?
He once said a person with more than once hectare of land cannot be called poor because that land alone is worth almost K2 million if sold. Now, between his detractors and Wandale who is mad? Land and other natural resources value literacy is equally important and it should be taught early in life.
If our chiefs knew the value of the land they hold on behalf of their communities they would not be selling it cheaply.
If we knew the value of our lake of stars and its fresh water, we would not accept the imposition that our GDP per capita in 2021 is only US$532.00. If we sold all our fresh water from our lake, would we just get US$532.00 per person? GDP valuers, are you still there? Do your work properly and tell our enemies that we are richer than their US$532.00 per capita nonsense.
Want to hear more about literacy? Think about cultural literacy. Do we really understand our cultures? Do we know that some of the things that we emphasise as human rights are just mere foreign cultures imposed on us? Should a man really marry a man in a country that has never ever known such a practice?
Still want more? National literacy. Do we understand what distinguishes us from other nations? If we do, why do we talk so cynically, negatively, and pejoratively about ourselves?
There is more to literacy than just reading and writing. Malawi’s literacy education should be holistic to ensure a fully literate citizenry. Only a fully literate citizen can fully contribute to nation. Tupikene amangwetu?