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Wednesday, 26 April, 2000, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
Learning the hard way
Adults in classroom
Nigerian adults get a second chance at education (Photo: EFA Forum/Ademola Idown)
By Liz Blunt in Dakar, Senegal

Once I met a man on a train, on the line that runs along the southern edge of the Sahara, from Bamako in Mali down to Dakar, where presidents and other dignitaries are gathering this week to discuss the state of the world's education.

This man had flown in from Paris where he worked, and was going to his home village near the Senegalese border to preside over the opening of a new village school.

The general view seems to have been that education was for wimps

He himself had never been to school or learned to read or write. Nobody from his village went to school; they did not see the point. In Mali in those days, everyone who completed school got a government job, and a government job was a sure passport to poverty. Government salaries were pitifully low, and paid months in arrears when they were paid at all.

The general view seems to have been that education was for wimps - much better do what the other enterprising young men did and go to France. There, if you were prepared to work hard, you could earn good money, then go home, get married, build a house and be set up for life.

So the man had gone to Paris, worked night shifts in bakeries and laundries, and lived in a hostel with other immigrant workers from the same region. Every month, he and the others from his village put some of their wages into a fund, to be used for the development of their home area.

Dashed hopes

After some time, he told me, they had saved a good sum of money, and it was decided that what the village really needed was a shop, so that people did not have to go all the way to town just to buy everyday essentials. So they found premises, stocked the shelves, and - since no one there had enough education - they hired someone from outside the village to run it.

But the result was a disaster - the manager turned out to be a crook who cheated the villagers and eventually ran off with the takings. The project collapsed.

There was even a man ... who held down a semi-clerical job for years before anyone realised he could not read or write.

Back in the hostel in Paris, the workers built up their fund again, and eventually had enough money to think of doing something else. This time they decided to buy a truck, to provide transport and get produce to market. They went to the truck company in Bamako, met the German manager, and put down a substantial deposit.

When they had saved the rest they went back, only to find that the manager had gone back to Germany and there was no one else who remembered them. And because they were illiterate they had not kept anything in writing. So once again they lost their money.

It was at this point, as you may already have realised, that the villagers finally began to see the benefit of education and the workers started to save their money to build a school.

Covering up

The man on the train was not unusual for a man of his age in that part of West Africa - you quite often meet people like him - intelligent and capable people who just never learned to read and write. It is not something they are particularly proud of, so you often only realise by chance - when a former employee, direct and plain-spoken in person, sends you a letter full of amazingly flowery old-fashioned phrases, the stock in trade of the professional letter writer.

Employers are getting wary of hiring workers who cannot read instructions and safety signs.

Or when a hire car driver, who owns his own vehicle and has a successful business, always seems to have left his receipt book at home, so that he has to bring the receipt round to you later, neatly filled in, almost certainly by someone else. There was even a man who worked as an office-boy for one of the international news agencies in Nigeria who held down a semi-clerical job for years before anyone realised he could not read or write. It was actually the cook who was reading him the notes and instructions left by the correspondent.

And if life in a present-day African city needs ingenuity and subterfuge for those who cannot read, life in Europe is even harder. My friend on the train said it was getting more and more difficult to find jobs. In the bakeries the overnight orders are posted on the wall; whereas fellow workers always used to help out those who could not read as a matter of course, now some of the younger ones simply stare in amazement.

And employers are getting wary of hiring workers who cannot read instructions and safety signs.

The train got to his stop; I wished him the very best of luck for his new school. Shortly afterwards I got off as well, to visit a locust control project right up on the edge of the desert.

At the site were containers of powerful pesticides covered in written warnings - always to wear masks and gloves, to wipe off any splashes on the skin, never to use the empty containers for drinking water. But very few of the workers could read.

Literacy is never a luxury, and sometimes in the remotest of places it can be a matter of life and death.

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06 Dec 99 | Africa
African education in decline
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