Adult literacy

Getting back on track

Tanzania has launched a multi-faceted programme to boost its literacy rate. The education ministry, which will coordinate funding and implementation, says a literate population is a precondition for economic development.
Too many people cannot read: newspaper vendor in Dar es Salaam in March 2021. picture-alliance/ASSOCIATED PRESS Too many people cannot read: newspaper vendor in Dar es Salaam in March 2021.

Tanzania, plagued with a 22.4 % illiteracy rate among residents over 15 years of age, has set its sights on achieving 100 % literacy. The government has set a blueprint for achieving this goal in a wide-ranging “National Adult Literacy and Mass Education Rolling Strategy 2020/21 to 2024/25”.

Among other measures, the plan supports literacy courses across the country, sets up a monitoring database to track progress and funds creation of learning materials. It also pays for teacher training and research on best practices.

Tanzania’s current illiteracy rate puts it well behind schedule for achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4.6, which calls for 100 % literacy among youths and adults by 2030. The government says its high rate of illiteracy is due to budget shortfalls and reductions in donor funding.

In particular, scarce resources have resulted in poorly trained teachers, staffing shortages, overcrowded classrooms, as well as insufficient teaching and learning materials. In some cases, classrooms designed for 45 pupils accommodate 100. A high dropout rate in primary and secondary schools, traceable in large measure to these poor conditions, also means that illiteracy has stayed quite common.

Tanzania’s illiteracy problem is all the more depressing because it represents a reversal of initial progress. When the country attained independence in 1961, its first leader, Julius Nyerere, made literacy a top priority for adults as well as children. Within three decades, illiteracy fell from an estimated 70 % to 14.5 % of the population. UNESCO recognised Tanzania for its successful literacy drive.

Since the early 1990s, however, Tanzania has gone backwards. Today’s rate of illiteracy of 22.4 % means that 5.5 million residents over 15 cannot read or write.

Multiple dividends

Boosting the country’s literacy rate – as well as offering continuing education to adults who are literate but wish to develop their skills – will pay multiple dividends, says James Mdoe of the education ministry. Developing skills in reading and writing as well as in a wide range of other areas will build Tanzanians’ capacity to “identify, interpret and take appropriate action to address challenges in the environment,” he says.

A youth or adult who cannot read, write or do simple calculations is disadvantaged economically and is being deprived of a fundamental right, the government officer adds. Being able to read and write also enables citizens to perform more complex tasks, take on more responsibility, understand problems better and develop solutions. In short, “a literate and informed society is the basis for sustainable development,” Mdoe says.

But achieving that goal will be costly. The education sector accounts for 15 % of Tanzania’s national budget and 3.9 % of Gross Domestic Product. The government says that this time, unlike in the past, literacy programmes will be funded mainly by the national government rather than by foreign donors.

Beyond funding, the project will require “joint efforts by stakeholders at all levels,” Mdoe says. Experts will be needed to organise recruitment and training of teachers, to direct research on adult-literacy methods and to promote innovation in continuing education. Other project officials will look into bringing multimedia technologies into classrooms, targeting educational outreach to young women and improving the design of tests that measure progress.

Some components of boosting literacy, on the other hand, are relatively simple and direct. These include initiatives such as distributing radios in rural areas to support lifelong learning and handing out reading materials including rural newspapers to reinforce reading habits.

Lawrence Kilimwiko is a freelance journalist based in Dar es Salaam.

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