To mark International Literacy Day, Tererai Trent, PhD, Educator and Humanitarian, talks about the importance of education as a pathway out of poverty.
It began with a geography book. I was eight-years-old and excited to look at a book my brother had brought home from school. But when he opened the pages, nothing made sense to me. I cried, pleading with him to tell me what was in the book.
Today, as we mark International Literacy Day, I am reminded of the despair I felt 40 years ago, in a small village in Zimbabwe, living in the darkness of illiteracy.
Poverty and time-held traditions prevented many girls like me from going to school at that time, but I was determined to learn what my brother learned at school.
In the afternoons, after taking our family’s herd of cattle to graze, my brother and I would sneak away to sit under the shade of a Munhunguru tree. He would patiently teach me how to sound out words in English and Shona, our local language, and explain their meaning.
The world has changed a lot since then. More children in low-income countries are in school today. Wealthy nations have done more to promote and support education in developing countries. And developing countries have made education more of a priority.
It is an achievement of which we all should be proud. But rapid enrollment has brought its own set of challenges, among them overcrowded classrooms, children entering school for the first time at different ages, and ill-equipped and unprepared teachers.
Indeed, more children are attending school, but many of them do so without learning. Research by Save the Children in Ethiopia, Malawi, Nepal and Pakistan reveals that a startling number of children in the early grades could not read a single word.
Education is a proven pathway out of poverty, but only if children know how to read and learn along the way. How can we achieve this?
First, we need trained teachers. There are many teachers whose dedication is beyond reproach but who have not received guidance on how to teach children properly. This is true especially in conflict-affected countries where education systems have been disrupted, often for years.
My own story reveals the impact a skilled teacher can have on a child. My brother’s teacher, Mr. Gwaradzimba, caught on that I was doing my brother’s homework. Instead of penalizing my brother, he pleaded with my father to let me attend school.
The first day I stepped inside the classroom, shoeless and wearing my father’s shirt as a dress, Mr. Gwaradzimba warmly welcomed me. He had faith in me and often said, “Tererai, the way you read and write is not perfect, but I will teach you how to do it better.”
But the responsibility of teaching our children how to be better readers and learners does not rest on teachers alone, regardless of how well-trained they are. Within communities, a culture of reading outside classrooms must also exist.
This culture develops when reading is encouraged at home and through community activities like creating reading materials or encouraging children to read signs that they see as part of their daily life.
Finally, countries need to put in place policies and investments that support children’s literacy programs. In today’s climate, where budgets for global education are in danger of severe cuts, it saddens me to know that gains in education are being threatened. There are children who may never be reached.
Forty years ago, I was a young cattle-herding girl with a dream for an education. Who would have imagined that I would go on to get my bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees? As I reflect on my journey, I am reminded that the need to create social justice through education remains urgent. There are children who still need the same opportunity that I received. Why should my dream not be possible for all children? It is achievable – Tinogona.
ONE would like to thank Save the Children US for their help in preparing this blog post. Photo of Tererai Trent by Glen McDowell photography. Photo of children reading at the Matau Primary School courtesy of Save the Children.