This question may seem very irrelevant to you. Literacy has always been a part of the life you remember, though your competence in reading and writing may have grown over the years. So maybe I should ask you a different question:
How would your life be different if you weren’t literate?
The obvious answer might be “I wouldn’t be able to read my Bible,” or “I couldn’t read the sports section of the newspaper or browse the internet.” But literacy impacts our lives beyond reading and writing. Some things I could think of…
- I wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere new. I wouldn’t be able to read the road signs, much less the directions someone might give me. Even better, I wouldn’t be able to type an address into Google Maps because I would have no such computer skills—all that typing and navigating requires a pretty high literacy level. Heck, I wouldn’t even be driving—I wouldn’t be able to pass the CA written test!
- I wouldn’t be able to order coffee at Starbucks. If I did have the guts to ASK for coffee, I wouldn’t know what specials they might be having, what new drinks they have, and, I wouldn’t be able to read the prices for the drinks. I wouldn’t know for sure if the barista was giving me the correct price, or cheating me. Being a barista is not the highest paying job; how do I know she didn’t charge me an extra dollar, which she will later pocket?
- I may not know the details of a bill being passed by my state legislature that will have a profound affect on me as a citizen. Right now, I get notices from my student association about bills, etc, that affect me as a young adult, and I can email or write to my representative’s office to let him/her know where I stand on an issue. Were I not literate, maybe someone would tell me, but I would not be able to “research” the details myself—key to deciding where I stand on an issue so I can authoritatively voice my position.
This list could go on. Some of you may not consider yourselves “readers,” but you nevertheless use our literacy skills to navigate our daily life. I encourage you to add to this list, perhaps as a comment to this post.
I traveled down to Dang—a southwest region of Nepal—two weeks ago, with members of my NGO to visit one of our partner NGOs and the community groups with which they work. The groups I had the privilege of visiting talked widely about how literacy had impacted their lives. These groups were made up of women, most of them in their 20s and 30s, who had come together initially to take literacy classes conducted in their villages—the first opportunity most of them had had in their lives to learn to read and write. For them, literacy is not an end in and of itself. It’s the means to tangibly improve their lives. Before being literate, many of them had been easily cheated in the marketplace because they lacked basic arithmetic skills, and were uninformed about laws that in fact protected their children from being sent to the landlord’s house as a slave to repay a debt. They did not have the skills needed to network with each other, discuss these issues, and look for ways to solve these problems. Now that they are literate, their confidence is transferred to other areas of their lives. Here are some of the things these ladies are now doing:
~ One group has opened a general goods store in their vicinity. By providing needed commodities to their village (laundry soap, salt, etc), they are able to fund their own group and provide scholarships for some village children whose families couldn’t afford school tuition.
~All the groups I visited were very excited about the new toilets they had built in their homes, and better aware of the importance of clean water when it comes to staying healthy. Learning how to spell “water” in their classes had opened the floor for talking over all such issues and brainstorming how to make things better in their community.
~ All of the ladies better understood the importance of sending their children to school, and were better equipped to communicate the priority of school to their children and help them with their homework. Well, all but one lady…when she was brave enough to say “my children don’t go to school; they don’t want to so I don’t make them,” the other ladies were quick to lay into her about the importance of sending her kids to school!
~ One of the groups was made up of Tharu women and high-caste Brahmin and Chetri women—and they worked together! They even liked each other! The Tharu are the people group indigenous to the southern Terai region of Nepal. Once malaria was brought under control during the 1950s, people from the hills—mainly high-caste Hindus, who’s groups rule Nepal—began to move into the area and basically colonized the region, American style (think of how in many cases Native Americans were driven off their historic land or cheated out of it, etc, by European settlers). As a result, there is historic tension between these groups. In light of this, I was impressed with how well the Tharu and Nepali ladies in this group interacted with each other.
~A few of the girls I met were former kamlaharis, or house-servants, sent to work at a landlord’s house. Their families made this decision for a variety of reasons, not just to repay a debt. While the government of Nepal outlawed this practice several years ago, it is still widely practiced in the Terai today. These girls had all returned to their families or were with relatives, and all on scholarship from the government to attend school. One of them had become the office assistant for the NGO we partner with in Dang. She had been involved in over 200 kamlahari rescues this past year! This meant coordinating with the local police and dealing with the dozens of phone calls and messages threatening her well-being as well as others at the local NGO.
~ Many of the groups were beginning to think of becoming politically involved. It’s a bit much for me to give a history lesson here, but Nepal’s new government will put the control of community resources back into the community’s hands. This gives formerly suppressed groups, like the Tharu, a voice in how community resources will be used. However, in order to do this affectively, they need to have skills gained through literacy. The involvement that many of these women have now had in their communities makes them prime candidates to be elected into these positions.
All of these women’s primary concern is “how can we better improve the quality of life for our families and our communities?” Literacy has become the entry point into making these changes happen.
Many of you are probably asking, “what about the men?” and “ where does the Gospel come into all this?” These are questions I’m still finding the answers to as I work with LDC-Nepal. Stay tuned!