I came to this strange realisation in October, last year. Growing up, all around me, formal education was not something anybody deliberated on. The only question asked was on if the child would attend a private or public school depending on the means of the parent or guardian.
It was also normal to have started school by age two and when it was their turn, our younger ones automatically joined us in school. Even family in other parts of Nigeria too, attended schools. It was one mutual ground of discussions between us- our schools. As at Secondary school, even the dullest student could read and write.
Since I started my compulsory service year and started teaching in a community school in Bayelsa, south of Nigeria. I have had to revist these memories with veneration.
I’m sitting in my room and in walks 14 year old Kima. She’s excited to see me writing and asks me to ask her to recite the Alphabets. I oblige her but I’m not impressed when she scales through. I remember my baby cousin reciting her 2-letter words and I ask Kima to do same just for the fun of it.
”Two letter words?”, is her reply.
”Yes, Two letter word.” Then I decide to give her a little nudging so I start the recital; “I-T, IT. A- M, Am, I-F, If and so on. Now you continue.”
She stares back at me more confused. I write down the first word I recited and tell her to read it. She says ”A”, then stops.
“No!” I say, “read them together.” Her next action confuses me. Kima begins to laugh.
I’m flabbergasted and change tactic, ”Kima forget two letter words”. Gives her my pen and paper. ”You just recited the alphabets. I want you to write them down”. She takes them from me eagerly but when I check back on her five minutes later, she has written down one ‘A’ and five ‘Bs’.
To tell the truth, I get angry then. I somehow could not understand how anyone could recite a thing and not be able to write it. I thought she was playing around. I decided to use pidgin English. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe she just was not understanding me.
”Kima! I talk say make you write all the alphabets. A, B, C, D, down to Z”.
This time around, I watch her hold the pen in an awkward position and was sure she was up to no good. Truly, she starts by writing the plus (+) sign, then about five different As.
To cut my story short, it took another futile five minutes before my thick brain begins to analyse the facts staring me in the face. It gives me a conclusion: The lady sitting in front of me could recognise only up to the second letter of the English Alphabet. When I point to ”C”, she’s lost. The girl in front of me can not read. The 14year old in front of me is illiterate.
Call me sheltered. Call me spoilt but to say I was shocked at that realisation, would be an understatement. But I’m not done with my narration. Something else happened that same day that made me think further.
More of Kima
Kima re-enters my room again, flops down on my bed, picks up the book I’d been reading earlier in the day and smiles at me. ”Aunty eh,” she says, ”shey make I read am?”. I accept and she boldly says some rubbish and throws a grin my way.
I’m unable to smile back. My earlier encounter with her still fresh in my head. My heart still full of sadness. This is when I notice, she’s holding the book upside down. I straighten it and tell her that what she had just read had been wrong. She doesn’t seem to understand this and soon leaves.
I’ll later find out that she was withdrawn from school at primary one (mainly 1st year of school around this side usually between 6-8 years old) for her roguish behaviour. She never submitted to authority and as hilarious as it sounds, she would regularly beat up her teachers when they punished her. She must have been what then? Eight?
Further Investigations The Next Day….
Due to my experience with Kima the day before. I’m still in shock and my view of the land I’m in had changed. I’m learning not to assume that everyone is on the same page as me so when I get another visit from another young friend I’ve come to know. I do one thing.
I tear out a sheet of paper, give it to him and tell him to write the complete English Alphabets. I do this for three reasons: I know I’m to be his teacher as soon as the break is called off. He just completed the junior WAEC. To also gauge what I’m getting into when I resume teaching.
As each minute pass and I watch the 19year old sitting in front of me struggle, my hopes dies slowly. Quite selfishly, I wonder to myself, what I’ve gotten myself into by agreeing to stay in this type of community. After 15minutes, he is finally through. He misplaced about four letters and his small letters were confused.
I pick up the paper, skim through and then hold his gaze. ”How did you write WAEC?” I ask. His answer, requires another post. One I shall see to soon.
I do the same thing for another 19 year old, his classmate and a 12year old. Their results were slightly better but still nothing worthy of note.
I Have A Skill I Never Knew About
I can’t help thinking. Ive thought a lot since then. I remember my eyes catching the 155-paged book I’d started that morning and finished mid-fternoon. The same one Kima had tried to read and suddenly, I had felt utmostly privileged.
I have something no one can ever take from me. The skill of reading. The skill that helps me grow more, ever learning. The skill that makes the internet of use to me.
I remember all the books I’ve read. Many of which form parts of my life’s philosophy. All the impacts these books made on me. The early years of entertainment journeying into the world of mystery magical fantasy and many other genres.
I remember one of my earliest memories. The day I spelt my name at the behest of my Aunty Nne. I must have been 5 or 6. She clapped loudly and long for me that day for getting the 14-letter words correctly. I say this because I asked Kima to do same, to which she was unable. There’s also the possibility that I have spelt her name incorrectly from the onset of this post but then what can I do?
I have another memory of playing Ludo with my family and one of my aunt’s special threat would be, ”I’ll SPELL your name and add your father’s name!” That threat was usually one of humourous shame. Today, I’m focusing on the fact that we even knew how many letters made up my complete name.
I wonder at my ability to string 10letters together, know their pronunciation, understand its meaning and it’s implication. All this, only as a result of it’s usage in the sentence. Wow, it suddenly seems like magic. And all these in the space of seconds as I flip between paragraphs and pages. The same applies to you too reading this. Have you ever wondered at this too?
I remember my chats, Facebook posts, heck, my degree! Everything as a result of being literate. Let me add this website too.
One special thing you’ll notice about Kima or Keema is not just her illiteracy but her lack of knowledge of her illiteracy. She has it harder than most. Even though, the general thing in this place is that natives find writing and reading hard, they do manage to stumble along. Something she can never do.
I find myself wondering if she notices that there’s something different between her and others. I do plan on asking her this question sometime.
I have since then taken out time to thank God for the privilege of attending school. Really, literacy is a gift given, a skill to be learnt. Especially for one born in this century and the travails many faced to ensure this possibility, especially for the girl child.
Perhaps you’re like me? Never really seeing your literacy as something special? You should start appreciating it too.
Thank you for reading and don’t forget to comment.