Tuesday, 8 September 2009


“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” - Victor Hugo

The photograph above by David Seymour moves me and makes me quietly introspective. The contrast between the gnarled old hands and the childlike letters they labour to write is a confronting sight. We take it for granted that an adult can read and write. We refuse to acknowledge that there is a reason nowadays for anyone to be illiterate. Yet, even today throughout the world, one in five adults is still not literate and two-thirds of them are women while 75 million children are out of school. Illiterate generations still cede their place to illiterate offspring and in developing countries, it still remains an enormous problem.

Have you ever thought what it would be like not being literate? I was immersed in such an experience when I was visiting Egypt about 30 years ago. I was in Aswan and in those days, English speakers were few and far between in Southern Egypt. I could communicate mainly with gestures and with a few elderly people in pidgin French. The most intimidating, humbling and disempowering experience that I had was being surrounded by signs, newspapers, magazines, street names, traffic signs, all written in Arabic – a script and language that I was completely unfamiliar with. It was then that I realised how an illiterate person felt, surrounded by a sea of mysterious symbols that they couldn’t understand…

Literacy is a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for social and human development. The most effective way to disenfranchise and render powerless a group is to deprive them of the right to literacy. Spoken language and oral communication are a characteristically human trait that distinguishes us from animals, however, being able to command the written form of language is the difference between the civilised and the uncivilised, the powerful and the weak, the influential and ineffectual, the advantaged and the disadvantaged, the prominent and the obscure.

Educational opportunities depend on literacy and without literacy even the most basic of educations is impossible. Literacy is essential for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development, peace and democracy. A good quality basic education equips students with literacy skills for life and further learning; literate parents are more likely to send their children to school; literate people are better able to access continuing educational opportunities; and literate societies are better geared to meet pressing development.

This year, International Literacy Day put the spotlight on the empowering role of literacy and its importance for participation, citizenship and social development. Literacy and Empowerment is the theme for the 2009-2010 biennium of the United Nations Literacy Decade.

I look at the photograph above and I feel an immense gratitude towards my parents, my teachers, and the luck of the draw that resulted in me being born in an environment where I was assured of being amongst the four of five that were literate, rather than the one in five who isn’t. You are reading this and therefore you should celebrate with me your literacy. Happy Literacy Day 2009!


  1. Pavlovs Cat blogger recently got a huge response from bloggers for her HELP! post on when their first realisation that they could read was. It will result in a book I'm sure.
    The CIA WorldFactBook website is interesting for it's information on literacy rates in various countries and the % seems to correlate with the degree of corruption in government in each nation.
    Corrupt regimes prefer their population to be ignorant of information.
    I'm not pro-Christian, and can see that missionaries merely teach literacy in order to inculcate their Holy Bible, but I like to remind anyone that way back when the Indonesian military massacred people in Aceh, they started with the Catholics who were teaching people to read. Knowledge leads (where it is needed) to subversion, rebellion and insurrection, so evil people are afraid of it.
    The pen is indeed mightier than the sword.

  2. Here is the exact link to
    122 passionate recollections of I Can Read!

  3. And thank your primary school teacher if you can read!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Because I was 7 before I actually got to a school, I have my grandmother to thank for literacy.
    My first teacher spent my first term changing me from left hand to right hand. 54 years ago the Victorian Education Department truly was Victorian.

  5. When I lived in Japan I had a similar experience to yours in Egypt. It is a very interesting experience to be in a place where, sometimes, you cant understand the written language. Paying a bill or using an ATM can turn into a day long adventure - I used to go into the Tourist Information office (where the nice staff all spoke perfect English) and ask them how I should pay my bills. It was like being a kindergarten kid again. It made me very reliant on the kindness of strangers, and very grateful for the much kindness I was shown.

  6. Lucky Meredith - the Japanese are known for politeness.
    My friend has a Japanese daughter-in-law in Melbourne, and her small children astound me with their BI-linguality.