As important as salt and bread Ian on Sunday
Stabroek News
May 23, 2004

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As one would expect of a poor country, Guyana is faced with a myriad of crushing problems: the burden of debt which remains heavy despite all the heroic efforts to find relief; a ramshackle infrastructure which as soon as it is repaired in oneplace crumbles in another; long borders, including our marine borders, which we find hard to secure - the list goes on and we all can add to it.

But no problem is more serious than the state of illiteracy into which the nation has sunk so sadly. A Functional Literacy Survey conducted some years ago found that 89% of out-of-school youths in Guyana aged 14 to 25 were functionally illiterate. Ministry of Education authorities claim that the situation has improved significantly, but no hard evidence has been produced to justify this claim, which is not substantiated by one's own experience in the workplace and in the encounters of daily life. We are only fooling ourselves and the UNDP if we believe that Guyana today is anything other than a deeply illiterate society.

It has been said time and time again, and I will repeat it. Illiterate societies are voiceless, powerless and culturally oppressed. They are worse off in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, educational provision, nutrition, health services and income per capita. Industries are less developed and agriculture is less productive. In Guyana functional illiteracy linked to deteriorated educational standards and the spread of a completely unread under-class have been one of the most troubling phenomenons of our time. The repercussions are profoundly negative for public administration, the growth of business, the success of investment, technological progress, cultural development and the life and death battle against poverty and drugs and crime.

However, let us not only view illiteracy as a canker eating at the heart and soul of the nation. Let us consider the effect of illiteracy on individual human beings. It is devastating. A basic mastery of the use of language is the most vital factor in succeeding in life and leading a reasonably fulfilled existence. Every single child must be told and taught the fact in home and school repeatedly until their very nature rebels at the thought of remaining illiterate. The basic mastery of language leads to all other mastery.

You cannot hope to be a trained chemist, shop-keeper, engineer, computer analyst, doctor, agronomist, accountant, lawyer, historian or expert in any one of a hundred other callings if you have not acquired the absolutely basic skill of how to put over orally and in writing what you want, what you have learned, what experience has taught you, what your imagination and creative spirit may be hungering to articulate. Illiteracy thwarts a hundred latent mental talents. An image that is not far-fetched is to compare a person lacking basic language skills with a person affected by a stroke whose mental capacity may be unimpaired, but whose ability to express himself is paralysed.

The Ministry of Education is fully aware of this deep-seated problem and has launched a number of campaigns to confront it. Private efforts like "On the Wings of Words" are impressive. These all deserve our unstinted and enthusiastic support. In the end it will come down to making every family, every individual, as concerned as if a deadly sickness was involved and must be treated. In every home, in every school, in every church and temple and mosque we must do what we can to give the great gift of simple literacy to all our children. There is nothing more fruitful that we can give. Without that seed the individual soul lies barren.

Teaching the child to read is where everything begins. The ability to read and the love of books lies at heart of the matter. Inoculate a child with the reading skill and he or she will not easily be afflicted by the sickness of the world.

In a review of Patrick Chamoiseau's extraordinary and searing novel Texaco, Derek Walcott wrote:

"I would press your book into the hands of every West Indian as if it were a lost heirloom, even on those who cannot read. After that formality, I would run through the markets with vendors in the shade of huge umbrellas, past abandoned fountains, stopping traffic with an uplifted hand, entering dark retail stores selling fading ledgers and disintegrating chalks, preaching, 'You have to read this book, it is yours! It has come to reclaim you!'"

It is that feeling of desperate urgency which we must all cultivate about the need to press books into the hands and heads of Guyanese children, books of every sort from first primers through school texts to the works of our greatest writers - saying "You have to read this book, it is yours! It has come to reclaim you!"

In the Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison's wonderful poem My Will in which she describes the legacy she would want to leave her son, there are many beautiful lines, none more beautiful than the following in which she links a love of reading to the most fundamental of human needs.

eat each day's salt and bread

with praise,

and may you never know hunger.

And books

I mean the love of them.

Yes, that is true. May none of our children go hungry - for food or for books, the love of them.

Editor's note

We apologize for not naming the author of the poem Scenario In An Alternative Universe quoted in last week's column. The author was Paul Groves.