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Opinions of Friday, 4 September 2015

Columnist: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari

About the district elections, literacy and SSNIT’s library project

I consider myself a patriotic, law-abiding, responsible citizen and reasonably well-educated. Yet, as at the time of writing this article, in the morning of Tuesday, September 1, the day of the district level elections, I had not yet decided if I would vote.

The reason? Who was I to vote for? The Electoral Commission, the National Commission for Civic Education and the media might have done their part in educating me about the elections, as well as reminding me about the date, but what about the candidates themselves, the people who needed my vote?

What had they done to ensure that on voting day not only would I go to my polling station, but that I would cast my vote knowing their name or potential?

When and how did the candidates campaign in my area and I didn’t get to hear about it? What efforts did they put in to make me decide that I would suspend all my normal activities on September 1 and go and join a voting queue?

These questions led me to ponder: Are we going about the selection of district representatives the right way? Is the present system working?
My problem was that I simply didn’t know the candidates! How does one cast a vote for an unknown person? That was the dilemma.

And if those of us who are literate feel reluctant to go and vote, what about the non-literates?

For, literacy, too, was on my mind that morning because World Literacy Day falls exactly one week from the poll, next Tuesday, September 8, themed ‘Literacy and Sustainable Societies’. Literacy, it is said, opens doors and opportunities; provides the ladder to participate in community and national decision-making.

Indeed, for me the one phrase that stands out in the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) message to mark this year’s observance of the Day is: “The future starts with the alphabet”.

Ms Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UNESCO notes in her 2015 World Literacy Day message: “We must invest more, and I appeal to all member states and all our partners to redouble our efforts – political and financial – to ensure that literacy is fully recognised as one of the most powerful accelerators of sustainable development. The future starts with the alphabet.”

Despite the world’s technological and other advances, the numbers of illiterates are still staggering: “According to (the) UN, some 776 million people lack minimum literacy skills ... Almost 35 countries have a literacy rate of less than 50 per cent and a population of more than 10 million people who are illiterate.”

Sources put Ghana’s literacy rate, those aged 15 and over who can read and write, at 71.5 per cent of the population; for women, 65.3 per cent.
Yet, looking around, I ask myself if it’s true that as many as 71 per cent of Ghanaians can read and write.

If it’s correct, my second question is, what do they read? Apart from office documents, outside the formal sectors or religious literature, are people really reading and writing?

These days, for example, there is little evidence that even the one basic measure of reading, newspaper-reading, is going on, either for financial reasons or because more and more people prefer to rely on radio for news. It is very noticeable that news-stands are decreasing by the day, whereas in the past they were visible everywhere.

Also, there are even fewer bookshops around! So what are people reading? And are children reading anything else apart from textbooks? How many schools are inculcating the reading habit in students? Currently, one is more likely to see a student chatting on a mobile phone than holding a story book!

If people are not reading is it not likely that their outlook does not expand, and that over time they will even forget what they were taught initially?

What can be done? Maybe we need to first ensure easy availability of reading material, especially works that tell the Ghanaian and African story, and then work out ways of getting people interested, notably the young.

I was happy to read in the papers earlier this week that as part of its golden jubilee celebration, the Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT) proposes to build “an ultramodern purpose-built Children’s Library”, to be located in Accra. It will cater for some 7,200 users, aged between 4 and 16 years, monthly.

The library complex seems a great idea, especially if it’s to be replicated in other parts of the country. If not, should SSNIT perhaps not scale it down in order to build one or two more in other parts of the country?
Another suggestion which I hope SSNIT will consider is the need to support Ghana’s creative writers in order to ensure a constant supply of Ghanaian literature for the proposed library – or, hopefully, libraries.

More Ghanaian books could help promote our culture as well as attract readership.

My thinking is that SSNIT could complement its library project with a sponsorship package for identified talented creative writers to go on an expenses-paid writing retreat and stay somewhere for a period of say, six months, and write. This could be organised in collaboration with the Ghana Association of Writers.

Such funded schemes for writers exist elsewhere, so there would be no shortage of guidance or examples to learn from.

Doubtless the educational authorities are working to boost the country’s literacy rates.

However, there is also need to ensure that both established and new writers are assisted to write the books that will get people reading as well as help build up Ghana’s contribution to African literature.

Furthermore, it goes without saying that the enlightenment that comes with reading is important for national development.