Columnists Features

Are we a nation of functional illiterates?

ONE day I arrived home unexpectedly on foot, after our vehicle was detained at a garage for non-payment. Surprisingly our three-year-old son; quite spoiled by being greeted by the car horn, quipped – “Why have you come on legs?
It was the second time in as many days I was hearing him communicate to me colloquially. The first time he blurted, “Daddy when will the rain stop starting?”
To him someone up yonder has a rain starter which needs to be stopped for clear skies to appear. The boy’s learning curve is a stark reminder to parents to shape language neurons in their kids at a tender age.
Kids might be forgiven but it becomes a problem when working class adults obliterate the Queen’s language with impunity.
Last year Nyimba district council put in a lot of effort in constructing a bridge that was aptly named after republican President Edgar Lungu.  Edgar was inscribed as Edger on the bridge for the official opening.
None of the council officials seemed to have noticed the misspelling. You could forgive them at their level but the entire provincial administration also failed to notice the anomaly.
It left a bitter taste, especially to an otherwise commendable venture. The fact that no one has corrected the mistake months later, speaks volumes about our collective literacy levels.
A few days ago, the supposedly learned National Savings and Credit Bank (NATSAVE) workers went on strike. What struck me about their strike were their pathetic, mistake-laden placards.
I took an interest in two highly hoisted; one in English and the other in Chinyanja. To my disappointment both had grammatical problems. The vernacular one could not even bemuse the one it was meant to mimic. It read – NATSAVE ni Banki ya Nyonko? There is no such a word as nyonko in Chinyanja.
Any functional literate worker would have noticed that nyoko and nyonko are two different words. In fact “nyoko” means “mother” while nyonko must be one of those “no sense” words.
I took it that perhaps the author had no functional understanding of Chinyanja. He or she has already been forgiven. Could we also take it that none of the workers was conversant enough to correct the situation?
The problem is that even the placard in English, was also encumbered by grammatical problems; scandalous was spelt scandulous. Remember that by now some of these pictures have permanently been posted on the internet; a reminder that Zambia still has a fight with illiteracy.
Unfortunately, Zampost workers also blundered on one of their placards. When I noticed this, I accepted on behalf of the two institutions that indeed they had in their employ functional illiterates.
These two are not isolated; remember the 2012 SADC Zone 6 under-20 Games we hosted.
We had several instances of misspelt countries, chief among them was the famous MOZABIQUE. Maybe we do not provide enough oversight but one thing clear is that most of us have no reading culture.
I also know of several roads in our country, whose signage is an affront to the Queen’s language. What has befallen us? On the Copperbelt, it had to take alert community members to correct road signage. Countrywide the story is not different when it comes to signage, billboards and posters.
What beats me is that even major offices, including some government ministries have functional illiterate secretaries.
A friend agonisingly spent the whole day in one ministry, while the secretary and her boss kept retyping and rephrasing a letter.
It turned out that the problem had to do with English. Although English is not our mother tongue, we have as a country the distinction of learning it all the way from pre-grade.
There should be a major justification for someone who has gone to tertiary level to fail the basics of communication in English.
Surprisingly the situation is worse in both our primary and secondary schools. As someone who works with both pupils and teachers I have gone through the discomfort of reading badly written essays.
I am told that even some teachers have problems with English, although I have no empirical evidence. A story is told of a grade 12 pupil, who was given so called “leakage.”
She not only tried to enter the examination room with pre-written answers but also found it very hard to copy from her notes, written on both papers and all over her body.
Of course the long arm of the law came face to face with her. One of the apprehenders remarked that even if she was given an entire day with pre written answers she could still fail the examination. I hope her condition is not a true reflection of the average Zambian.
The author is a social and political commentator.

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