There are few things that bother me more than when people try to confuse knowing to read and write as being literate and not knowing how as illiterate. This uninformed assumption could not be furthest from the true meaning of the word. In this piece, I will give you a clear distinction between the two, and how it should be defined in Liberia rather than going along with the present distorted definition that is causing our beloved country so much confusion.
But first, I will define literacy as understood by civilized and educated societies; this will be followed by how we Liberians should define the word we perceive as negative – illiterate, and positive form, literate.
The word in its most simplistic form is defined as being able to read and write or showing knowledge about a particular subject. Notice the second portion of this simple definition is beginning to reveal the true meaning of the word and removes itself from that narrow definition that the typical Liberian understands. In its broader meaning, literacy is a process that enlightens and changes one’s thoughts and attitudes; is knowledgeable and constant, well-read, scholarly and educated; in essence, it is transformative in its application. It doesn’t look at the world through selfish lenses, but rather employs its scholarly lessons to elevate the communities in which it resides. To put it even simpler: It is the light!! As the good book would say, “By their fruits, we should know them”. Such is literacy. If you’re not bearing the fruits that a literate society bears, simply put, you’re not literate.
Now let’s come to Liberia and discuss how we see literacy and how we shouldn’t see it. Now that we know what literacy is, I will focus on what literacy is not.
For example, the reliance on foreigners to initiate, engineer, and lead everything that strengthens economic growth in a given location and naively expecting them to put Liberian interests first, the acceptance and indifferent attitude of our overpaid officials towards the long-suffering of the overwhelming majority of the population, the total disregard of the rule of law by the very people charged with upholding it, is the birth of Liberian illiteracy.
When you have foreigners come into our country and rape our young women and pillage all we have, walk around boastfully claiming that government officials are “in their pockets” without consequence; commit murders at will, and in many cases walk free. In the few cases where they are tried and convicted, those verdicts are eventually overturn because some corrupt official has been paid off to circumvent statutory laws not realizing his actions devalues the lives of every single Liberian including his own, is nothing but self-hate illiteracy.
For those of you who went to America under the age of 40, allowing con artist pastors to chop all you have in your quest to get a visa, fill three acre swamps in Duala so prayer mothers can pray for you, and by some luck you win DV, arrive in America with all the opportunities on God’s green earth presented to you on a silver platter, and you settle for doing “double” in some smelly nursing home, that, my friends, is “your suffering just started” illiteracy. Working three shifts in some group home in America simply to buy an inflated plane ticket to go to Liberia’s 105 degree heat in an Alaskan fur coat to bluff and possibly die from dehydration, is “Jonny just come” illiteracy.
Catering to foreigners, especially white ones and refusing to extend that same courtesy to your fellow Liberians because you believe doing so will lower your social economic status, is just plain “inferiority complex” illiteracy.
Preaching against nepotism, and when you’re given a double chance to do away with such practice refuse and employs it to the highest degree and claim that since your son’s are qualified (whatever that means) it is not nepotism but a leadership sanctioned by Western Countries, this is treasonable illiteracy. Knowingly appointing incompetents and thieves to very crucial roles in the government to the detriment of the suffering masses is unforgiveable illiteracy. Purchasing $60k luxury vehicles every year (not 10K off road pickups) for officials whose last vehicle rides were in the back of a dump truck in a country with poor roads, poor schools and hospitals, half the population malnourished, infant mortality amongst the highest in the world, unemployment at 80%, corruption, cronyism is rampant, the courts and legislature hold no one to account, this, my friends is time for “drastic action” illiteracy.
Electing idiots and thieves who have accomplished nothing in their lives but sat in a cushioned position given them by wicked leaders is “you sentenced yourselves to long-suffering” illiteracy. Buying grades from University of Liberia and claiming you’re education is “just laughable” illiteracy. Stopping a government-issued vehicle in the middle of busy traffic (while everybody else is waiting on you) to make sure everybody sees you in your cheap Chinese suit while talking to a teenage girl you’ve already impregnated, “is 25 to life” illiteracy.
Hiring a news anchor who can barely read on a 7th grade level and claiming s/he will learn on the job is simply stupid illiteracy. Studying the dictionary and memorizing fancy vocabularies you can’t properly pronounce is just village illiteracy.
Building a million dollars mansion overnight in the midst of the very people you help impoverished, and when they jump over your poorly built fence to reclaim what you have stolen from them, then you turnaround and call them armed robbers, is “ God bless you” illiteracy. Raping our teenage girls and forcing homosexuality on our boys and claiming they wore provocative clothing in a 105 degree heat is “mob justice justified” illiteracy.
Starting LU night school after you get elected (stopped in the 7th grade before the war) and all of a of sudden you’re the new dux and Suma Cum Laude extraordinaire even though you still can’t read, that’s just “wonders never end” illiteracy. Wearing a three piece suit so people can call you kwi (civilized) as described by the brilliant Liberian Poet Kona Khasu in his poem “Our Man on Broad Street”, is just “mind-boggling” illiteracy.
Having a public official fail miserably at his task, millions entrusted to him disappeared, same road paved 3x in one year because the public works minister is a thieving idiot, and a so-called Harvard educated economist (she actually studied something else but goes along with the economist label), reshuffles him as the “special economic advisor to the president” is “third world” illiteracy.
Claiming to be educated with a master’s and boasting about your academic prowess, yet your girlfriends live better than your wife and kids; your wife is a stranger who doesn’t even know your salary or any details that could protect the family, whenever you get paid you disappear from your family for days “chartering” drinking spots while your wife and kids beg neighbors for food. Your idea of spending time with your family is coming home drunk at 3 am, vomiting all over the house and telling your 5 year old daughter to keep quiet because she’s crying too much from hunger pains. My people, this is the mother of all illiteracy.
Calling poor people in an over populated shanty town “country” for throwing dirt in the streets when the government has not provided any sanitary means of disposing wastes, is just plain “I am holier than thou” illiteracy.
Believing that because your embezzlement-funded house, car and office are cleaned, all your friends and closed confidants eat in the best places in town and the next possible Ebola outbreak will skip you because you hang out with government thieves, not realizing these “best places” buy their restaurant food from some of the nastiest, most unsanitary places is just illiteracy “pass max”.
I could go on for days, but time and space won’t permit me. Now let’s turn to what civilized people consider literacy and why we can’t straightly limit literacy to reading and writing.
When Tamba builds his toilet downhill and his well at the top of the hill taking gravity into consideration and ensuring he does not contaminate his drinking water, that’s health literacy. When Ma Fatta sweeps the sidewalk in her community to keep a clean and safe environment for the kids to play, who can argue that this is not literacy? When brother Trokon’s trap catches a deer and he shares a pound of meat with each member of the village as mandated by tradition, that’s “One for all and all for one” literacy. When a farming village in the hills of Bomi can adequately calculate the seasons and continuously ensures a bountiful harvest, that’s "astronomical literacy".
The point I am trying to make is literacy is not limited to having three pens in one’s breast pocket and claiming to know book. The true meaning of knowing book is when that acquired knowledge transforms your people. If your literacy only transforms you, you’re still illiterate. Literacy cannot preach one thing, and when given a chance and the tools to right those very ills it preached against, turns around and practices them at levels never before seen. Literacy must be constant, transferable, admirable, honorable (not as we know it in Liberia) considerate, selfless and imaginative. It must be free of quid pro quo. In truth, it must light up those in its presence!!
I will leave you with a quote of one of the most literate men I know – my grandfather. He lived all of his 92 years in our village, but could accurately predict the weather, build bridges, read and understand the thoughts of the forest, interpret dreams; an expert marksman and master builder, the financier of the first grade school built in our village, lone voice against some practices of the “Grebo Bush” and a chief, who was loved by his people. He was illiterate by Liberian standards but a problem solver and a scholar by developed societies’ standards. “Son” he begins, “you can have ideas greater than our ancestors, but if they are not coupled with action, they can never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied”!
Dedicated to my grandfather, old man Momoh, who bought me my first book and taught me how to lay my first possum trap. Miss you and RIP, Grandpa.
About the Author: Mr. Zuo is the author of several articles including the “Liberian Psyche”. He’s a proud graduate of Buutuo Cultural University, specializing in Changing Liberians Minds and Attitudes. He presently lives in Buutuo, Nimba County with his two hunting dogs, Government Official and Chief Embezzler. He loves to drink palm wine with roasted cassava dipped in fresh palm oil.