What Standard Should Measure Our Literacy



On developing the literary arts in Zambia-with a focus on fiction writing.


Zambia inherited its school curricula from the colonial masters and since then very little has been done to align the various syllabi to the context of the Zambian environment, such as the job market, the needs of the local people and the capacities of the learners. For a long time after independence and until recently, English was and is still being used as a measure for academic achievement. A child who performed excellently in five subjects, including mathematics and science, but failed English was doomed to fail. Many Zambians were left behind at grade nine and even more at grade twelve because they could not score that prestigious distinction or merit or let alone a bear pass in English. I taught for over twenty years in the secondary school and witnessed hundreds of young people who were brilliant in many subject areas but struggled with the ‘Queen’s Language’.

These could conduct fantastic experiments in the science laboratory but when it came to the actual execution of the written work and especially in the final examination where there was no teacher to give further clarification, their intelligence was reduced to the barest minimum. So the country also tied its measure of literacy to the official language. One would ask just how many have been excluded in the process, from making significant contribution to their communities, from progressing to higher levels of education because their certificate recorded an ‘F’ for English. What then should be our standard to measure the literacy levels for the citizens of Zambia? Until recently, this question was always answered that it should be one’s ability to read and write but very strongly, silently insisting that it should be in English. So without being conscious the country has promoted English as a standard of measure for one’s literacy. This, to a very large extent has influenced the creative writing industry where Zambian language writers form a very small percentage. For clearly if it is already difficult to market a book written in English, what more one which is written in one of the local languages? In the process we have also lost key cultural aspects that could have been built into our communication systems, a simple example being the cultural values placed on respecting elders. The country also bemoans the loss of traditional stories that have over time been replaced with ‘Ladybirds’ or ‘fairy tales’. We have not promoted the Zambian narrative. Resuscitating what has been lost will require that some original words be ‘exhumed’ and brought back to live in the literacy activities. Zambia has a lot to learn from other countries that have stuck to their own. The country also needs to learn that the ability to speak, write and read in any language also qualifies for literacy. The stereotyping must come to a stop. Additionally, the recent change in the Zambian primary school syllabus is not enough to drive such an agenda home. Opportunities must be created for the writing industry to incorporate the new syllabus and promote local languages. English is our official language – this cannot be changed but communication in other languages can be promoted and strengthened.     

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