Pajule town council, Pader district

How literate are we with our languages?


Sometimes we get used to doing the wrong things and somehow it becomes like the right way of getting things done.

Twenty two years ago, the government introduced the Universal Primary Education (UPE), a big project whose objective was to have every child accorded an opportunity of attaining primary school education. Ten years later in 2007, the same government rolled out the Universal Secondary Education (USE). Again the objective was to increase the number of students going through secondary school. This was mainly after the realisation that most of the UPE graduates never made it to secondary school mainly because they could not afford school fees.

Given the massive enrolment of children in schools, thanks to the two government initiatives, literacy levels in Uganda have gone up. Today, 77% of Ugandans are literate. That is, they can read and write. That leaves only 23% the national population in the bracket of the illiterate.

However, Dr, Robinah Kyeyune is not convinced by these numbers. To her, literacy is not just about reading and writing. There is more to it than just the idea of reading. It goes on to cover a wider scope of things. Literacy without the ability to make decisions is in itself self-defeating. Literacy should be able to lift up people to take on challenges. To speak up against things that hinder them. They should be able to use the knowledge acquired to make decision that help with improving the communities where they stay. Literacy that creates dividing blocks is in itself defeated.

If there is an engineer in the community and the community needs to clean a water source and cannot call on the engineer to be of help, there is a problem.

To assume that success of education is by going to school and speak good English without minding whether the people around you understand the language is a defeat of literacy.

Literacy should be able to help you know that using English to people who do not speak the language is a barrier that should be addressed.

Teachers in school who punish the students for speaking their mother tongue bracketed as vernacular ought to be reminded that English is just another vernacular.

Today, what we have on the job market is bizarre. A shop that ear marked itself as a dealer in “home usable” found itself closing when the people who were supposed to buy the “home usable” did not get the point. Instead they created a problem for themselves. They had a different target market to which they could only reach out to by writing in the language they both clearly understood very well. They didn’t and in the end they closed shop.

Recently, while appearing on NBS TV SHOW FACEOFFnovelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, expressed her dissatisfaction of the fading ability of children to express themselves in the mother tongue but rather through English.

Could this be a cancer that is slowly eating out the entire county with little attention being given to it?

James Tumusiime is the founder of Fountain Publishers one of the oldest publishing houses in the country. His concern is that not many people are writing in their mother tongue. And those who are writing are stuck with their books because not many people are reading such content let alone English books. To him, there is need to have more efforts that push people to buy more books. There they will be able to read more. With more money in the hands of the authors, there will be motivation to write more material.

Whatever the case is, it cannot be swept under the carpet that there is need to address the fading interest of the mother tongue to us. We may cloth it in different garments but that does not take away the reality on the ground. To refer to the figures shared by Dr. Robinah Kyeyune, if we do not go back to proper communication, we shall soon find ourselves unable to communicate with our neighbours.

This blog post is an adaptation of ongoing conversations at the 11th Pan African Literacy For All Conference. Follow the conversation on #PALFA2019KAMPALA