The painful, hefty price for illiteracy

He was astounded by the new environment. The crowds and multi-storey buildings caught his attention, too. He thought he had arrived at his final destination; South Africa. Little did he know that he was still in Malawi and, in particular, Chigumula area in the commercial city of Blantyre. He had been fooled big time!


Nyasulu: I could not read and write.

Craving for education.

Phiri: It includes a wide range of opportunities.

Mthawanji: These skills are necessary.

By Imam Wali

He was astounded by the new environment. The crowds and multi-storey buildings caught his attention, too. He thought he had arrived at his final destination; South Africa. Little did he know that he was still in Malawi and, in particular, Chigumula area in the commercial city of Blantyre. He had been fooled big time!

This is the predicament of 23-year-old Yamikani Nyasulu from Rumphi District, which is in the northern part of Malawi. His story left people in awe a few months ago.

Nyasulu found himself stranded in Blantyre, where the truck driver he believed would ferry him to South Africa abandoned him in Chigumula. This is despite that Nyasulu paid the driver K300,000, money he generated after selling his grandmother’s only cow. The ever-loving grandmother sacrificed the cow, her only possession of value, in the hope that the grandson would have pay something back— in terms of cash and in-kind support.


It was not to be as Nyasulu found himself in Chigumula. He describes it as the “hefty price I have to pay for failing to read and write”.  “It still hurts me when I think about what happened to me. It hurts even more when I realise that I could not read or write.


“No wonder, the truck driver took advantage of me, hoodwinking me into believing that he would take me to Cape Town, South Africa, only to drop me at a place that was not in my plans,” a crestfallen Nyasulu says. He is quick to say he did not alight from the vehicle on his own volition.


“The truck driver convinced me that I had reached my destination, Cape Town in South Africa, further advising me to get in touch with my relatives, as he put it, ‘back in Malawi’. All those things he said were lies! I realised that he had lied to me because I heard almost everyone speaking in the vernacular language of Chichewa,” he said.


Not wanting to believe what he was hearing, Nyasulu asked passerby about where he was and his fears came true: He was in Chigumula, right here in Malawi.


When Nyasulu’s story went viral on social media, some well-wishers contributed funds that enabled him to travel back to Rumphi.


Another victim, Hawa Matola from Mangochi District in the Southern Region, resists the temptation of shedding a tear as she narrates what happened to her.

In her case, she was supposed to travel to one corner of Malawi but ended up at an unintended destination.


“I want supposed to be taken to Mzuzu City in the Northern Region, where I had secured a job as maid.

“However, the minibus driver to pocketed money from me and promised to take me to Mzuzu dropped me in Lilongwe, claiming that I had reached my final destination of Mzuzu.


“I lingered in Lilongwe bus depot, thinking that I had reached Mzuzu. At mid-night, I got a phone call from my would-be boss, who wanted to know where I was and why I was taking time to reach Mzuzu. That is when I asked one of the people in the bus depot, who informed me that I was in Lilongwe, the administrative capital. I was shocked and felt betrayed. I thank the good Samaritan who assisted me with a bus fare to connect to Mzuzu, adding 378 kilometres more and, yet, I was made to believe that Lilongwe bus depot were in Mzuzu,” Matola explained.

Ironically, Matola and Nyasulu are among the five million people who are illiterate out of Malawi’s projected population of 20 million people.


In other words, 27 people out of every 100 cannot read or write, according to Ministry of Education and Malawi National Commission for Unesco statistics. On the other hand, the National Statistical Office (NSO) indicates that the adult literacy rate in Malawi is at 68.6 percent. This means that almost 31 out of 100 adult men and women cannot read and write. This is an increase in literacy levels as Unesco Institute for Statistics reported that the adult literacy rate was at 64 percent in 2005 and 65 percent in 2016.


However, the increase is at a snail’s pace. In fact, the illiteracy rate is higher among females than males. The NSO (2018) report shows that 34.1 percent of females are illiterate while 28.4 percent of males are illiterate. Matola, who is among the 34.1 percent of illiterate females in the country, dropped out of standard three in Mangochi. She claims that she dropped out due to poverty.  She, however, says if a chance for her to learn presents itself, she would opt for Adult Learning and Education (ALE).


Apart from learning how to write and read, those who have embraced ALE acquire skills such as tailoring and carpentry, putting them in a position to generate the much needed income for their households. To help the cause of Matola and Nyasulu, and many others who are in a similar or worse situation, the Government of Malawi has committed to ease challenges that people who cannot read or write face.


Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare spokesperson Pauline Kaude says strategies have been put in place to reduce the illiteracy rate in Malawi.

“One of the strategies is Adult Learning and Education,” she pointed out.

Kaude added that the ministry is promoting strategies such as functional literacy, learning in mother tongue, integrated adult education as well as the establishment of community learning centres and community-based skills development centres.


“These strategies are designed to increase the relevance of the adult learning,” the spokesperson explained. Kaude observed that there is increased demand for adult classes in areas where the strategies are being implemented, a development that is said to have contributed to the reduction in the number of illiterate people in rural areas.

She said, for instance, that 158, 048 learners were enrolled in 2023, from 144,495 learners that enrolled in the 2022 learning cycle. Kaude further indicated that, currently, illiteracy levels in Malawi are estimated at 24.5 percent, with the rate being at 17 percent and 31.2 percent for women.  She pointed out that the situation is worse for women in rural areas, where the rate is at 35.2 percent. For men based in rural areas, the rate is 19.4 percent.

However, according to Kaude, the situation is better in the urban areas, where the illiteracy rate stands at 5.6 percent for men and 10.8 percent for women.

“We are making good strides in efforts against illiteracy despite [having] limited resources. This is also supported by our partners, who have ensured that the creation of awareness messages pertaining to the availability and importance of the programme has been highly pronounced through multi-sectoral commemoration of International Literacy Day and multi-stakeholder planning and implementation of interventions. 


“This has increased enrolment of adult learners. For instance, there was an increase in enrolment from 144,495 in 2022 to 158,048 learners in 2023, representing 9 percent increase. Female learners’ number increased from 128,600 to 138,300 while that for male learners increased from 15,895 to 19,748,” Kaude pointed out.


“We have also registered an increase in enrollment in tailoring courses in community skills development centres for adult literacy graduates from 80 learners in 2022 to 160 learners in 2023 in Dowa and Ntchisi district councils, where we have been supported by DVV International, our close partner in adult learning,” she added.


Currently, there are over 10,000 literacy classes across the country, serving over 150,000 learners. While adults in Malawi face obstacles to attain their literacy goals, the country is not short of stakeholders that want the situation to change. These include DVV International, which is helping the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare in ensuring that community members have access to life-saving skills, notably tailoring skills.


Using a combination of functional literacy and vocational and business skills’ promotion, they are helping the country take assured steps towards the land of literacy.


Dyson Mthawanji, DVV International Communication Officer for Southern Africa, says, apart from reading and writing, ALE promotes entrepreneurship and self-employment by providing individuals with the skills and knowledge needed to start and run successful small-scale businesses.


This, he indicated, helps stakeholders to drive personal and community economic growth.

“Adult education programmes provide vocational training and skills development that help individuals and communities to become more self-sufficient and economically empowered. Plans are underway to offer tailoring skills to people in more districts. These skills are necessary as they are likely to improve the economic situation of the trained people,” he said. 

Mthawanji added that ALE programmes encourage adults to think creatively and explore new ideas, thereby helping them to identify new business opportunities and develop innovative solutions to business challenges.


There are many innovative approaches that adult education uses to address social problems in Malawian communities.


For example, ALE provides community-based education through programmes designed to target specific communities that are most affected by social problems, notably poverty, unemployment and illiteracy.


ALE Expert from the Catholic University of Malawi, Merina Phiri, explained that ALE has a critical role to play in the development of society.  She said it also contribute to poverty reduction efforts.  “It can assist to foster active citizenship, strengthen personal growth and secure social inclusion, hence going beyond achieving skills for employability. It should be embraced as lifelong learning for adults to adapt to the ever changing environment. It should, therefore, be highlighted that ALE includes a wide range of adult learning opportunities like non-formal skills training, business skills training and livelihood skills training,” she says.

Because of these benefits, Phiri narrated that the Malawi Government, through National Planning Commission, has singled out ALE as an enabler for Human Capital Development in the Malawi 2063 vision statement. This is also in line with Sustainable Development Goals 4, which promotes lifelong learning opportunities for all.


The commitment of the government was also seen when the National Adult Learning and Education Policy of 2021— and an accompanying strategy in 2022— were enacted. 

However, she expressed worry that the sector continues to be underfunded despite having a target of a lot of adults who do not have a chance to access formal education for various reasons. These are the same people who are expected to contribute to national development.

For instance, between 2003 and 2004 and 2007 and 2008, government allocation to adult literacy, in relation to the Ministry of Education, was: MK50,000,0000 (0.48 percent) in 2003-04; K21,048,752 (0.16 percent) in 2004-05; K28,472,000 (0.18 percent) in 2005-06; K82,318,876 (0.46 percent) in 2006-07 and K42,414,889 (0.15 percent) in 2007-08.

Between 2012 and 2016, government funding ranged from K120 million in 2012-13 financial year to K80 million in 2016-17 financial year.


In the past five years, funding declined from K309 million in 2017-18 to around K104 million in 2020-21, averaging just 0.16 percent of the education sector budget. The government is expected to commit to increasing funding and implementation of human capital development as mentioned in the Malawi 2063 agenda. 


However, there is a challenge, namely the narrow understanding of ALE as literacy classes. There is, therefore, a need to enlighten people that ALE is too broad; and that literacy classes are just a stepping stone, enabling people to learn other skills.

In fact, ALE includes youths and adults; it is not just about the elderly.

That way, the National Adult Literacy Strategic Plan (2022-2027) which the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare launched on November 30 2023 will become a stepping stone out of poverty— which is what it is there for, anyway.


This article was first published by The Daily Times newspaper in Malawi.

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