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Literacy and the pandemic

Education where literacy rates are low has an additional challenge – in some areas ROSL bursary alumni and project personnel are helping communities understand Covid and where possible obtain vaccinations. Margaret Adrian-Vallance reports

Despite the steady rise in literacy rates over the past 50 years, there are still 773 million illiterate adults around the world.

“In the Commonwealth, only one third of children in developing countries have access to early childhood education, approximately 17 million primary children remain out of school, and more than 400 million adults are illiterate,” said Patricia Scotland, the Commonwealth’s Secretary-General in 2018.

And, in a somewhat prophetic statement, she went on to say, “The stark reality facing many of our Commonwealth member countries is that they are having to find funds to maintain and improve education services on shoestring budgets and sometimes after having their entire economy wiped out by a natural disaster”.

In 2020, one of these disasters became the Covid pandemic, and our in-country education project monitors have been highlighting how illiteracy presents additional difficulties during this pandemic and what steps they are taking to improve the situation.

At Sreepur Village in Bangladesh, ROSL helps fund classes from reading and writing to natural science for over 300 single mothers and their children. In a recent update, Melanie Wolfson wrote, “I wanted to let ROSL know that Sreepur Village, Bangladesh is making great efforts to ensure the health and safety of our vulnerable beneficiaries and staff during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are pleased to say that 80% of our single mothers, staff members and their spouses have now received their first Covid-19 vaccine. This was not a simple task as vaccination appointments are only available in Bangladesh via a government app and not all the single mothers have smartphones, and many cannot read and write.

“Our team will continue to work hard to ensure the remaining mothers and staff receive their vaccines and we hope to assist the surrounding community too.”

Challenging terrain also exists in Namibia’s northern Kalahari Desert and the Nyae Nyae Conservancy where ROSL bursary alumnus Cwisa Cwi is Principal of six bush schools. 

Our in-country monitors have been higlighting how illiteracy presents additional difficulties during this pandemic

Here, most of the schools are linked by sunken sand tracks along which vehicles may have to reverse due to elephants blocking the way and the only tourist lodge is renowned for its midnight leopards which come in to drink from the shower pipes when water holes are dry.

Cwisa says, “The schools have started again and we are working hard with them at educating learners and parents of Covid-19. So all the schools must have sanitisers, they must always wash their hands after eating or visiting of toilets, observe distancing of one meter, and wear masks when they are coughing or sneezing.”

In spite of the Namibian Government’s continued efforts to bring education to the area, there are still older family members who did not have the opportunity to become literate, and so Covid awareness in the 30 plus Nyae Nyae village communities is greatly enhanced by the teachers and pupils in the area.

From Swakopmund, Vera Leech reports that tourist and related industries have been hard hit in this seaside town, and that many of the hospitality workers from the surrounding townships who were near the breadline before the pandemic are becoming reliant on Rotary and other organisations providing food parcels. “However, in spite of difficult conditions, the Mondesa Youth Opportunities centre continues to do well,” she says. “Our exam pass rate has settled at 100% for some years now and we really try to uplift our students in a moral and responsible way too”. Indeed, some individual students here have been foregoing help with food because other families need this more.

Maxine Hurley of the Commonwealth Girls Education Fund (CGEF) has also had a challenging last few months with internet connections being shut down in one country during elections and late returns to schools in others. She reports that the six girls supported in Namibia are doing well and that at a school in Belize, which has had to be paper based, teachers were distributing lessons for the day by hand to individual homes so that students did not miss out. Distance learning, usually via radio, has come to the fore, and the fact that UNESCO has been giving away laptops and tablets has been much appreciated. “Sadly, we are also seeing an increase in abuse and unintended pregnancies during these lockdown conditions,” she says. “Overall, girls in many countries have been having a very difficult time indeed.”