We Have a BIG Problem in Africa | And It’s Called Literary Illiteracy

4 min



After the death of literary genius Chinua Achebe a little over a year ago, I got to thinking about another of the little problems that worry us as a continent. That is, our propensity to stay away from the written word, to wit, books.

I mentioned that problem in a little homage I paid to Achebe which can be found here. A year on and I still find it a relevant issue that most of us do not even realise is a problem.

When I mention books here I’m not referring to only novels, but any kind of published material that holds some sort of relevant knowledge on any subject. There is a book published on any subject under the sun, and for the African taking the time to pore through it is a task too far.

And why should you read? We live in a time of substantial development in technology, particularly one pertaining to entertainment or leisure. We have social media, television and radio churning out more innovative programming all the time to arrest the attention of the populace. In this environment finding the time to take a book to read, whether a novel or any other kind, is becoming next to impossible.

And that is all before you factor in our natural disinclination to reading. The average African would rather do anything else than read, and would not do it unless it was absolutely necessary. This has led to a little problem I like to call literary illiteracy.

This is a phenomenon where you have people who are highly functional in any other endeavour, but absolutely illiterate when it comes to reading. Now not reading is not going to kill these people or anything, but what it does is prevent them from enjoying the several little benefits that a healthy interest in reading brings.

The most talked about benefit of reading is the expansion in vocabulary and frankly it is not an overstatement. Spending so much time around words makes you overtly familiar with them, thus making your use of them in your speech so much easier. There are several in-built phrases in Ghanaian English that a healthy reading habit would knock right out of you.

The effect reading has on your writing skills is so tremendous and I genuinely wonder why not many more people take advantage of it. In the professional environment writing is second nature, crucial to the job. And whilst everyone has the basic skills to write a report, reading would improve your skills to the point where you would not have to write the same banal stuff as everyone else. It would give you the ability to write a turn of phrase so beautiful your boss would certainly take notice.

And the most important reason to read, of course, is just to know. Now this is my main gripe when I mention literary illiteracy, that people go through the world learning just enough, but not taking the time to expand their scope. Read on any subject you can find, whether you find it relevant or irrelevant, because you never know the time some snippet you read a long time ago would turn out to be the piece of knowledge that lets you stand out of the crowd.

Read just to know, because that old adage ‘knowledge is power’ is more true than you have ever imagined.

A masterfully crafted novel, on any given day is better than the most action filled movie. There is a reason no screen adaptation of a novel has ever done justice to what was first put on paper by the author.

I believe if we embrace reading more as a people, and improve our base stock of knowledge, we might turn out a little better than the mess we find ourselves in currently.

PS: Of course, the internet has taken over as the largest reservoir of knowledge now, but even that is not being utilised. Finding information online and devouring it is still reading, but unfortunately we would rather Instagram or Facebook than use the net for any other purpose

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