None of the SDGs will be met without paying great attention to the problem of illiteracy - Oduaran

2 yrs ago

The Year 2016 is very significant as it marks the 50th anniversary of the UN Tehran recommendation on the proclamation of the International Literacy Day and advanced the notion of functional literacy. To mark the year 2016 Literacy Day, Sunday Olawale Olaniran met with Professor Akpovire Oduaran – a Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Adult and Lifelong Education who is currently the acting Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education and Training, North-West University, Mafikeng in South Africa. In this interview, Professor Oduaran reeled out some facts on what is responsible for the growing illiteracy rate in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the way out.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and some of the successful literacy projects you have involved in around the world?

I came into academics as a graduate assistant in 1981, and since then, I have learnt the act of good research and effective teaching in my chosen area of  specialization. I have been engaged in a number of literacy projects, especially those hosted by UNIVA under the leadership of the Distinguished Emeritus Professor  Michael Omolewa. Under the UNIVA projects, we had travelled the length and breadth of the former Western Region of Nigeria. We administered income-generating  and health related literacy projects that were warmly embraced by the people in the rural areas. One of the projects, I could recall, had to do with river blindness and  we hired medical personnel to go with us into the villages. We used to celebrate very lavishly the national and international literacy days where we show case our  achievements.

How did you begin your journey into academia and what influenced your choice of adult and lifelong education as a field of specialization?

I picked up a book written about adult education by one Prosser during my undergraduate days at the University of Benin, Benin City. I was so excited by what I read and shared my joy with Professor Andrew Urevbu, distinguished professor of curriculum and instructions. Incidentally, his Masters Degree was in Adult Education, having been supervised by Professor Lalage Bown at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He gave me the peep I needed to venture into a field that was not understood and popular, so to say.

I became interested in what could be done to school drop-outs, a big worry for Nigeria at that stage. I read more books and journal articles on adult education and wrote full page news commentary for the major newspapers in Nigeria. I wrote for the Daily Times and the New Nigeria Newspaper in northern Nigeria. I also wrote scripts of Radio Nigeria. I was so excited to see that that my articles were accepted without questions, and I made some money out of this initial interest. That changed the story of my life. I then had the privileged of being taught and examined by Nigeria’s forefathers of adult education. I remember that I applied and was admitted to study adult education at the Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly, the University of Ife). I completed my academic work. I then went into research under the supervision of the late Mr. Aremu who was very kind, fatherly and helpful. I remain grateful to him for his pioneering efforts in assuring me that it is possible to make it no matter how difficult it may look. This is very particularly interesting because we were three who started the postgraduate studies in adult education at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. My other two friends, Messrs Lalade and Ogowewo, had to drop out not because they were not intelligent. Indeed, I think there were more intelligent than myself. However, they had to “get out” of the programme as we were experiencing a lot of delays.

Glory be to God, I held on steadfastly as advised by Mr. Aremu. The major turning point in my life came when the Emeritus Professor Michael Omolewa was appointed as the external examiner of my dissertation. I remember that I researched on-the-training in bottling factories in the former Bendel State of Nigeria. It would appear to me that I tried very hard to defend my research so much so that Emeritus Professor Omolewa developed interest in me, and converted into becoming one of his dedicated “disciples” in adult education. He got me actively engaged in research and scholarship at the international level. That was how I got known in my field, and I am so thankful to him, and my many teachers too numerous to list. But you would recall that my Ph.D thesis based on the evaluation of the Community Development Agents training programmes in Bendel State was supervised by the late Professor Clement Nnorom Anyanwu and Professor Emma Osuji of the University of Ibadan.

The University of Benin that first appointed me as graduate assistant in adult education was my alma mater and must have received good dividends for her investment in my education. The evidence is there in my championing the development of adult and lifelong learning in that University, again under the guidance of Professor Nduka Okoh, who was my Head of Department then.

According to the new data released by UNESCO, around 757 million adults globally still lack basic reading and writing skills. As an experienced literacy expert, what can you say is responsible for this growing illiteracy rate, especially in developing nations of the world?

The major reasons should be located in under-funding, lack of or existence of weak structures of management, lack of or weak policies, ignorance on the part of law makers and politicians. Then, you have the misfortune of having people who were not trained in adult education and who are largely not committed to promoting literacy appointed as Directors of adult education structures.

You can add the weak advocacy that one sees around these days as trained adult educators prefer to be associated with community development, distance learning and human resource development. These were fields that emerged out of adult education, but have since become more popular and better funded. So then, it is “prestigious” to be called by these specializations and not adult literacy. Then you have governments refusing to allocate to literacy programmes what UNESCO prescribes as the minimum of education budget that should go to adult education. Then you have other social problems like epidemics and pandemics, housing shortages, poverty, crimes also competing for government attention in terms of resource allocation. The list goes on.

In September 25 2015, representatives of the countries under the United Nations General Assembly met in New York to adopt the new global development agenda called the Sustainable Development Goals with 17 Goals and 169 targets which are expected to be met by the year 2030. What do you think is the role/place of literacy in achieving these goals?

None of those goals and agenda will be met without paying great attention to the problem of illiteracy. For example, how do you expect an illiterate citizen to make a good case for better funding for literacy programmes or even utilize available services?

2030 is just 14 years away; do you think these goals are achievable by this target year?   

The world needs a miracle for the targets to be achieved. I say so because weakening economies and insecurity all over the place coupled with bad leadership and numerous wars cannot get the world to where it wants to go by 2030. It looks to me like a mirage. Please forgive me for sounding pessimistic and I am not.

Nigeria as the most populous country in Africa is plagued with high rate of adult illiteracy. UNESCO announced few Months ago that 65 Millions Nigerians are illiterate. As a scholar of adult and lifelong education with many years of experience in Nigeria, what do you think is not working in the country as far as literacy promotion is concerned and how can government and stakeholders makes it work?

Lack of understanding, poor infrastructures, inadequate funding, inappropriate appointments, ignorance and whole lot of lack of interest are some of the major banes of Nigeria. Nigeria needs a stronger and better policy, stronger management structures, better and regular funding to push ahead.

With your many years of experience promoting research and practice oriented literacy and lifelong education programmes around the world, which project can you point to as the most successful, in terms of implementation and sustainability? What can nations and practitioners learn from it?

There are many success stories not engineered by me at all. The efforts of the brilliant scholars, Paulo Freire. Marias Torries efforts, the glorious achievements of REAL and UNIVA under the leadership of Emeritus Professor Omolewa, the Kha ri Gude literacy project in South Africa, the literacy campaign in Botswana are some of the few projects I can remember.

In your decades of work and research experience in education and literacy promotion in Africa, what do you see as a wicked problem facing education system in Sub-Saharan Africa?   

Inadequate funding, weak structures, ignorance, lack of commitment, dying advocacy, scholars working in silos, the disappearance of professional associations are critical problems in my view.

What do you think Nigeria and other African nations should work on to strengthen the system of Education?

Reverse all the major financial, legal, structural and human draw-backs and you will achieve better and smarter goals on the condition that you have trained and well qualified personnel working in the field.

Your general advice for government and policy makers

Where policies ever exist, they should be implemented under strict supervision. There should be accountability for actions. The funding level is far too low. Never again should governments appoint untrained and uncommitted people as the “drivers” of the adult literacy, adult education and lifelong learning enterprise. Curriculum reforms are very necessary at this stage as people only seek to enroll in programmes that will enrich their lives immediately. The days of liberal education appear to be over, but I might be wrong.


Sunday Olawale Olaniran is the Team Lead of LEEDNigeria- a youth-led non-profit outfit committed to promoting literacy in under-resourced communities. He can be reached via and @eminiolawale on twitter.

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