An unsettling past of colonialism and slave trade, civil wars and a major public health crisis are never a recipe for high literacy levels. The West African state of Liberia, which has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, has seen them all. Liberia has left a few eventful decades behind. It has been plagued by civil wars between 1989 and 2004, which killed more than 250,000 people and displaced a third of its population to the neighbouring countries. Furthermore, it had the highest death toll from 2015’s Ebola outbreak – which took the lives of almost 5,000 people. Up until 2004, the wars meant most schools were shut during this period, which devastated the education in the country.
The generations that grew up under the shadow of the war now make the majority of the adult population in Liberia. Hence, the West African nation currently has one of the lowest adult literacy rates in the world, with only 43 percent of the adult population able to read and write. For females, the number is even lower at 33 percent.
“When the majority of Liberians don’t know how to read and write, this introduces very big challenges for not only the individuals but also the entire nation,” said Emmanuel Giddings, a programme director at Alfalit International, an American charity operating globally, including Sub-Saharan African countries like Liberia. “When women don’t know how to read and write, they usually cannot even make sense of the entrance or exit signs, or even the toilets. Even if they have money, if they cannot read the numbers or count, they have to depend on other people – usually their husbands or even strangers – to manage their money. This puts them into very difficult circumstances and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation,” he said.
Low literacy rates not only rob millions of Liberians off many opportunities, but they also pose a major hurdle for the development of the Liberian economy. That said, low literacy rates aren’t an obstacle to the abundance of sartorial creativity. Liberia is home to a rich textile tradition, producing quintessential, bold and colourful West African fabrics. But when people cannot read, calculate or take measurements, it is impossible for the textile industry to thrive.
This is why Alfalit International established its initiative, “Sew to Sell”, in Liberia. Through this program, participants, the majority of whom are rural women, don’t only acquire literacy skills, but also receive a sewing training. Thus, hundreds of women transform from illiterate and unemployed to literate small business owners who contribute to the economy. “Women between the ages of 15 and 70 are all eager to learn to read and write and gain other life skills through our programme. They know it can change their lives,” Giddings said.
According to the African Development Bank Group, although it’s still in its infancy, fashion in Africa has tremendous potential and is expected to create significant economic value over the next decade. The market research firm Euromonitor International estimates the market value of fashion and textile in the Sub-Saharan Africa to already be $31 million. Thanks to this initiative, thousands of women were able to not only gain important life skills, but also tap into a potentially lucrative business.
However, owning a small business as a seamstress is far from the only consequence of being literate. Alfalit International’s initiative taught how to read and write to 100,000 people in the last 10 years, Giddings explained. “Once someone knows how to read and write, it’s not too difficult to teach others or utilize other employment opportunities. From there, things can snowball,” he stated. He has seen many women gaining confidence, developing an entrepreneurial knack and taking charge of their lives.
After completing the literacy and basic education training provided by the organization, one woman created a pre-school for children; one started a local financial support network and currently serving 300 other women; and one even got into local politics. Added Giddings, “Literacy is transformative. When women are able to read and write, everything is possible. They realize that there’s almost nothing they cannot do once they are literate.” There might be years until the Liberian textile and fashion industry takes off and the effects of a dire past of colonial exploitation, wars and illness to dissolve. However, there’s no doubt that literacy is a good place to start for them to happen.