During my primary school days, the Igbo people were seen as those that love money and wouldn’t go to school because they wanted to make money quickly. Then, the Igbos were accused of sending their young sons away to serve as ‘boy’ (apprentice) to traders and marry out their daughters at tender age. Their sons will ‘graduate’ from their apprenticeship when their mates were still struggling with their secondary school education and their daughters will be grandmothers as their age mates were graduating from the university (I remember a woman that was in the same class with her daughter in UNIZIK).
Let me be honest with you, we that were in school used to envy these boys then. You know why, we were always broke while they had money to throw about. But then, we had something they cherish – education (or should I say ‘literacy’ because they too had a form of education). Anyway, some of them had to find their way into the university because they want to have what we had (then there were so many Onitsha traders in UNIZIK weekend Continuous Education Programme (CEP)).
Anyway those days had long gone. Today, the literacy level of the Igbos has shown that the story has turn around for the good. An analysis of state-by-state literacy level presented by The Guardian of 24 July, 2017, shows that the state with the highest literacy level in the country is Imo State, with 96.43%. Other Eastern States came as follows: Abia – 94.24%, Anambra – 92.11%, Enugu – 89.46% and Ebonyi – 77.76%. The same newspaper showed that in 2016, Abia State was the best state in WAEC, and Anambra State took the second position.
The above analysis shows that the Igbos really worked on themselves to achieve these feats. My interest today is not on how the state governments worked on the education sector to achieve their aims (because they actually did). My interest is on how the change in the mindset and attitudes of the individuals led to Ndi Igbo being counted among the literates.
1. Culture: The Igbo people believe that “Ofu onye adi azu nwa” (one person cannot raise a child). They are ready to let others help them raise their children. One of the places to find such helpers is the school. In fact, when a mother is having challenges raising an obstinate child, the advice everybody will give her is, “Send him to school so that the teachers can help you to train him very well”.
In Igbo land, teachers are seen as ‘formators’ and disciplinarians (that is why they are called ‘ony nkuzi’ – the person that shapes things well). And every parent wants to have an obedient and socially accepted child. So, the natural thing to do around here is to send your child to school so that he or she will be ‘well trained’.
2. Quest for Knowledge: That is just a simple truth. Every Igbo man wants to know what you know. This is why you hear parents saying things like, “I want to send him to a good school where they will teach him very well.” These people don’t mind whatever it takes to achieve this so long as their children find the best place to acquire knowledge that will pull them through life.
3. Respect for the Educated Rich: If you are educated but you are not rich, you will have your respect. If you are rich but you can’t read and write, one day a small boy will point it out to you that you are an illiterate (ask those that go to umunna meetings). But when you are educated and rich, you are the bomb.
People always say that Igbo people love money. But I am here to tell you that Igbo people love people that are rich and well educated. Do you know what it means to be a professor or a medical doctor and that you can travel out of the country at will? Just ask around and you will understand.
So everybody wants to be educated and rich.
4. Increase in the Number of Working Mothers: Igbo working mothers are increasing by the day. Most of them do not feel comfortable leaving their babies with nannies. So they take them to crèches when they were still tender. This is also seen in villages where mothers send their children to school immediately they wean them. To them, the children should go to school where they will be safe while their mothers run around for their jobs and businesses.
5. Attitude towards the English Language: Ability to speak English places one among the elites in Igbo land. In fact, when you start speaking English, people will keep quiet to listen to you. And you know that you can’t learn English unless you go to school.
6. Wide Travelling: The Igbo people are known to travel far and wide. They need to be able to interact with the people they meet in their host communities. And Nigeria being a multilingual nation means that either these travellers learn the over 400 Nigerian indigenous languages, or learn the English language that links all of them. So, they go for the best option – English. The thing about learning this language is that it comes with the ability to develop its four skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing.
7. The Media Campaign: There is no way I can drop this piece without acknowledging the efforts of the media. I could remember that different television and radio programmes were aired on NTA Enugu to discourage school dropouts. Then, the usual advice was, “At least let them write their WAEC first before going for business or getting married”. I could remember that some people believed that anybody that has finished secondary school is too old to be an apprentice or get married (at least in Awkuzu girls were expected to marry while in SS 1). But gradually, our girls started getting married after secondary school and the boys started ‘learning’ trade when they are done with their WAEC. This shows that the campaigns of the media worked a lot on the psyche of a lot of parents and individuals, who found reasons to send the younger ones to school.
In as much as I celebrate the high literacy rates of the Igbo communities, I believe that all works have not yet been done. The percentage of literates is not up to 100% so we shouldn’t celebrate much yet. We need to work on those in the rural areas where the major number of illiterates can be found.
However, as we Igbos continue to work on ourselves, I enjoin other states that registered high rate of illiteracy to emulate these Igbo communities so as to help their people.