LINGUIST List 11.2074

Fri Sep 29 2000

Review: Egbo: Gender, Literacy in Subsaharan Africa

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  1. Angela Bartens, Egbo review

Message 1: Egbo review

Date: Fri, 29 Sep 2000 13:49:19 +0800
From: Angela Bartens <>
Subject: Egbo review

Egbo, Benedicta (2000): Gender, Literacy and Life Chances in Sub-
Saharan Africa. (The Language and Education Library 16.) Clevendon, 
Buffalo, Toronto & Sydney: Multilingual Matters. ix + 206 pp. 
Hardback GB � 29.95 / US$ 49.95. 

Reviewed by Angela Bartens, University of Helsinki. 

The volume under review is a revision of the author's 1997 doctoral 
dissertation defended at the University of Toronto. As the author 
explains in the "Preface" (pp. vii-ix) and again in Ch. 5 (p. 92), 
the roots of the research project go back to the Biafran war when 
she, a "young city girl" (p. vii), went back to her ancestral rural 
community and started wondering about the inequality between the 
sexes as far as access to literacy, education, and information as 
well as life chances in general are concerned. While there is no 
denying that such differences also exist in Sub-Saharan urban 
agglomerations, they were and still are much more pronounced in 
rural areas. 


Ch. 1 "Introduction" (pp. 1-19) examines the way in which colonial 
rule curtailed the traditional rights and statuses of women in Sub-
Saharan Africa. The author does not deny the existence of deeply 
rooted patriarchal structures but merely highlights the 
deterioration of the status of women under colonialism. As exclusion 
from educational opportunities has an impact on various aspects of 
an individuum's life in a modern, increasingly westernized society, 
e.g., wage labor, participation in politics, etc., the result was a 
gender-based social chasm. However, there has been disagreement 
especially among feminist scholars on whether literacy alone is 
sufficient to empower women. Hence the single most important goal of 
this study which is to give voice to the women (p. 12), i.e., a 
focus on the perception the subjects themselves have of il/literacy 
and its impact on their lives. While there certainly is a 
substantial body of research on gender and il/literacy in Sub-
Saharan Africa and elsewhere, it should be signalled right here that 
the approach of departing from the accounts of the subjects as prime 
data is highly innovative and probably the only meaningful research 
method when the research is meant to constitute a basis for praxis-
oriented policy making as stipulated by Freire (1970; see below). - 
Ch. 1 ends with a preliminary presentation of the two communities in 
Delta State, Nigeria, where the research was conducted and an 
outline of the contents of the subsequent chapters.

 Ch 2 ("Il/Literacy: Some Theoretical Considerations", pp. 20-39) 
starts with examining different types or definitions of literacy. 
While the UNESCO has propagated the importance of functional 
literacy where literacy must enable a person to function in his or 
her group or community and to contribute to its development, the 
author of this study has adopted the concept of critical literacy. 
Critical literacy has beeninfluenced by the thinking of Paulo Freire 
and bestows a political dimension upon literacy in that literacy is 
seen as a tool for initiating and bringing about radical social 
change (p. 25). The second part of Ch. 2 examines the linkages 
between literacy and life chances, socio-cultural and socio-economic 
development, cognition, and language.

 Ch. 3 deals with "The Intersections of Gender, Literacy and Power" 
(pp. 40-60). In the first part of the chapter, the interrelatedness 
of these three variables is examined with relation to women in Sub-
Saharan Africa in general and in Nigeria in particular. The focus 
then shifts to specific areas of Nigerian women's lives where 
literacy potentially has an impact: social relations and decision-
making in the household, access to means of production, wage labor, 
and micro-entrepreneurship as well as physical and socio-cultural 
well-being. In the vein of critical literacy theory, Egbo argues 
that literacy is a social artifact which can be used to improve 
women's life conditions and chances just as it has been used to 
subjugate them in the past. She refers in passing (pp. 57-58) to the 
cases of four African women who were enabled by their education to 
challenge unfair social practices in their respective societies. 

 Ch. 4 presents "The Historical and Social Context of 
Literacy/Education" (pp. 61-85). Prior to colonization, traditional 
and Islamic education coexisted in Nigeria as in many other regions 
of Africa. Both promoted community cohesion and the importance of 
all community members. Colonial educational policies, on the other 
hand, were Eurocentric, exploitative, assimilationist, 
discriminatory and hegemonic (p. 63). Colonial education produced a 
gender bias which the governments of independent Nigeria (and other 
African nations) have found impossible to redress in spite of a 
succession of different programs since independence in 1960. These 
programs and their shortcomings as well as the constraints to 
women's access to literacy in Nigeria are discussed at some length. 

 Ch. 5 ("A Critical Literacy Research", pp. 86-101) discusses the 
philo-ethnographic foundations of the study. The concept of 
critical literacy is embedded in the theory of critical realism, a 
philosophy of the human sciences recently advanced by the British 
philosopher Roy Bhaskar. Both critical literacy and critical realism 
give priority to agency as a starting point for transformative 
action. The gap between 'knowing' and 'doing' is bridged in that the 
researcher in the human sciences is morally compelled to use the 
findings of contextualized social inquiry to change the social world 
(p. 87). Egbo then proceeds to discuss her specific design of 
inquiry: participant observation, selection of informants, in-depth 
and follow-up interviews, focus-group discussions. 75 potential 
informants were contacted but in the end only 18 literate and 18 
illiterate women were selected for the study. Practical logistical 
considerations lead to the mixed composition of the four focus-group 
discussions attended by all but five of the 36 informants. 

 In Ch. 6 ("Perceiving Il/literacy: Impact, Constraints and 
Possibilities: Literate Women's Accounts", pp. 102-122) the literate 
informants of the study get to voice their views and perceptions; 
correspondingly, Ch. 7 ("Perceiving Il/literacy: Non-Literate 
Women's Accounts", pp. 123-145), it is the illiterate informants' 
turn. These two chapters, the data basis, constitute the most 
interesting part of the volume under review. 

 Some sharp contrasts emerge from the women's accounts: Firstly, 
il/literacy has an impact on the feelings of self-worth among the 
informants. Illiterate informants frequently equate their lack of 
education to blindness. The overwhelming majority of the informants 
were not allowed to make the relevant choices about their own 
education which is why many of the illiterate women would like their 
daughters to have all the opportunities they did not have. All women 
value their children's education highly. However, a point which I 
feel is not emphasized sufficiently by the author is that literate 
women seem to be more aware of the need for their children to study 
and to do their homework regularly in order to succeed. 

 Literate women are more socially aware. This translates itself both 
into more involvement in community level participation and into 
participation in decision-making at home. Most literate women have 
access to wage labor while few illiterate women do. However, this is 
only one of the reasons why literate women's monthly incomes are 
much higher: on the average 2500 Naira vs. the average illiterate 
informant's income 700 Naira. Literate women are more likely to have 
access to credit facilities and frequently engage in supplementary 
income-generating activities besides their salarial employment while 
illiterate women only have subsistence farming and petty trade to 
sustain them and their children as husbands rarely make a 
contribution. Needless to say, the literate woman's regular income 
gives her more negotiating power at home. At the same time, 
illiterate women work longer hours. Literate women are more likely 
to use contraception and the difference in the number of children 
literate and non-literate women have is perhaps one of the most 
significant findings of the study (p. 133). A corollary finding is 
that illiterate women tend to get married younger than literate 
women. Literate women are less likely to circumcise their daughters 
and cite government campaigns and print media among the reasons for 
discontinuing this ancestral pratice. Only illiterate informants 
reported not having immunized their children. 

 Ch. 8, "Literacy and Life Chances: Examining the Evidence" (pp. 
146-170), relates the results of the inquiry to the findings of 
other academic studies on Nigeria and Sub-Saharan Africa in general. 
In Nigeria and elsewhere, lack of financial resources and 
differential valuation of male and female children conspire to women 
having less access to education than men. A recurrent theme is the 
equation of literacy with modernization and urbanization. At the 
same time, literacy is found to enhance rural women's lives even 
more drastically than the lives of women living in urban areas. 
However, most illiterate women no longer see participation in a 
literacy course as a means of changing their situation. According to 
the author "the problem as well as the solution is, fundamentally, 
economics" (p. 166). 

 In Ch. 9 ("From Rhetorics to Praxis: (Re)constructing Women's Life 
Chances and Bridging the Gender Gap in Literacy/Education", pp. 171-
188), the author embarks upon putting the findings of her study into 
practice. In order to do so, she introduces the concept of 
"Femanomics", an economic intervention framework geared towards the 
educational needs of women and girls. Although increased investments 
in girls' and women's education including remuneration of 
participants, profound curriculum reforms, legislation against 
discrimination, attitudinal campaigns, general infrastructural 
development, etc., are required above all from the government, the 
author argues that women's increased contribution to the national 
economy, social reconstruction and overall development will make up 
for all that. Illiteracy may be merely symptomatic of the 
subjugation of women. However, it is also an institutional variable 
amenable to policy interventions, in short, a starting point. The 
volume closes with the References (pp. 189-201) and an Index (pp. 


This is an interesting case study of the impact of literacy on the 
quality of life of rural Nigerian women. As indicated above, it is 
highly innovative in taking the accounts and self-perception of the 
subjects of study as its point of departure. It is solidly couched 
in the framework of critical literacy theory and critical realism 
which consider it the responsibility of the researcher to take the 
findings to the level of praxis-oriented social engagement. 

 The chapters on the theoretical framework do not make easy reading 
for the average linguist and the reader cannot help wondering if 
Femanomics will not just remain another utopic proposal to empower 
the disempowered. But you have to reach for the sky if you want to 
bring down the moon. 

 My points of criticism are minor. First of all, one of the key 
terminological assumptions of this study is that literacy and 
education can be used interchangeably: literacy is a prerequisite 
for educational advancement and most literate people in the African 
context acquire literacy beyond initial alphabetization according to 
the author (p. xiii). However, evidence to the contrary is more than 
abundant: the relapsing of neoliterates into functional 
analphabetism is one of the big challenges especially to adult 
education campaigns in Sub-Saharan Africa (and elsewhere), cf., e.g. 
Pasch (1994) and Lopes (1998). I somehow missed a stronger 
thematization of the language of education in the study under review 
although I recognize that it probably would have been beyond its 
scope to tackle such a complex issue. The Nigerian government's 
policy to use local languages during the initial stage (the first 
three years, to be exact) of formal instruction and the possibility 
of extending their use to adult literacy programs when the 
participation of older women is at stake are mentioned only in 
passing (p. 18, footnote 5, and p. 182). I doubt that subject 
pronouns not marked for gender as in Igbo, the main language of the 
two communities studied, reflect less sexism in the speech community 
or even "the complementary nature of gender roles in traditional 
African societies" (p. 2). "Swahili" and "Kiswahili", listed as two 
different African languages used in education (p. 10) are of course 
variants of the same glossonym. But, as I said, the points to be 
criticized are minor, and Benedicta Egbo has succeeded in making a 
solid contribution to research on literacy, education and gender 


Freire, Paulo (1970): Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder & 

Lopes, Armando Jorge (1998): "The Language Situation In Mozambique". 
In: Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 19:5-6, 

Pasch, Helma (1994): "Status and role of Sango in the Central 
African Republic as contrasted to French". In: Helma Pasch (ed.): 
Sango: The National Official Language of the Central African 
Republic. Koln: Rudiger Koppe, 85-97. 


The Reviewer: Dr.phil. Angela Bartens is Docent of Iberoromance 
Philology at the University of Helsinki. Her research interests 
include language contact including pidgins and creoles, 
sociolinguistics and applied sociolinguistics including language 
planning. E-mail: 
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