LINGUIST List 12.1762

Sun Jul 8 2001

Review: Egbo, Gender, Literacy & Life Chances

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  1. Rachel Reynolds, Egbo, Gender, Literacy and Life Chances in Sub-Saharan Africa

Message 1: Egbo, Gender, Literacy and Life Chances in Sub-Saharan Africa

Date: Sun, 08 Jul 2001 07:06:42 -0500
From: Rachel Reynolds <>
Subject: Egbo, Gender, Literacy and Life Chances in Sub-Saharan Africa

Egbo, Benedicta (2000) Gender, Literacy and Life Chances in
Sub-Saharan Africa. Multilingual Matters, hardback, 227 pp.

Rachel R. Reynolds, English and Linguistics, University of Illinois at

Egbo's study asks important questions about "whether and how
Western-style literacy is relevant to women in Sub-Saharan Africa" (9).
What is the connection between educational attainment and women's
economic development? And what impedes the acquisition of literacy and
education by young African women?

Egbo is a critical literacy educator in the Freirean tradition. In this
work, she employs qualitative research methods designed to get at the
root of what thwarts her informants' conscientization or conscious
development as actors with socioeconomic power in the wider world. She
offers a detailed and comparatively useful summation of open-ended
discussions with literate and non-literate women informants in a Nigerian

It should be noted that for Egbo, literacy means fully-educated in a
Western sense, including professional functional literacy attainment and
a sense of personal leisure literacy. Furthermore, her literate
informants were professionals in wage-earning capacities like teaching,
nursing, and accounting. Illiteracy, however, means exactly that: None
of her informants designated non-literate were able to read and all but
two were subsistence farmers outside the scope of wage-labor.

There are no real surprises here about the lives of the literate women.
Literate African women do better in all measurable ways, including
healthiness, age of childbearing, ability to control fertility, reported
sense of happiness and sense of power in the household and in the
community; and their children are healthier and almost 100 percent more
likely to go to school. In this African context (Igboland in Nigeria),
what literate women do not have to do is also important they are free of
the traditional household economic system in which women have usufruct
over a husband's land and then are expected to use this land to provide
most of the food and other domestic services for the family.
Non-literate women on the other hand spend nearly all of their time
growing family food and selling the fruits of their labor in market
stalls. For literate women the freedom of wage labor means that they may
work fewer hours for far greater economic returns, evading the strenuous
life of subsistence farming. Importantly, they can also save wages and
get loans based on their job status that provide capital for investment
in small market stall businesses.

But Egbo's study is most important because it speaks carefully and
succinctly for non-literate women. At an American Anthropological
Association panel last year (2000) sponsored by the Anthropology and
Education section, the discussion turned to how difficult it is for poor
working women anywhere to attain literacy or in some cases to practice
the literacy skills that they already possess. In the U.S. undereducated
women are trapped in a spiral of exhausting and continuous manual work
which prevents them from attaining the sophisticated level of functional
literacy one needs to work for higher wages (and the means to push their
own daughters up the educational ladder); the trap of manual labor also
certainly makes both leisure and critical literacy a non-issue for them.
The situation for uneducated African women proves to be in may ways the
same, although the work is even harder. The crucial difference in Africa
is that literacy means the jump from subsistence living to wage-based
living. It is also striking how many of Egbo's informants say that they
cannot take literacy classes, which do exist in the village, because they
do not have the time nor the energy; rather, they do want small business
start-up information, small capital loans, and agriculture development
grants. Ultimately Egbo concludes that adult literacy programs and
advancing literacy education for girls in African will fail if they are
not accompanied by new ideas and commitments in feminist economics (Egbo
calls this "femanomics"). Likewise, the systemic failure to educate
girls is connected to an economic system in which lack of viable
unskilled wage labor and the need to feed mouths takes precedence over
schooling, and certainly over homework. One important example is that
the daughters of non-literate women are often taken from school to be
placed as servants in far away homes of those literate women who are
working as professionals. Sons' education is also privileged because
the perception is that they are more likely to find employment based on

Other interesting related details in this data came from Egbo's focus
group research in which she encouraged literate and non-literate women to
discuss their perceptions of themselves and others. For example,
literacy and its concomitant economic advantages translate into "world
view" differences in which literate women do indeed feel more empowered
to resist some of the often crippling traditions in African women's
lives like widowhood confinement and circumcision. Egbo sensibly
correlates literacy attainment with its INDIRECT effects here, especially
by showing that literate women are less likely to have their daughters
circumcised because they have the education to know and evaluate the
potential health effects, as well a sense that circumcision can be
construed as a symbolic act of women's subjugation. Egbo also mentions
how non-literate women often talk of feeling powerless, or they say that
a woman's life is one of an inescapable life of hardship (the
non-literate women also say they feel discriminated against by literate
women in discussion of village public affairs). I stress INDIRECT
effects of literacy because Egbo uses evidence from the talk of real
women reflecting on real life circumstances to redress some of the
excessive claims for the "cognitive" effects of literacy on people's
worldviews. She is wise to connect "world view" changes among women
not to some supposed change in the hard wired way the brain thinks, but
instead she connects world view changes to the questions of the
empowerment that come eventually and indirectly with the economic
advantages of literacy and education. To put it another way, she
demonstrates how Freirean conscientization is connected to literacy.

This book, unfortunately, reads like a dissertation (it basically is) and
its nine chapters could have been trimmed of repetition and refocused to
promote and develop any number of key issues. Also, for example, her
description of critical literacy issues (chapter 5) is competent and
thorough but less-than-gripping. Nonetheless, this is dense material and
many of the issues that Egbo brings up relate literacy, development,
gender and economics in imminently sensible and clear-headed ways. I
found it particularly useful as a tool to generate a framework to
understand interrelated variables in literacy and economic development,
but not as a study that advances new theories about critical literacy.
It is a book I recommend for policy workers first and foremost, including
economists, workers in NGO's, and educators who work with poor women
anywhere anyone who wants to deal with systemic problems in women's
education and literacy development. Note too that although all of her
data comes from a rural African context, it would still be very useful
data for work in urban contexts and in modern industrial countries,
simply because her economic analysis is really about the struggles of
poor women who must choose the expediencies of survival over the pursuit
of education. Africanists will find this book less useful, however, as
the data is in many ways too general. Because she universalizes some
Igbo-specific cultural practices the data is more broadly sociological
and useful comparatively for gender and literacy studies across the
globe, not for inter-African affairs. The effect of this universalizing
is also that Egbo's femanomics agenda is also yet to be fully developed
as a specifically African praxis.

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

Rachel Reynolds is a PhD Candidate in the Specialization of Language,
Literacy and Rhetoric in the Department of English, University of
Illinois at Chicago. Her dissertation is an ethnography of the rhetoric
of local identity and globalization employed among Igbo (Nigerian)
transnational immigrants.
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