Redefining literacy and illiteracy in cultural contexts

the inability to read or write.
Lack of knowledge in a particular subject; ignorance

A chance encounter 3 weeks ago underscores the latter meaning of illiteracy (ignorant in a particular subject or activity) specifically its essence and context in cultural terms. Prior to, illiteracy to me simply meant the inability to read or write in a common language such as English or French.

The Encounter

On this fateful Sunday evening, I was riding a commercial bus popularly called danfo in Lagos. Halfway, most of the passengers had alighted at different stops leaving 4 of us; 2 men, an elderly woman and myself.

Attempting to navigate the most economic route to the last bus stop, the driver asked if any of us would be alighting at any of the stops along the route or were all headed to his final destination. He sensed something was amiss when the old woman mentioned an obscure landmark as her intended stop.

On probing further, it turned out she was confused, as the landmark in question was too vague to correctly identify her bus stop. To complicate matters, she couldn’t articulate herself in Pidgin English let alone English. Instead, she began to panic even as the driver became agitated, muttering to himself that he’d been unlucky to pick up an illiterate who not only was lost but couldn’t speak any form of English — the only language that he seemed to understand.

Myself and other male passengers intervened urging the driver to calm down while we sought to also make her feel at ease. Her Igbo accent stood out as she tried to explain herself. Thankfully, one of the male passengers understood Igbo and began to converse with her. Going by his interpretation, she was on her way to her daughter’s residence but had mixed up the direction given her. She also mentioned she had a mobile phone in her bag but that its battery was flat. By a stroke of luck, another passenger had a similar model of phone to hers. We powered her phone with his charged battery, retrieved her daughter’s number and called her. She provided directions on where to drop her mom off saying she’d be waiting there. Still, the driver didn’t stop his irritable complaints about the old woman’s perceived illiteracy.

It was against the backdrop of that encounter that I reflected on the unfortunate complaints of the driver. His ignorant self couldn’t see beyond his narrow definition of illiteracy. To him, she was illiterate because she didn’t speak English however basic. Yet, what had saved the day was in fact her ability to clearly express herself in Igbo, which so happened to be understood by a co-passenger.


Take the case of my late paternal grandmother. Mama as she was often called was a staunch Anglican from the Ijebu-speaking Yoruba people. As a teenager, on Sundays, I used to accompany her to a small Anglican Church just in front of our block.

Mama’s preferred Bible and hymnal were both written in Yoruba. While other members of the small yet diverse congregation read theirs in English, mama did hers in Yoruba even when she was asked to take readings or during collective readings. Hearing a mix of English from other members and Yoruba from the lone voice of mama often made me laugh. Surely, God understood they were all saying the same things.

A copy of the Yoruba Holy Bible (Bibeli Mimo). Photo Credits:

Yet Mama was no illiterate by any standard! In fact, she’d had enough education under Anglican missionaries to earn her the position of a teacher at the Salvation Army School in her younger days and it is to her credit that some of my aunts followed in her footsteps to become teachers. Rather, her preference for Yoruba during religious services stemmed from her background, which remained rooted in Yoruba. Also, her previous Anglican diocese held services in Yoruba making it welcoming for those who were literate in Yoruba.


Thus, a part of me refuses to accept the blanket labeling of the old lady as an illiterate in much the same way as I knew my grandma wasn’t. Her coherent explanation of herself in Igbo serves a useful context.

In many parts of Northern Nigeria, Hausa is the lingua franca. The prevalence of native languages for awareness campaigns, automated customer services, religious services, literature etc. reinforce the fact that we can define literacy within cultural terms. Global platforms like Google, Facebook, BBC among others give precedence to these languages too.

There’s a lot of merit to what can be achieved by just shifting our perception of our native languages in relation to literacy. It can be such that it rightly supports the education or enlightenment of people in various subjects that uplift our wellbeing, living standards and development.

It’s no coincidence that the broader definition of literacy is evident in phrases like computer literacy, financial literacy, political literacy and just about any specific areas of interest. With those, ignorance has been rightly partitioned to narrow the definition of illiteracy. Hence, cultural literacy is not a farfetched axiom.

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