Why Tanzania tops the list of African literacy

Tanzania, Africa's star performer in literacy, knew that teaching its villagers to read and write was not enough. More important was maintaining the momentum so new literates wouldn't lapse back into illiteracy.

The Tanzanian government distributed more than 6,000 free radio sets for the use of listening groups. To stimulate the listeners to read, a topic is discussed by a specialist on the radio. Toward the end of a program, mention is made of publications that contain more information about the subject. They are available from a number of sources, including schools and rural libraries.

The innovation paid off handsomely. At the time of independence in 1961, more than 70 percent of Tanzanians were illiterate. Today only 26.5 percent are. With the exception of the more sparsely populated island of Mauritius, Tanzania outperforms all other African countries, even South Africa, on literacy.

According to Yusuf Kassam, former director of the Institute for Adult Education in Tanzania and now associated with the International Council for Adult Education in Toronto, Tanzania's success story can be explained by two factors that development specialists say are essential if literacy is to take off in a country:

1. Political commitment. In Tanzania President Julius Nyerere made literacy a national priority.

2. Mobilizing much of the population by enlisting the aid of volunteers. In Tanzania the party structure from the top ministries down to the 10-house cell unit in the villages was called into action.

Critics of socialist Tanzania say the social gains made in increasing literacy and expanding social services have been made at the expense of the economy. Like many other African countries, Tanzania has severe economic problems. The world recession and falling commodity prices share some of the blame. But a more persuasive argument among Africa watchers is that Tanzania's economy suffers from too much socialist regimentation, including state-run cooperatives.

When the International Monetary Fund insisted that Tanzania cut back on its social services to secure an IMF loan, Tanzania refused.

Apart from a reluctance to allow an outside world body to dictate to it, Tanzania is apparently determined that social gains such as more social services and a better educated society are a greater priority than economic gains.

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