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PNG Literacy Rate Still A Mystery - ‘Over 2 million people print illiterate’

©Genua Toua

©Maggie Maki Guria

08.11.2011

Literacy is one of the biggest development issues in Papua New Guinea. Yet it’s hard to get a precise picture of the national literacy rate and education levels.

More than a third of the six-million-plus population – most of whom live in traditional subsistence villages in rural areas – are unable to read and write. Among older people, as many as one in two may be print-illiterate, perhaps not surprising in a country with little history of writing.

Nicholas Nembo, a project manager with PNG’s National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat, spoke about the issue during a visit to Bangkok last week. He and six colleagues visited Thailand for training sessions at UNESCO, the United Nations’ education arm, which is helping the country set up a website in a bid to boost literacy levels. 

“There has never been a national literacy survey [in PNG],” Mr Nembo said. “Our estimate of 56 per cent [of people being literate] is based on a question in the national census in 2000: ‘Are you able to both read and write with understanding a short simple statement in your day to day life?’ but there were no follow-up questions to explain about those who voted ‘yes’.

“Therefore it’s really unknown. The 56 per cent may not be the real literacy rate – it may be lower.” Latest literacy surveys carried out in 5 province by PNG Education Advocacy Network and  ASPBAE supports that literacy rates are lower.

While the figure of 56 per cent is low in world terms, it’s important to recognize that Papua New Guinea is a unique society with extraordinary geographic and cultural features. The challenge of teaching people a common tongue is far more difficult than people in other lands might imagine. The country has well over 800 languages – only half of which have developed written texts. 

It has also had relatively limited interaction with the rest of the world, partly because of its isolation, topography and underdevelopment. Indeed its rugged terrain, which varies from coastal wetlands to dense tropical forests and a central mountain ranges with peaks up to 4,500 metres, has hindered the building of infrastructure and is serious barrier to travel from region to region. In some areas small planes are the only mode of transport. 

The country joined the path to modern development “late”. Literacy work and non-formal education was started by missionaries over 140 years ago, but PNG only became self-governing in the mid-1970s. And it faces all the difficulties of a fledgling democracy – a relatively small domestic economy, law and order problems, bureaucratic inertia, political corruption, as well as high HIV, malaria and infant death rates, etc. 

Given this, the thought of achieving literacy rates similar to those in more developed nations is a somewhat daunting prospect. In recent years strategies and Paulo Freire Pedagogical approaches in teaching the Mother Tongue (MT) has proved the way forward to address literacy/illiteracy issue in PNG.

Mr Nembo said he and his colleagues were keen for greater government or private support. They would like to coordinate more non-formal activities. Current funding levels support the operations of their office in the capital Port Moresby, which has less than 10 people, but are not adequate to meet the country’s needs to address hard press education issues in the NFE Sector.

Meanwhile, there were over two million Papua and New Guineans who were print illiterate, he said. 

Aside from UNESCO and the national government, a swag of aid, church and civil society groups are working hard to boost education levels, as well as trying to determine literacy levels. 

The non-state groups work on an ad-hoc basis and range from local NGOs to big international organizations such as the YWCA and World Vision.

Churches of all denominations have literacy programs and there are many individuals working on a voluntary basis. “It’s coming from within their heart – to pass on the skills of reading and writing,” Mr Nembo said.

One example was a religious ministry which had been operating in the Highlands region for many decades, doing support work to train teachers, he said. 

Missionaries and groups such as SIL International were also doing long-term work translating the Bible into lesser-known local languages, English, Tok Pisin or Motu, the three main national languages. 

The rate of participation in primary schooling is improving, but it remains low and below that of most other countries in the region. 

PNG looks unlikely to achieve any of the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN for 2015. But UNESCO is hoping that by focusing on literacy will pay off in the long-term. 

 

News report by Jim Pollard* 

[*Journalist with The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, hired as a media trainer by UNESCO to advise the PNG literacy team on writing content for their new website. This report is based on an interview conducted with Nicholas Nembo during a class in Thailand in October 2011.]