Literacy lightens lives in Afghanistan


Rafi-u-llah, a patrol officer in Afghanistan’s Laghman province, says that his inability to read was a source of shame that kept him from performing even simple duties such as giving directions. A shopkeeper in Wardak province’s Maydan Shar district says that illiteracy nearly drove him into bankruptcy because he could not keep a record of his accounts.

Both men benefited from two UNESCO initiatives to promote literacy that recognize how the inability to read and write not only closes off a world of knowledge, but also makes everyday tasks that might be an afterthought to many seem impossible.

For the past six months, Rafi-u-llah has been taking part in the Literacy for Empowering Afghan Police (LEAP) program. Funded by the Government of Japan, the program provides intensive literacy training to Afghan police officers to help them acquire and retain basic literacy skills to perform their duties. In the long run this contributes to peaceful and sustainable nation-building.

For Rafi-u-llah, the training has removed what had been a major obstacle to his work as well as a source of shame.

“I was unable to do my work properly,” he says. “People were asking for directions, but I was not able to direct them properly. I was directing them incorrectly because I was ashamed of them discovering that I was an illiterate police officer.”

Six months into the training, he can now not only give proper directions, but also do other tasks that require literacy, from reading night shift rosters and street signs to understanding written instructions from superiors.

For the shopkeeper, learning to read and write has meant the difference between keeping his business and financial ruin.

Many of the customers at his small neighborhood grocery business would purchase items on credit. The shopkeeper’s inability to read and write meant that he had no physical record of who owed him what and would occasionally forget a debt.

This problem spiraled out of control over time and soon he wasn’t able to find the money to restock his shelves.

The shopkeeper explained the situation. “This shop is the only way I can feed my family, but I am losing my investment day by day and I can’t make any profit.In a fortuitous encounter, a facilitator of UNESCO’s Enhancement of Literacy in Afghanistan (ELA II) program visited the shop to pick up some groceries and wondered why the shelves were bare and the owner seemed so morose.

The ELA facilitator informed him about the literacy course and said that in nine months he would learn the skills he needed to properly manage his store.

The shopkeeper eagerly joined the course and successfully completed it. His business has turned around as a result. “I now know who has borrowed from me and when the villagers should return the debt,’’ he says.

For Rafi-u-llah, learning to read has changed his personal as well as personal life. He recalls how prior to the training he was unable to help his younger brother with a simple mathematics problem.

“He told me, ‘You are a police officer, if you do not know how to solve my small problems, how will you solve people’s problems in this country?,” he said. “This made me realize the importance of literacy. I am now more confident in myself because I can help people.”