I am the first in my family’s line of women to win an English Literature Prize. I am the first to quote Shakespeare in conversations and the first girl child to own a library. This is very isolating. As a reading woman I defy every barrier that was placed in front of my grandmother and all the women who have gone before her. I can read, write and freely articulate my thoughts in a ‘man’s world’. This makes me the wildest dream of my female ancestors. What separates me from my female ancestors who couldn’t read or write is opportunity.
My favourite Philosopher and Economist Amartya Sen writes ‘Poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being.’
Although my grandmother had wealth, she was denied access to the education which would have enabled her to reach her full potential. My grandmother was born in a patriarchal West African society. The political and social institutions of the day deprived women of the right to an education because in their view, it wasn’t important for a woman’s wellbeing. This social and political oppression is present in many cultures around the world.
I grew up in Australia which has different ideas about what is good for women. For many of us lucky women in the Western World, we roll our eyes at the thought of someone trying to stop us from getting an education. Being in the ‘eye roller’ category of life is very conflicting for me. The times of my grandmother were a destitute intellectual wasteland for women. Those times still exist today. Although I am blessed to live in a time where my political and social institutions enable me to reach my highest potential, I can’t help but think, ‘What about the other women?’
When I won this English literature Prize as a 17-year-old girl from a refugee background, I and my parents felt so proud. My mother gave me one of her best lines, ‘African girl, speaking their language.’ It felt great! But winning didn’t mean that I was more special than the other women in my family. I am not special for winning a prize, I believe my grandmother would have won ten prizes. She was notoriously clever. The rumour going around our family was that if she ever got the chance to read and write she would fight for human rights and probably run half of Sierra Leone.
It is our institutions that are special- for creating an environment that I could happen. An environment where a young woman can grow to be a fully functioning adult, exercising her civil and political rights. I could never write this piece without those institutions giving me the opportunity to enhance my ability to communicate. Unlike so many people, including 48% of Tasmanians ‘who do not have written language skills at a high enough level to manage the comprehension and self-expression demands of daily life’, I have the gift of reading for pleasure and the ability to communicate my thoughts in writing.
What saddens me the most is that I’m not communicating to the audience I come from. An audience whose primary experience of the world is discrimination, and socio-economic disadvantage. Some of my friends cannot currently appreciate a good novel. The barriers that besieged my grandmother are still very present for many Tasmanians. These barriers must be identified and removed for the betterment of all Tasmanians. Communicating the heart of literacy is about the empowerment of the oppressed. It is about realising that each one of us was not just made to survive, we were made to thrive and literacy is a means to our collective thriving.
Grace is the founder of human rights advocacy group “Citizen”. She is a writer and a student of Law, Politics, Economics and Philosophy. Here she writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find out more at chattermatters.com.au.
Something to think about: What barriers do Tasmanian’s face when it comes to literacy?