Understanding Nonliterate Women

Written by LaNette W. Thompson, Ph.D.

When a literate aid worker wants to make a presentation to nonliterate adult women, she may believe she has to talk directly and simply so that they will understand. After all, the only nonliterate people she may know are young children, so she tends to treat nonliterate adults as if they are children. Thus, she might prepare a simple presentation on preventing malaria. She asks that the nonliterate ladies leave their babies and children at home so that the children will not be a distraction. 

How different the literate aid worker’s presentation might be if she knew three things about how nonliterate adults learn. 

  • First, sound is very important to a nonliterate person and thus one shows that one is an adult by using flowery speech, speaking circularly and obtusely, and interspersing speech with proverbs and stories that are not usually explained. Understanding may come later as the nonliterate adults replay in their minds or discuss what they heard. Only children who have not yet mastered the art of speech speak simply and directly. 
  • Secondly, children and babies are not usually separated from their mothers. It is believed they need to be present when important information is shared as they will absorb what they can and what information is too complex for them will pass over their heads. There will be distractions, but that is the nature of children and distractions are to be dealt with and then ignored. 
  • Thirdly, figuring out what people want to hear and telling them that is often a sign of intelligence and a common characteristic of nonliterates. Nonliterate adults may nod and say they understand because they want the messenger to feel good. 

Thus, in this example, the nonliterate women may tell the aid worker they understand and will generally make the aid worker feel good about herself.  The aid worker leaves thinking she has communicated whereas the nonliterate women return to their old way of doing things, dismissing the aid worker’s words because she spoke directly like a child. If she had been sharing something important, she would have used flowery speech like an adult. Also, she did not want the children present when she shared her information. Everyone knows that children are present when important information is shared.

My interest in this topic was strengthened when I realized my nonliterate African friends judged me by my ability to navigate their world. Though I had much literate knowledge, I was inept in their world. One day it dawned on me that they thought I was not very bright. This realization was humbling as I realized that by their standards, they were right.

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