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Conceptions of literacy in context:situated understandings in a rural area of Northern Cameroon

Lancaster University
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  • Communication
  • Economics
  • Education


Taking a view of literacy as a communicative practice, in which a learned skill is applied by individual people in their particular social contexts, this thesis examines the understandings of literacy of people in a village in northern Cameroon and explores how these are influenced by the circumstances of their lives. Many developments have taken place in local life in the last fifty years as the village has become progressively integrated into a wider world. Most people are small farmers; poverty and hunger are recurrent problems. Three different languages are spoken, in different domains of life. The majority of adults describe themselves as non-literate and several literacy programmes are in operation. Using a qualitative methodology, the researcher took part in local events and activities and noted the ways in which literacy was used in the community. He also conducted interviews with 59 literate and non-literate men and women, three of whom were interviewed in depth over several months. He found that many people thought that literacy offered advantage and status and that it facilitated personal correspondence. It gave some people a sense of autonomy. However, learning to read and write was not a high priority in relation to the immediate pressures of survival. Religion was a significant influence on local understandings of literacy with Christians being mostly positive towards literacy. Protestants viewed literacy as useful for reading the Bible, and Catholics associated it with development. Literacy in French was seen as relevant for education and employment, literacy in the local language for religious purposes. This study confirms the view that literacy has to be understood as situated in its local context and it reveals that people’s conceptions of literacy, and not only their uses of reading and writing, need to be understood in the context of their lives.

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