August 2, 2006

Moroccans sent back to school in literacy drive

By Tom Pfeiffer and Zakia Abdennebi

RABAT, Morocco (Reuters) - Azeddine dropped out of school before he could read and now spends his days working in a bakery and his evenings trying to sell plastic bags to shoppers in the Moroccan capital.

"I gave up school because I got ill and fell behind in my studies," said the 13-year-old. "Then my father died and my mother remarried. My stepfather said if I wanted to stay with her I would have to earn my keep."

Azeddine is one of 12.8 million illiterate Moroccans, just under half the population and a number that has doubled since 1960. A study in 2004 found that 43 percent of people over 10 were unable to read or write.

The government hopes to eradicate illiteracy by 2015 by reaching out to children like Azeddine and adults who may have never opened a book.

It says it is drawing 1 million people back to school every year in a campaign that is reaching even into the North African kingdom's most isolated hamlets.

"I hope in 10 or 15 years' time we'll no longer be talking about illiteracy, because it's a burden for our country," El Habib Nadir, director of Morocco's literacy program, said.

Illiteracy is one of the main reasons Morocco stands at number 124 out of 177 countries in the U.N.'s Human Development Index, which also takes into account factors such as life expectancy and access to healthcare.

Millions in the country rely on others for simple tasks like dialing a phone number or reading a bill.

Women have fallen ill because they did not know they could go to a doctor without their husband's permission, while illiteracy leaves people vulnerable to being abused by those in authority or manipulated by religious extremists, Nadir said.

"You can tell someone who's illiterate anything you like about the Koran because he can't check whether it's true," said Nadir.


The drive to eradicate illiteracy has gathered momentum since King Mohammed came to power in 1999. In recent weeks, the government has come out with bolder and clearer targets for teaching all Moroccans to read and write.

Small schools have sprung up across the kingdom's rugged countryside and crowds of children with satchels can be seen trudging along dusty rural roads.

The government has developed dedicated learning manuals for farmers, fishermen, soldiers, street children and prisoners.

Voluntary associations, companies and civil servants with a few hours to spare are all being drafted into the nationwide campaign, Nadir said.

To lure adults back to the classroom, they are also offered lessons in crafts like sewing, and micro-credits to help them start a business.

Road construction worker Hamid Berhila found it hard to manage his family's affairs, find his way around town and progress in his job before he was offered reading and writing classes by his employer.

"Now that I can read, I can make the right measurements and read plans and signs. That should help improve my work situation," the 53-year-old told Reuters.

At a literacy award ceremony in Rabat last month, Berhila beamed as he was handed his reading certificate by Prime Minister Driss Jettou while TV crews and photographers jostled for the best view.

"My children are happy that their father can pick up a book and read it with them -- they are very proud," he said. "I know that now I must make sure my wife learns to read too."


Last year, the United Nations' education agency UNESCO said that illiteracy was jeopardizing global attempts to halve world poverty within a decade.

It said one-fifth of the world's adults were illiterate with three-quarters of adult illiterates in just 12 countries -- India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Egypt, Brazil, Iran, Morocco and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Perhaps the only people losing out under Morocco's new campaign, are "public writers," mostly old men who sit by little desks in the street with ancient typewriters and who charge a small fee to hammer out letters for the illiterate.

Men ask for letters disputing bills or the details of land deeds. Women dictate correspondence to their husbands in prison or formal complaints to the police over domestic abuse.

"I've been here 35 years and I get fewer customers now than before," said one public writer in one of the poorest quarters of Rabat's old town. "More people seem to think of illiteracy as a problem nowadays."