In Class Five and Cannot Read by Faith Mukiria

The first task was to have her read a simple Grade 2 level paragraph. She held the piece of paper in a hand, with a slight tremble. She formed her lips but no sound came out. “She must be nervous”, I thought to myself. I lifted my eyes from the Kiswahili assessment paper she was holding and looked at her. I reassured her, trying to make her feel more comfortable. She stared hard at the Uwezo assessment sheet, then lifted her gaze towards me. It was a look of defeat.

I flipped the assessment paper that she held to the front page. On the left side of the sheet were 10 letters and on the right were 10 words. “Soma maneno matano ukielekeza na kidole,” I instructed. Once more she studied the words, formed her mouth, but no sound. Beads of sweat were now forming on her forehead. She slowly lifted up her cleanly shaven head and shook it, an indication that she was unable to read.

I slowly moved on to the next task. “Please God let her read the letters.” At this point I was silently praying. “Soma silabi tano ukielekeza na kidole,” I pleaded. She intently looked at the script but still no word came out of her mouth. It then dawned on me, Naliaka, the class 5 girl was not able to read, let alone recognize letters. My heart sunk as my mind raced. How was this even possible? What has she been doing in class, with teachers, all this long?

Next, I was to administer the math test. The instructions were clear, I had to read the question to Naliaka twice and allow her time to do the calculations. Similarly, the test was levelled at Grade 2. It was to measure the learner’s knowledge on Numbers (recognition, counting, operations and word problems), Geometry, Measurement and Data Display. Surprisingly, she was able to recognize numbers and operation signs. She successfully completed the problems on shape recognition, addition and subtraction without carry over. However, time, word problems, multiplication and division were difficult for her.

I was confused. My heart was broken. How was it possible, for her to be able to recognize numbers but unable to identify letters?  I had read several reports of children who had been left behind. One by the World Bank states that 53 percent of the children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple text by age 10. I had also heard from my colleagues recounting the Uwezo reports, that less than 30 percent of learners in a given grade lacked the competencies required for that level. Despite all this knowledge, I was shattered, when I experienced it first-hand.

I tried placing myself in Naliaka’s shoes. School must be a nightmare for her. Every day she wakes up, puts on her school uniform, goes to school, sits in class, but she is not learning. What a frustration. What an injustice. Being able to read serves as a proxy for foundational learning in other subjects (World Bank, 2018). Meaning, without the required literacy skills, Naliaka will attend classes but she will not be able to comprehend. Most predictably, she will not pass her end of primary examination.

Naliaka is among the many victims of the education system. The system has failed her. The government has promoted access to school but it has not ensured quality. Her school is heavily populated and poorly funded. Many learners sit on the cold, dusty potholed floor as desks are not enough. A desk serves 4 – 6 learners depending on their size. The blackboard has seen better days. In Naliaka’s class, the teacher has double the size recommended by UNESCO of 40:1, pupil to teacher ratio.

Naliaka is at risk of dropping out of school. Going to school serves her with a daily dose of exasperation. The more she advances in classes the worse it becomes. Being unable to read by the end of primary school, would mean failing to master reading later in her schooling career. Naliaka would be left to the world, unable to decipher a prescription given by the doctor or calculate the change given by a shopkeeper.

As I left the school I was hopeful that Naliaka would be enrolled into the Accelerated Learning Programme funded by the Safaricom Foundation. There, she would be grouped with other learners in grade 3 -5 who are not able to read. The Programme teachers would provide personalized instruction, teaching from the right level, and hopefully within 10 days, she will be able to recognize letters, and even read words. The journey ahead of her however is very long. She will first have to learn to read then read to learn.

Faith Mukiria is the Monitoring and Evaluation Officer at Zizi Afrique Foundation. For feedback, email

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