Our hostility to numbers


Scrutator is planning to hire a team of experts and witchdoctors to investigate who the hell is spreading blatant lies that Lesotho’s literacy rate is 90 percent.
For years Scrutator has read official reports waxing lyrical, with unbridled gusto, about the fact that Lesotho has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa.
Yet everywhere she looks all she can see are people who are distinctively functionally illiterate.
Whether it’s in the government or the private sector the truth is that some of the people in these offices are functionally illiterate.
You only have to visit a government office and see how the average civil servant is overwhelmed by basic things they should have mastered after years of doing them again and again to understand what Scrutator is talking about.
If you think Scrutator is being malicious just visit a banking hall and see how men and women, young enough not to have fallen through the cracks of our notoriously weak education system, struggle with basic forms that ask for your name, address, sex and age.
I have seen teenagers battling with mere deposit slips.
You can see them sweating like they have been asked to crack the Da Vinci Code.
There are many people in this country who claim to have gone to school but they still cannot spell their names under pressure.
Although they have a decent acquaintance with school they still cannot grasp basic instructions.

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To prove my point try the following exercise in your spare time.
The next time you go to a bar take a book with you.
Gather some 10 colleagues around on promises that if they can read and comprehend a passage without difficulties you will buy them a beer.
Scrutator can bet her last penny that there is not chance in the world that you will buy more than half of those people a beer.
If the idea of a book sounds intimidating then you can just pull out that little instruction note you find in any condom packet.
Get them to read the instructions aloud before interpreting what they mean.
Some might pass by experience and not comprehension.
And I am not talking about English here but Sesotho, the very language that they use when they cry and curse.
Oh, before I forget, let me remind you that there are many in our midst who failed Sesotho at school.
The examiners unanimously decided that as far as their mother tongue is concerned such people are illiterate.
Scrutator has no doubt that there are many graduates from our so-called institutions of higher learning who are so functionally illiterate that when they get hired they would have to be taught a, e, i, o, u.
That prevalent illiteracy is reflected in the way most of these graduates conduct their business.
They have nightmares understanding simple reports.
The real disaster however comes when you ask them to write a simple report.
There you will see some weird language mixed with a bit of Sesotho and a huge dose of what sounds like English.
Some of them can’t even follow basic instructions.

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But our illiteracy is not what annoys me. What really infuriates this girl from Qacha is our general innumeracy — incompetency with numbers rather than words.
Our general dislike for numbers is as sad as much as it is sickening.
The result is that we cannot understand the numbers that affect our lives.
This dislike for anything mathematical is so “engrained in our DNA” that it has become a national heritage.
And we actually brag about it as if it’s a virtue.
Scrutator has heard ministers and MPs confessing their hostility to numbers as if it’s anything to be proud of.
That is why when anything mathematical is discussed in parliament most of our MPs go on “voicemail”.
Even the most garrulous ones retreat into their shells for fear of displaying their ineptness with numbers.
The smart ones in parliament know that if you want MPs to stop asking questions use graphs and statistics.
There is no doubt that the majority  of our lawmakers will be in the “wilderness” every time the Finance Minister Timothy Thahane delivers his budget speeches.
They just don’t understand how the hell he comes up with such numbers.
In the government and public sector there are senior people who tremble in fear every time anything involving numbers is discussed.

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The effects of innumeracy on our lives are terrible but we don’t realise it.
We fall for the most mundane of tricks because we just cannot do basic calculations.
We walk out of supermarkets feeling proud when the till operator has pinched our change.
We walk the streets of Maseru with a spring in our step when we are actually sinking in debt because we cannot calculate interest on our loans.
That is why some families in the villages pay M300 every month to a herd boy for two years to look after a cow that is worth M3000.
We buy things we cannot afford.
That is why some of us spend five years living like paupers because we are paying off a car that will be worth very little when we finally get to own it.
We put our money in pyramid schemes and then shed crimson tears when we lose it.
Reporters feed us lies about inflation because they cannot understand what a percentage point is.
We cannot understand what a five percent increase on our salary means.
We gamble our savings away because we just cannot understand the concept of probability.
We take mortgages that entrap us in perpetual debt.
We surrender our monies to sangomas who claim to have magical powers to make a loti out of 15 lisente.
Scrutator is not saying we should master algebra but that, at least, we must be able to deal with the little numbers that affect our lives.
At least we should be able to know what an overdose on medication means or to calculate simple things.
At least we must know how many square metres are in an acre. We must learn to calculate percentage increases.

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Closely related to this innumeracy is our financial illiteracy.
Now, that one is legendary.
The world has dramatically shifted towards financial literacy yet we in Lesotho are still bragging about how many of our people can read and write.
It’s startling that in this day and age we are producing graduates that don’t know how to draw up a simple business plan.
It’s embarrassing that we are producing graduates that don’t know the difference between a balance sheet and an income statement.
Many of our graduates don’t know  the difference between a bond and a share.
Yes, the average graduate doesn’t know how unit trusts work.
They don’t know the difference between an asset and a liability.
That is why we have people who think that the personal car they use every day is an asset when it’s actually a liability milking their pockets dry.
What is the value of literacy if it can’t help you realise that your bank is fleecing you of your hard earned money or that you are just about to be conned?

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On a totally unrelated matter,  Scrutator would like to announce that she is single again.
She broke off her engagement a few days ago.
The curious ones might want to know what happened.
Well, about a year ago Scrutator fell madly in love with a man from Qacha.
He didn’t have money but he was lovable all the same.
The man proposed and Scrutator agreed that they should engage.
After a few weeks the man begged  to come and live with Scrutator in Maseru.
So he descended from Qacha with nothing but his blanket, a tattered pair of trousers and remarkably overused underwear.
Scrutator took the man in, ran him a hot bath and gave him some Vaseline which he smeared on himself until he was shining.
Some trousers and underwear were bought for him on Scrutator’s account.
That is what they call love, isn’t it?
Soon he was able to call his folks back in Qacha because Scrutator had bought him a phone.
Life was good.
Unfortunately it got too good and he started demanding more.
He started using the bling-bling that Scrutator had financed as a means to fornicate.
This girl from Qacha would have none of that baloney and she kicked the rascal onto the streets.
Now he has gone back to being the village bumpkin he was before he met me.
The lesson: Working women must leave unwashed men alone because once they get cozy they are quick to bite the hand that replaced their gumboots with proper shoes.


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