BY JANE MUNGABWA – “Information is available, but people are too ignorant to access it”, was the opinion of a young man who attended an access to information (ATI) workshop in Rundu. I think that it is deeper than that. Yes, information is readily available everywhere, but only for those who can understand it and afford it.

One of the main messages that ACTION Namibia has been sharing with people in the regions during the country-wide access to information workshops as part of the ACTION NOW project funded by the Namibia Media Trust and Embassy of Finland, is that the constitutional right of freedom of opinion and expression cannot be exercised fully without access to information. An example of this is a video that was circulating on social media earlier in 2018 of a reporter in Zimbabwe asking a citizen about the elections using political jargon. The man tried to respond to the reporter’s question, but eventually he told the reporter “boss try to talk what I understand… if you talk like that I can’t understand.”

I am of the opinion that many Namibians in remote areas are in the same position as the man in the video. In recent years, many public and private institutions have been making information available about their operations and policies on company websites and social media pages. Despite these efforts, information is still hard to access for people who live in remote rural areas, especially those who are illiterate. Most official documents are written in English and contain a lot of technical jargon that even an educated person who is not an expert on the topics in documents will not understand. It is not enough to share large English jargon-filled documents and claim “information is available”.

The country-wide information workshops that ACTION Namibia had with grassroots communities confirm the lack of understanding of information due to language difficulties. Many people complained that being given information in a language that they did not understand disempowered them as they did not have an appreciation of what was being said. They also said they could not use the information to better their lives.

Those living in the remote areas who could read, complained that they faced challenges accessing the internet as they did not have the right devices or money to buy data. They also complained about the poor network connection in their areas and emphasised that it prevented them from accessing information online.

Despite this glaring information gap, between those who live in rural areas and those who reside in urban areas, every voter is expected to exercise their democratic right and vote for new leaders each election year. Many do not even know what these leaders are mandated to do. An uninformed citizen, therefore, cannot have an informed opinion or meaningfully contribute to a participatory democracy.

As somebody who has had a fairly good education, it is easy for someone like me to generalize and say that people don’t have information because they are ignorant. While that statement might be true for someone who is literate and has access to the internet, it is not necessarily the same for people in remote and rural areas. As public institutions, NGO’s, private institutions or individuals whose aim is to empower citizens through giving them information, let’s work together to find ways to ensure that the man or woman in the village is informed and thus empowered to make a meaningful contribution to our country’s development. Regular face-to-face meetings where citizens are given information in a language that they understand and are afforded the opportunity to air their concerns to local decision makers can be quite effective to ensure that development programmes that are created actually benefit the community, and are not just tick of box exercises.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, lets help our kin who are in remote areas to make the most of the resources that they have and so that they have access to better standards of living, by teaching them the importance of actively seeking and accessing information that is relevant to them.