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Anna writes.

“I have not been to school. Not even for a single day.” Anna’s high and elegant cheekbones dance as she speaks.

“Why not?” I ask her.

“My father was very much against educating girls. None of my sisters went to school either. Only my brothers.”

With colleague Hawa Mnyasenga, I am conducting financial numeracy interviews in Tanzania’s villages. It quickly becomes clear that 45-year old Anna is very bright. She is one of few who can calculate how much to save annually to reach 1 million shillings (about $650 US) in 5 years. And when we show her a passbook and ask her to write in it, she does not wave her hands in despair (as many do). Instead, she picks up the pen and writes – slowly, awkwardly but accurately – “1,000”.

If she had not been cursed by the lingering traditions of a dying era, her hands might be holding a surgeon’s instruments, or a scientist’s.

Instead, they are hard and calloused from digging, weeding and hoeing on a small plot of land where she grows rice, spinach and vegetables to feed her husband and seven children.

“If there is one thing you could change about your relationship with numbers and calculating, what would it be?” I ask her.

“How to calculate money. For example how many digits and zeros in a million. I want to be able to write it.”

“Illiteracy has destroyed my self-confidence” she tells me. “But I will not let my children suffer like I have.”

 

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