In a classroom two hours outside Lusaka, along a narrow dirt road eroded by heavy rains, 32 children attend school. In rural Chongwe and other rural districts of Zambia, where distances are great and people are poor, the prospect of attending school is not guaranteed for an increasing number of orphans and other vulnerable children. Many grade one learners walk up to three hours for the opportunity to learn. Most have no shoes and their clothes are ragged. Yet their faces light up as the familiar sounds of the Learning at "Taonga Market" (LATM) signature tune begins to play from a Freeplay Lifeline self-powered radio.
Built by the local community from grass and thatch, the classroom offers little shelter - when it rains the ceiling leaks and the floor turns to mud. The children sit in rows on benches scarcely more than crude logs. There are no desks. There is a small blackboard on which the date and the subject of the day's lesson have been neatly written in chalk - lumps of dried clay, which often disintegrate as the teacher writes.
While playing, children learn vital language skills that may grant them entry one day into the job market, where English is the universal language of higher education, commerce and the internet. The dedicated mentor leaves his fields in the care of others each morning to instruct the children without financial gain. He is not a trained teacher, but his title of "mentor" gives him the status of teacher within his community.
The radio component of the lesson over, the children move outside and sit on the ground to practice what they have heard. Today they are learning to write the letter "A" and the number "4". Concentrating hard, they diligently make their letters in tattered exercise books and on scraps of paper, some writing with pencils no more than a few centimeters long. Their mentor moves among them and takes a small hand in his as he carefully demonstrates the correct shaping of the letters.
The brainchild of the Education Broadcasting Services (EBS) division of the Ministry of Education (MOE), the community school mentoring system was born out of the need to bring education and information to the poorest, most isolated rural communities.
Five years on from the program’s pilot project, some 64,000 learners have benefited from LATM and children who attend informal center Lifeline radio classes regularly achieve higher scores in the same exams than children in formal schools and in half the time. As Zambia’s life expectancy plummets to levels not seen since the Middles Ages and two teachers die for every one trained, Freeplay Lifeline radios are now being distributed also to formal government schools, where broadcast lessons can provide continuity and supplement the gaps created by frequent staff shortages and absences.
During 2005, Freeplay Foundation partners such as World Vision, Educational Development Center, the Peace Corps and YMCA further extended the reach of self-powered radio access through Lifeline distributions to informal learning centers and government schools in remote rural areas.
Freeplay Foundation staff made project field visits twice during the year. In addition to monitoring our project partners, we also participated in a radio research project in conjunction with Breeze FM (the non-government community radio station), funded by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The survey confirmed the vital role of radio as an information source for rural Zambians. 96% of interviewees reported listening daily and school education programs were regularly listened to by 98% of those surveyed (many of whom are not currently enrolled in a formal or informal school program).
Late in 2005, Times of London correspondent Simon Barnes visited Freeplay Foundation projects. Two articles on Zambia appeared in December editions of the newspaper, promoting its annual Christmas charity appeal, of which the Freeplay Foundation was a beneficiary.
Barnes writes: “Education is the way forward, a way of breaking the cycle, a way towards greater safety, a way towards a future. Education is not mere subtraction, ‘seex take away one’. In Mwala, and in many other such places, education is about the addition of hope to a hard and difficult life.
And at the heart of the process of education is the radio: a radio that needs no batteries, a radio that can be wound up, and which beams in programmes put together by the Ministry of Education in Lusaka: literacy, numeracy, the awareness of Aids. Each subject in its own way a source of power”.
During 2005, Global Giving donors to Freeplay Foundation’s Radio Education for Out of School Children project have enabled another 4-500 orphans and other out-of-school Zambian children to access this vital source of power and hope for their future. Thank you all!