March 10, 2006

Radios teach Zambian children under trees

By Shapi Shacinda

LUSAKA, Zambia (Reuters) - The children have trekked
through mud and overgrown grass to sit under a guava tree and
be taught by a radio.

A cool breeze lifts their spirits as a brilliant blue,
solar-powered radio perched on a tree branch crackles with
basic lessons in arithmetic or biology, tutoring Zambia's
future doctors, accountants, lawyers or business leaders.

Thousands of children, who cannot afford to attend the
southern African country's public or private schools, have
turned to informal classes where the radio is the main learning
tool available.

Volunteers equipped with Freeplay Lifeline radios --
bright, robust sets powered by wind-up energy or the sun -- and
makeshift blackboards hold classes just about anywhere,
including under trees.

Such classes are critical in Zambia partly because of the
devastation caused by AIDS, which kills teachers faster than
replacements can be trained.

One in five Zambians is infected with HIV or living with
AIDS and the disease has orphaned more than 800,000 children,
many of whom have been left out of mainstream education and are
now being taught in community schools.

The program to provide radios for use in these informal
classes was launched five years ago by Britain-based charity
Freeplay Foundation, the state Zambia Educational Broadcasting
Service and other local and international partners.

"I would like to become a medical doctor once I have
completed my education," said 17-year-old Isaac Mwale, a model
radio-school student who recently passed national examinations.


More than 4,000 Freeplay radios are used to broadcast
primary school subjects in around 850 community schools, and
demand is growing as the informal classes attract children who
might otherwise end up on streets.

Freeplay Foundation Executive Director Kristine Pearson
says at least 100,000 Zambian children have benefited so far,
easing pressure on schools where the teacher to pupil ratio is
one to 60, and also catering for some of Zambia's poorest

Many families simply cannot afford the average $157 needed
each term to send a child to school in a country where around
65 percent of 10 million people live on less than $1 a day.

The programs the children listen to are called "Learning at
Taonga Market," or "Thank You" Market. And Mwale, who dropped
out of school because his father could not afford to pay, is
one of the grateful ones.

Usually 17-year-olds in Zambia are preparing to go to
university or other third-level institutions, but although
Mwale is only getting ready to go to high school now, he is not

"Taonga has brought hope to many of us and I want to use it
as a springboard to achieve greater heights in life," he said,
adding he could compete with children taught in regular

Freeplay says nearly a third of Taonga pupils are orphans
and almost 50 percent are girls. Most have missed years of
schooling after dropping out or may never have taken classes
before, because of poverty or isolation.


In many African countries, small radios are at the center
of community life and the main source of information for people
who often do not have televisions in countries with some of the
world's highest illiteracy rates.

In Zambia, radios are also used to deliver information on
combating AIDS or on how to improve farm production.

Pearson said she hoped to provide 4,000 more radios by the
end of the year, reaching 160,000 people.

"The (Taonga) program has proved to be popular. The
children appreciate the lessons and so do their parents," said
Mwenya Mvula, a volunteer teacher since 2001.

Of the first batch of pupils to sit primary school leavers'
examinations under the Taonga system, five out of seven passed
and qualified for high school, boosting the credibility of the
informal system.

"Taonga has proved so successful that some centers also
offer adult ... groups the opportunity to use the Freeplay
Lifeline radios after school hours for community health
projects," Pearson said.

Lusaka's government-run Ngwelele School said the
performance of students tutored by Taonga was impressive.

"The children we have integrated into our system have
performed very well, in most instances better than those we
started with because they are mature," Givers Nyoni, deputy
head teacher at Ngwelele, told Reuters.