A large blue, solar-powered wind-up radio sits on a chair underneath a large tree. The radio crackles as the dial is tuned to the only local station. A handful of children gather around and begin to sing.
The children are listening to Learning at Taonga Market, an interactive radio instruction and distance education program broadcast in schoolhouses and community learning centres across Zambia. The program reaches hundreds of thousands of children across the country via community radio stations. It delivers high quality primary education based on the Zambian national school curriculum.
Policar Michelo is now a 24-year-old university student. When he was 11, he walked ten kilometres every day to reach the learning centre at Chikuni Parish in southern Zambia’s Monze district.
He’s a prime example of how Zambian children are willing to overcome great obstacles to get an education. Mr. Michelo says: “I started attending interactive radio instruction in 2001. At that time, my parents were unable to meet formal school requirements such as school fees, exercise books, school uniforms, et cetera.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, there are few options for orphans and other vulnerable children who want to learn. Although attendance at primary schools is free in Zambia, the extra costs of buying books and uniforms make it nearly impossible for the children of poor families to attend school.
According to Mr. Michelo, Learning at Taonga Market was a favourite pastime. He looked forward to attending the daily 30-minute radio lesson with his three brothers.
He remembers: “It was really interesting despite having a poor learning environment. For the first few years we were learning under a tree, which made things difficult during the rainy season.”
In 2004, residents of Chikuni Parish built two classroom blocks to make learning easier for the children. Two years later, Mr. Michelo passed his examinations and went on to secondary school. He credits his success to Learning at Taonga Market.
The UN Children’s Education Fund says there are six million children under the age of 18 in Zambia, four million of who are between 7 and 14 years old.
Learning at Taonga Market is one of the most successful educational initiatives in Zambian history. Zambia’s Ministry of Education states that the number of community schools offering the program grew from less than 200 in 1996 to more than 3,000 in 2009.
Surveys reveal that Taonga pupils score 10-15 per cent higher than children in government schools on numeracy, literacy and life skills. Children love the program. Learning is active and fun. Lessons include songs, dance and exercise. Children interact with each other, the classroom teaching mentor, and the radio teacher.
Last year the government was forced to cancel its national broadcast of the program, as the cost of transmission was prohibitive. However, in Chikuni Parish, Learning at Taonga Market is still broadcast from Monday to Friday on Chikuni Community Radio Station.
Father Kelly is Mr. Michelo’s priest. He is proud of the young man’s achievements.
Father Kelly says: “The parish tries to subsidize the fees of every student who continues with their studies. Now he’s studying at a teacher training college in Livingstone.”
Mr. Michelo says, “When I finish my diploma, I’d like to return to Chikuni Parish and teach.”