By Jack Bird (@thewordofbird).
After bumping along the road for an hour and developing a fine layer of red dust on everything that we owned, we finally reached Michelo. As with many of the rural villages in Zambia, it seemed to come out of nowhere. All of a sudden there was a half built structure. No signs mark these areas and the roads might as well be dry riverbeds; some probably are. Yet there we were in Michelo, the southern most radio-based school served by the Chikuni Radio Station. The structure we found was the classroom still being built. Yet with bricks strewn around the ground, it was hard to tell whether it was being put up or torn down.
At first, it appeared that Michelo was empty, but eventually the teaching mentors and some of the children surfaced and sat with us in the school’s agroforestry garden. We interviewed the mentors for an hour about their experiences with radio-based education and other questions surrounding energy poverty. When we finished interviewing and turned around, I was astonished to see that all of a sudden, practically the entire Michelo community had emerged behind us.
We were told that they were here to help construct the classroom building. Indeed, while we were interviewing, over 30 parents had gathered to fire-up the large brick and dirt kiln and were firing new bricks. Boniface, one of the technicians at Chikuni Radio, called the community over to us and translated as we asked them questions. Like many of the communities we had visited, Michelo’s population depended on agriculture and pastoral activities for income. Every family relied on candles and kerosene to light their homes at night, and of the few that had cell phones or radios. Most were too poor to buy batteries or talk time regularly.
But what struck me most was the fact that despite their extreme poverty, these families had gathered to build their children a classroom. Many of the families had walked several kilometers from their homes to get there. Some women carried babies on their backs. We also earned that a number the families had parents that were HIV positive and had many children at home to take care of, yet there they were. Even more impressive was that none of these people were being compensated in any way. Of course, it would have been much easier for these people to stay home and tend to their fields or to take care of themselves.
When we departed Michelo, the classroom, which had at first looked like a ruin, appeared like a monument – a testament to the commitment of a community that had sacrificed what little time and energy it had to give their children a brighter future. Now instead of having to sit under a tree to listen to their Taonga Market radio school lessons, they’ll have roof over their heads.