DAY 1 – Energy poverty in your face (4 October)

The BA flight from London touched down right on time at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, just as the brilliant hot African sun was rising.  The pilot announced that it might take longer than usual to exit the airport this morning because there was no electricity.

And it did. Computers were down.  The luggage carousel lay dormant as porters handed us our bags off a truck.  I couldn’t exchange my cash for the local currency, kwacha, which meant that have to find a bank in town.  However, as is typical in Zambia, the locals were unfailingly courteous  and seemed resigned to the power outage, now in its third day. Zambia derives 95% of its energy from hydropower and before there rainy season, like now, power is in short supply.

I negotiated with John, a taxi driver, my fare in dollars and off we drove into the morning rush hour.  Within the first few minutes I saw at least a dozen men on bicycles with heavy sacks of charcoal headed towards the city centre.  When I was in Zambia earlier in the year, I was horrified by the sheer number of lorries coming in from the countryside laden with charcoal, the main cooking fuel of the urban poor.

I asked John to stop so I could speak to one of the men.  Morris told me that he started out at 0300 and had been peddling for four hours.  Each one of his five charcoal sacks would fetch $5 from his buyer.  After selling them, he rides back to his rural village with $25 worth of provisions for his family.  To my distress, further along the road I saw the first of three lorries overloaded with charcoal.

The airport’s electricity will be back on shortly;  flights will arrive at night again; and travellers will collect their bags from a rotating carousel.  But I can’t help but feel deeply distressed when I see the scale of the charcoal industry. Despite the far-reaching environmental degradation it causes in rural areas, its production also creates livelihoods for thousands across this sparsely populated country.

Zambia has enjoyed consecutive year-on-year growth rates averaging nearly 7%.  Growth and the middle class it gives rise to generates increased demand for power. It draws people into cities, further fueling the charcoal industry.

Energy poverty in Africa is a layered and complex issue that I feel passionately about and one I’ve already written about extensively. My first few hours in Zambia reminds me all too well of the unremitting energy poverty issues Zambians face.

DAY 2 – My vote for Zambian Teacher of the Year (5 October)

DSC02090Today is World Teacher Day. In February this year I posted a blog about Mwenya Mvula, who wasn’t a qualified teacher, but was respectfully called ‘teacher’ by his adoring students.  Since 2001, Mr Mvula has served as a volunteer ‘mentor’ in Zambia’s Learning at Taonga Market primary radio school programme. Mr Mvula was one of the first in Zambia to be trained in interactive radio instruction (IRI) methodology, which actively guides teachers and learners through lessons on the radio. He estimates that nearly 90% of his students have gone on to secondary school – an awesome accomplishment.  A significant number of the children he’s taught are orphans.  Also bear in mind that pupils in radio school who might learn in a makeshift structure, take the same exams as children of wealthy parents with computers at home.

In early 2005 I first met Mr Mvula at a community learning centre that used our Lifeline radio.  At that time one of his classes convened in a one-room brick house owned by a security guard; another assembled on the grass near a corn field.

Former students of Mr Mvula told me how he always encouraged them to reach for their dreams. When I asked him about his own dream, he told me that he wanted to become a qualified teacher.

Today that dream has come true.  Mr Mvula is now a qualified and paid teacher and two weeks ago he began teaching in the afternoon at a government school. How does he spend his mornings?  Bless him. He still volunteers from 0645 until noon at the Moon City Community Learning Centre.

Mr Mvula earns my vote as Teacher of the Year!

Children in Zambia get the day off

More than three million children and 75,000 teachers across Zambia took the day off in honour of  World Teacher Day.  Although a day established by the UN in 1994 and recognised around the world, not many countries make it a school holiday as they do here.  This year’s theme is “take a stand for teachers”.

The New Mtendere School in central Lusaka, which has just 45 teachers for more than 2,200 pupils for Grades 1-9, received their first of eight Prime radios sponsored by Rotary in the UK.  This way children between Grades 1-7 will be able to tune into Taonga Market lessons.

DAY 3 – Who needs iTunes? (6 October)

Who needs iTunes when crickets provide the soundtrack after dark?  The African bush is one of the 1,000 reasons that I live in Africa. Going on a safari in East or Southern Africa is a magical experience. However, for me, just ‘being’ in the bush – the bone dry heat, the smells, the red-orange sunsets, the thunderstorms in the rainy season, the stillness and the raucous noise of the crickets at night is immensely satisfying.

That said, several years have passed since I’ve spent time in the African savannah. Although I work in variety of African countries, I rarely divert time to be a tourist.  Every now and then if I’ve been in Dar or Nairobi over a weekend, I’ve headed off to a national park with the big ‘five’ or a white sand beach resort (at my own expense, of course).

It dawned on me that I’ve been to Zambia at least a dozen times and I’ve never visited anywhere as a tourist other than Victoria Falls some years back. This weekend I’ve run away – just me and my camera.

I’m about 90 minutes outside Lusaka staying in a pleasant thatched bungalow in a game reserve with an array of antelope species and birds. From my verandah I can hear the trilling of bright yellow Weaver birds and see a large, yet shrinking watering hole in the distance. November to March is the rainy season in this part of the world and this year the rains were good. October is springtime in the Southern Hemisphere and Zambia’s the hottest month. Today it’s a toasty 35C ( 95F).

I don’t mind that there aren’t a lot of distractions.  I have zero interest in crawling out from under the mosquito netting to join people dressed in khaki on a game drive.  This coming week will be exciting and my schedule includes several community school radio distributions.  So for now I’m content to unwind, walk in search of buck and monkeys, breathe in the bushveld air, and enjoy Zambian hospitality. After all, when you do get the opportunity, however brief, to decompress, there can be few better settings for it than the bush of Africa. No iTunes needed.

DAY 4 – How about Kafue for your next holiday? (7 October)

Being a “tourist” this weekend outstripped all my expectations.  Yesterday I said that there weren’t many distractions, but I managed to keep myself nicely entertained.

You won’t find predatory animals in the reserve, however, it’s cobra, green mamba and python territory.  A waiter even pointed to a distant acacia tree where I could go in search of baby pythons.  I gave that a miss.  Rather I faithfully followed the sign-posted trails for my morning and evening bush walks. As long as I have a camera as a companion I never feel alone.  I snapped more than 200 photographs of kudu, tsessebe, zebra, bushbuck and birds whose names I didn’t know.  It’s totally clichéd to mention an African sunset, but that blinding yellow ball delivered up just the right amount of vibrant colour and perfect camera light.

No request for the staff was too much trouble. Ever since my first visit to the country more than 20 years ago, I’ve thought Zambians were some of the nicest and kindest people I’ve ever met.

This excellent weekend got me thinking.

The Zambesi River transforms into the largest waterfall in the world, Victoria Falls. Downhill from the falls the Zambesi is famous for white water rafting adventures. Further along still is the incredibly beautiful Lake Kariba.  Unless you’re from the region, you might assume that these attractions are in Zimbabwe, and they are. But they’re also in Zambia. Lake Tanganyika, the planet’s longest freshwater lake has its southwestern shore in Zambia. Most people probably associate it with Tanzania or DR Congo.

When you imagine African safaris, the Maasai Mara, the Serengeti or Kruger Park are likely to spring to mind.  You probably don’t think of Kafue or South Luangwa. And yet, these national parks offer an extraordinary array of wildlife, plants, birds and dramatic scenery to rival anywhere on the continent.

I’m beginning to sound like the tourist board, but I don’t think Zambia markets its wonders aggressively enough.  It doesn’t have the same hefty tourism budgets as South Africa or Kenya.

Zambia also doesn’t make international headlines very often. It’s one of the most stable African countries with regular, orderly changes of government. Since ‘independence’ from its colonial ruler Great Britain in 1964, it’s been peaceful. You won’t find the BBC’s John Simpson or New York Times correspondent Nick Kristof filing many stories from here.

In my opinion, Africa-bound tourists and even other Africans overlook Zambia for their holiday.  Despite recent year-on-year growth rates, it remains a poor country. Tourism is one of the most effective ways to create jobs (for both women and men), to promote entrepreneurship  and to stimulate  the economy. The natural treasures of Zambia, linked to its stability and hospitality, make it a splendid vacation destination. Perhaps the World Bank or other institutional funders should be partnering with the Zambian government and private sector to fund a global marketing campaign and upgrade the tourism infrastructure. To me that constitutes sustainable development.

DAY 5 – It’s all about community (8 October)

The rutted back roads guaranteed that we barely climbed out of second gear on our way to Hakalinda Community School deep in the Southern Province.  The Ministry of Education officials and I listened to a Learning at Taonga Market lesson on a Prime radio as we bounced around in the car.  The Grade 1 lesson finished just as we pulled up.

Each school day at 2:00 pm, 20 Grade 1 Hakalinda learners take their place.  The children don’t seem to mind that they don’t have chairs, desks, a proper blackboard, or that their classroom is thatch and missing walls. Their teacher, Emmanuel, isn’t actually a trained teacher either. He’s what’s called a ‘mentor’ – a literate adult trained to use interactive radio instruction and to use radio as a teaching tool.  Nonetheless, the children call him teacher, which makes him feel proud.

Emmanuel, 28, was doing his best using the teaching workbooks provided by the ministry to instruct these youngsters of subsistence farmers, charcoal producers, and cattle herders. Until today this class didn’t have a radio.

What a great pleasure it was to present Emmanuel and the other mentors with four Prime radios. He was truly delighted saying that the radio would help him and the learners ‘so much’. Emmanuel is a volunteer and hopes of becoming a government school teacher.  Serving as a mentor in the Taonga Market programme he says will give him knowledge, discipline and patience. Taonga lessons provide clear instructions to the teachers and pupils according to the Zambian national curriculum.  Hakalinda’s enrolment is only 120 children and Grades 4 and 5 and Grades 6 and 7 are combined.

The nearest government primary school is 10kms away and although primary education is free in Zambia, fees for books and uniforms for farmers with several children are beyond their means. The children in this class were listening intently to Emmanuel explaining the basics of mathematics as their own workbooks had yet to arrive.

The Taonga programmes are broadcast from the Jesuit-run Chikuni Mission Community Radio Station.  With a footprint of 60 kilometres, it reaches all of the 11 community schools in the Monze district.

We’ve been providing radios to Taonga Market for more than a decade.   I never fail to be moved by the dedication, commitment and spirit of volunteerism in Zambia.  Were it not for communities who build classrooms, mentors and parents who volunteer their time and high-impact engaging radio school lessons, tens of thousands of Zambian children would miss out on an education.  What an honour it is to be involved in the Taonga community.

DAY 6 – Ensuring education through the Lifeplayer MP3 (9 October)

DSC01478With each school classroom I visit, I ask the children what they want to learn if they could learn anything.  The most common responses of 8-13 year-olds surprised me.  These are kids whose only clothes may be the ones on their backs and may eat just one meal of maize porridge per day.  They may be orphaned, child labourers, or caregivers to sick parents.  The top response was science; the second was mathematics.  They said that science would help them to better understand mysteries and to learn how many things work.  Qualified teachers in science and math are scarce.

With the acute shortage of trained teachers, particularly in rural areas coupled with increasing student enrolment, obtaining a quality primary education presents a host of challenges for the Ministry of Education.   More than a decade ago they began producing  Taonga Market,  which is broadcast on ZNBC, the national broadcaster , and community radio stations.  In turn, we’ve provided our solar and wind-up radios to wherever children learn in Zambia, even if it’s under a tree.  Radio offers the possibility of reaching the greatest number of learners the most cost effectively, especially for subjects like science.  It’s a reliable distribution channel to deliver educational content to large audiences of learners and to teachers in need of upgrading their skills.

And like all technologies, radio has limitations, which is why we introduced MP3 capability into our device.  Valleys and far flung communities might not receive a signal.  If a girl misses a lesson, she can make it up.  If a boy doesn’t understand a concept, he can listen again and again until he does. During the rainy season when roads or small streams might become impassable, entire classes can catch up once it becomes safe.

I enjoyed observing teachers and students using the Lifeplayer that had been pre-loaded with Taonga lessons in action.  Once the programming started, no one paid any attention to me.  Not only do I love to watch engaged children participating and learning, it was instructive to see how our Lifeplayers were being used. The sound quality was excellent and everyone heard clearly.  The more that we learn, the better we’re able to enhance and tailor this tool to effectively meet the needs of its users.

The heart of our mission remains linking advances in technology, renewable energy and bespoke hardware to ensure educational opportunities for those least likely to have them. Visits to classrooms  in countries like Zambia help to ensure that we develop the best learning tools possible and at the same time, it reminds me why we do this work in the first place.

DAY 7 – The joy of seeing children watch a video for the first time (October 10)

Watching the video Moon cityHave you ever watched children watching a video for the first time in their lives? And it wasn’t just any video.  It was one that a teacher, some of the kids themselves, and their friends were featured in, along with Taonga Market students from other community schools.  I was so tickled standing off to the side watching them.

During my previous visit in February, my colleague, Uzma Sulaiman, shot the footage and then edited it into two videos.  I think she did a great job and gives the viewer a sense of what a wonderful educational initiative this is.  One shows Taonga Market from a learner’s perspective; the other is more about the programme itself. It’s amazing what you can create nowadays with no budget.

I took my laptop along to Moon City Community School in the Lusaka compound (township) of Gardens.  The classrooms were too small for all the children to watch together.  So I propped my my Mac atop a child’s chair on a table and I showed the videos to two groups of students. They watched each three-minute clip twice.

Afterwards I asked the children what they found to be most interesting.  It wasn’t themselves, but rather what the schools and classrooms looked like in other parts of the country.  These are kids whose parents or grannies might have grown up on a farm, but they’ve only known township life.  Nor do they have access to TVs or computers.   In addition, I showed them photos that I’d taken the day before of children who didn’t wear uniforms learning under makeshift structures without posters or books.  The Moon City students wear (second-hand) uniforms, have books and plenty of posters on their classroom walls, although they don’t have electricity.

A ten year-old girl said to me that she thinks ‘they are very lucky to have so much.”  This is incredibly touching as these children come from poor families and many are orphaned themselves.

Before I left I encouraged the children to study, to read as much as possible and to work hard at earning good grades even though sometimes this was difficult.  I asked them why they imagined that I was able to travel in Africa and to go so many places and learn many things.  I was hoping the reply would be because I studied very hard.  Cindy raised her hand and shouted, “because of Taonga Market!”  The teachers and I burst out laughing and we said nothing to the contrary.

This was the last classroom that I visited; and what a wonderful way to end an incredibly rich week.

Here are the links to the videos on YouTube:

A snapshot of a Taonga Learner

Taonga Learners – It’s their chance to learn!