Although they’re located just to the north of us in South Africa, I hadn’t been to Zimbabwe since 2003. Back then I was involved in providing our radios for a local language soap opera drama to help communities learn about health issues, in particular, HIV/AIDS – which was reaching pandemic status across the region. Our multi-band radios would ensure everyone could listen, especially those in rural areas without electricity or the money to buy batteries.

The Ministry of Health had approved the project, but apparently the state security agency hadn’t.  Our radios include short-wave (SW) reception and voices in the establishment didn’t like that. SW is broadcast from outside the country, thus the government couldn’t control what people listened to.  Leaving no room for doubt, a former minister appeared on national television at the time officially banning our radios and declaring that anyone caught with one would face arrest.  With regret we decided that our efforts would be better placed in other African countries.

The last decade has been another turbulent, often heart-breaking one for Zimbabweans.  Hundreds of thousands of people in high-density settlements lost their homes and livelihoods to forced evictions.  The poor have become poorer, many destitute. The lack of investment in basic infrastructure, on-going political strife coupled with runaway inflation created a devastating knock-on effect in all aspects of everyday life, including in health and education. Cholera, malaria, TB, diarrhoea and HIV/AIDS remain frontline issues. It wasn’t that long ago that Zimbabwe had Africa’s highest English literacy rate. The education system was on the brink of collapse, but is improving, I was told.  Most of the best teachers have emigrated to South Africa or overseas and teacher’s salaries remain low.

Lifeline Energy supports holistic human rights, particularly media freedom. But we’re not a political organisation and fundamental to our mission is improving the quality of everyday life through education and information access.

Our Lifeplayer MP3 offers the widest possible opportunities for audio education, reaching even the most isolated people. Not only can content be pre-loaded with curriculum-based primary school lessons as well as teacher training programmes. It can also include health, agricultural, English and environmental programming – whatever is most needed. Its radio frequencies can be limited to AM and FM only and its record feature can be disabled if necessary.

Unlike a few short years ago, the shelves of formal shops and market stalls are now stocked with food, clothing, basics and plenty of consumer goods from China. The US dollar and the South Africa rand have replaced the Zimbabwe dollar bringing a measure of economic stability. The coalition government that leads Zimbabwe has initiated some improvements off a low base.  For these and for other reasons, it made sense to explore ways in which Lifeline Energy and it’s Lifeplayer could support learning.   In addition, I wanted to gather a sense of the quality of life for the poor nowadays and to ask women about their most pressing energy issues. I do this everywhere I travel in Africa.

I’m convinced the appropriately powered Lifeplayer MP3 has a valuable contribution to make in providing broad ranging content and there are many effective NGO partners to work with (with the government’s support).  We hope that neighbouring Zimbabwe will increasingly become a priority country.

by Kristine Pearson