It's one of the cardinal rules when you're interviewing - detach yourself from the interviewee. Ask questions, take notes, but never get emotionally involved in the story. To put it simply, it isn't professional to have a vested interest in the person's life. I've always upheld this rule, that was until I met Nanjeke.
I first noticed Nanjeke at the back of the classroom at Moon City community school in Lusaka. She was well-mannered and exceptionally shy. When the teacher asked a question Nanjeke would sheepishly raise her hand, copying the other students, but secretly hoping she wouldn't be called upon. But there was no missing her - at just ten-years old Nanjeke was over five foot tall. In fact, she was already taller than me!
After class had finished I asked the teacher if I could speak to Nanjeke. She came over to me with her head bowed as if she had done something wrong. "So, what's your name?" I asked. Averting her eyes, she quietly responded: "Nanjeke. I'm sorry I don't speak very well. I just started school".
Nanjeke unfortunately is one of roughly 700,000 AIDS orphans in Zambia. After losing her parents at the age of two, she was given into the care of her elderly grandmother who raised her in Lusaka. After years of enviously watching other children go to school, Nanjeke finally mustered the courage to ask her grandmother if she could join them. With no money to afford school uniforms, supplies or the starting fee for Zambia's "free" public school system, they turned to the Learning at Taonga Market radio distance education initiative.
In essence the initiative, launched by Zambia's Ministry of Education in 1999, delivers a high-quality basic education via radio. Based on the national school curriculum the programme is picked-up by radio stations and taught by trained mentors in community-run schools across the country. The unique educational content is regularly updated and produced by childhood development specialists in government broadcast centres.
I was fortunate to meet this bright young girl when I visited Zambia earlier this year as part of Lifeline Energy's monitoring process of the Taonga Market programme. Lifeline Energy (the organisation I work for) provides solar and wind-up radios to ensure educational access for the children. So far 900,000 children, a third of whom are orphans, have benefited from the programme.
Why the programme is important
The Zambian government declared primary education free in 2002, but many state-run schools continue to charge fees or insist on uniforms, which makes them beyond the reach of children from impoverished families, especially orphans and other vulnerable children.
The Taonga Market initiative is changing this and the results speak for themselves. Taonga Market students are known to out-perform children at government schools - scoring 10-15% higher. Government surveys reveal 70% of children who take part in the radio class continue to secondary school - an impressive figure given that the national average is just 20%.
Christopher Banda, 21, is one of these children. Currently studying at a technical institute in Lusaka to become a procurement specialist, Christopher credits his academic devotion to the solid primary school education that he received from Taonga Market. The youngest of four children, he was raised in a Lusaka township by his mother, a domestic worker, who could not afford to send him to a government school.
The programme also compensates for Zambia's lack of trained teachers and the high percentage of qualified teachers who have died due to AIDS-related diseases. The last recorded statistics found that two thirds of newly qualified teachers in Zambia had died because of the disease.
Christopher tells me that he wouldn't know where he would have been without the programme. "The programme helps people like me - kids who are not privileged - to achieve our dreams."
In 2000 the UN established eight Millennium Development Goals to encourage development by improving the social and economic condition of the world's poorest. One of the core goals, and in my opinion the key to sustainable development, is achieving universal primary education. Education builds human capital and for vulnerable children, like Nanjeke and Christopher, offers them more opportunities. With half of Zambia's population being under 18, these children are also crucial to the country's future.
After speaking with the students to the Taonga Market children, whether they are from the sprawling informal settlements of the cities or from isolated rural communities, it struck me that their educational aspirations and eager competitiveness to progress in their future careers was uncannily similar to students one would meet in leafy suburbs of London. With the guidance of the hard working teachers and access to the daily educational broadcasts, I am left with the belief that these kids can be the very ones teaching future generations in schools, curing their sick in hospitals, or representing their people as heads of state.
It is a testament to the Zambian government that they truly refuse to allow any child to be left behind and created an engaging, fun and intelligent educational programme that is accessible to even the more remote community.
To find out more about the programme and how you can help, click here.
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