Rural school children get internet lifeline
After being locked out of the education system due to lack of connectivity at the height of Covid-19, millions of rural school children are ready for a second chance, thanks to the GIGA initiative, a global campaign to equip 2.8 million schools close the internet by 2030.
Not many could be happier than Tinotenda, a 10-year-old pupil at Dzvairo Primary School in Makoni, a rural district in Manicaland province.
In early December, computers were introduced to the school for the first time after the school was chosen as one of 150 in Zimbabwe to benefit from the programme.
A solar power station powers a computer lab, school offices, teachers’ homes, while the Ministry of Information Communication Technology and Courier Services has provided 30 laptops.
“Just like those in towns, we can now browse and do research,” Tinotenda said.
The importance of electricity and the internet for rural children like Tinotenda came under the spotlight after the outbreak of Covid-19 which forced schools to close for long periods.
Some children in urban areas have plugged the gap by participating in online lessons offered through apps such as Whatsapp, the E-learning passport portal established by the government and Unicef and through the radio.
But they were a few who were lucky enough to live in urban areas with electricity and internet connection and also because their parents or guardians could afford to buy them equipment and data.
For the greater majority, school has become a thing of the past.
From a full-time student, Tinotenda began spending his days doing tasks such as tending livestock.
“I forgot all about school, it became a distant memory,” he said.
“Since they had 4.5 million children in school every day, suddenly they were not there.
“All of a sudden the teachers didn’t know what to do. They had no means of reaching their children at home.
“This has become a very difficult phase for the education system in Zimbabwe,” said Tumisang Thabela, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.
She spoke on Monday at the launch of a computer lab at Dzvairo Primary School.
The poorest and most vulnerable populations have been hit hardest by the restrictions. Digital learning was accessible to only 6.8% of learners across the country, according to Unicef.
A mere 31% of schools were connected to the Internet, resulting in limited access to electronic devices for both learners and teaching staff in most public schools.
Even those with access to gadgets faced prohibitive data charges.
“We realized we had to do things differently,” said Thabela.
The resulting e-learning action by the government is complemented by Unicef’s Re-imagine Education program, which includes the GIGA project in Zimbabwe.
The program is funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, but is implemented by the government and Unicef.
“We must ensure that all children, including those in remote areas and marginalized communities, have access to education,” said Unicef’s deputy representative in Zimbabwe, Zenaib Adam.
Information Communication Technology and Courier Services Minister Jenfan Muswere said the initiative will help bridge the divide between rural and urban connectivity.
“Learners in rural areas should have the same opportunities to learn using similar platforms.
“Learners from rural or disadvantaged areas will therefore now be able to compete with their counterparts in urban areas,” Muswere said at the commissioning of the computer laboratory.