Rural school children get internet lifeline

Jenfan Muswere

After being shut out of the education system due to lack of connectivity at the height of Covid-19, millions of rural school children are set for a second chance, thanks to the GIGA initiative, a global campaign to connect 2,8 million schools to 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 station powers a computer lab, school offices, teachers houses, while the Ministry of Information Communication Technology and Courier Services provided 30 laptops.

“Just like those in towns, we can now browse and research,” said Tinotenda.

The importance of electricity and the internet for rural children such as Tinotenda came under the spotlight following the outbreak of Covid-19 that forced schools to close for long periods.

Some children in urban areas plugged the gap by participating in online lessons conducted via applications such as Whatsapp, the E-learning passport portal established by the government and Unicef and through the radio.

But those were a few fortunate enough to live in urban areas with electricity and internet connectivity and also because their parents or guardians could afford to buy them gadgets and data.

For the greater majority, school became a thing of the past.

From a full-time student, Tinotenda started to spend his days doing chores such as herding livestock.

“I had forgotten all about school, it became a distant memory," he said.

“From having 4, 5 million children every day in school, all of a sudden they were not there.

“All of a sudden the teachers didn’t know what to do. They didn’t have ways to reach their children at home.

“That became a very difficult phase for the education system in Zimbabwe,” said Tumisang Thabela, the permanent secretary in the Primary and Secondary Education ministry.

She was speaking at the launch of a computer lab at Dzvairo Primary School on Monday.

The poorest and most vulnerable populations were hardest hit by the lockdowns. Digital learning was accessible to only 6.8% of learners across the country, according to Unicef.

A paltry 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 had to contend with prohibitive data costs.

“We realised we have to do things differently,” said Thabela.

The resultant E-learning drive by the government is complemented by Unicef’s Re-imagine Education programme, under which the GIGA project falls in Zimbabwe.

The programme is funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, but is being implemented by the government and Unicef.

“We need to ensure that all children, including those in remote areas and marginalised communities have access to education,” said Unicef deputy representative to Zimbabwe, Zenaib Adam.

Information Communication Technology and Courier Services minister Jenfan Muswere said the initiative would help bridge the rural-urban connectivity divide.

“Learners in rural areas should have the same opportunities to learn using similar platforms.

“So learners from rural or disadvantaged areas will now be able to compete with their peers in urban areas,” said Muswere at the commissioning of the computer lab.

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