Solar radios help children in remote villages to learn during COVID-19
Hodale, Somali Region, Ethiopia
Farhia Mohammed (14) sits on a plastic mat inside an aqal somali, the Somali traditional house. She crosses her legs and places the exercise book in her laps. Next to her is a small solar radio on which a pen drive is plugged. She carefully listens to the recorded radio lessons as she takes down notes. If she finds any of the lessons hard to understand, she replays the soundtracks and listens again.
Although at an age when she should be in upper primary school, Farhia is only in grade 4. When her mother died at age four, Farhia had no chance of enrolling in school. She spent most of her childhood doing household chores, fetching water from the birka (water well) and looking after goats. But whenever she visited her aunt in town, she would envy girls her age going to school in their colourful uniforms. “When I saw them in uniforms, I knew that I was missing out,” she says. “I felt that they were better than me.”
Faria's father later arranged for her to live with her aunt. For Farhia, this was a dream come true. She enrolled at Sharif Ali Primary School in the small town of Hodale, 210 km south-east of Jigjiga, the capital of the Somali region. Though most of her classmates were much younger than her, Farhia did not mind. “I was not the only one who was older in class, there were many other girls who had started school late.”
The school became the happiest place for Farhia. She made friends easily and her academic performance was also quite remarkable. She ranked top of her class both in grade 1 and 2 and was also doing very well in grade 3. “She is a clever girl. I support her with everything I can,” says her aunt Ardo Balal.
A few weeks after the second semester, COVID -19 arrived in Ethiopia, forcing the government to close schools throughout the county. “Suddenly our learning came to a halt,” says Farhia.
The schools closure affected 26 million students and 700,000 teachers. This unprecedented disruption was especially harsh on marginalized children in rural areas who had no access to the internet for online learning.
But as it became clear schools would not reopen soon, the Ministry of Education, with support from UNICEF, Save the Children and other partners, began to explore alternative pathways to learning for children like Farhia. Radio and TV was the obvious choice yet for many students, these options were beyond reach. Access to radio in rural areas of Ethiopia is as low as 29 per cent; television fares even lower at 11 per cent.
With funding from the UK government, UNICEF provided 20,000 solar radios for use by an estimated 72,000 children in remote villages in Ethiopia.
In the Somali region, 2,600 units were distributed to students and Farhia received one. Priority was given to children from poor families and those displaced by conflict. As some areas were not covered by the radio signal, the regional education bureau recorded the lessons on pen drives which were distributed with the radios.
“My radio is like a teacher in the house,” she says. Every morning after preparing breakfast and attending to some chores, Farhia switches on her radio and takes part in lessons on subjects like environmental science, social science, the Somali language and integrated science. In the afternoon, she puts her radio in the sun to recharge its batteries.
The recorded lessons have not been without challenges. Farhia occasionally reaches out to her teacher for help on lessons she finds hard to understand.
“Recorded radio lessons may not be as effective as face-to-face learning,” says Mohammed Hassan, Education Specialist at UNICEF. “But they are helping students who missed out on broadcast radio lessons and online learning. One advantage is that the children can replay the lessons again and again at their own convenience.”
Now that schools are reopened, Farhia is looking forward to meeting her friends and her teachers. “I miss school and my friends. It is a while since we saw each other.”
Farhia’s dream is to become a doctor. She has a long way to go to achieving her dream, but she is determined to overcome all the barriers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and deep-rooted cultural attitudes which place a low value on girls’ education.