Learning through the radio amid COVID-19

Florence tells her experience

Gregory Gondwe
Florence and her mom Shillah outside their home. Next to them is the radio Florence uses for her studies.
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Gregory Gondwe
10 July 2020

Florence Chimbiya, 7, of Dedza, in central Malawi, at first didn’t understand why she couldn’t go to school.

But as one of almost six million children who were sent home in March as a preventative measure by the government, she sadly explains her situation, in her own words, has been caused by COVID-19.

"I heard from the radio that people were dying because of coronavirus," says the standard three student who attends Chipudzi Primary School.

But it’s not just the lessons she misses. At school she and her friends used to receive free meals.

In particular, Florence enjoyed “Nsakanize,” a Chichewa word for a porridge-like mixture of sweet potatoes, rice, vegetables, onions, tomatoes and vegetable oil.

"That is no longer available here at home," laments soft-spoken Florence.

Shillah helping Florence with her school work.
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Gregory Gondwe
Shillah helping Florence with her school work at home.

However, the educational situation for Florence and thousands of other Malawian school students is starting to improve.

The Education Cannot Wait Fund, has provided a US$ 200,000 emergency grant to the Malawian Government, through UNICEF to develop and broadcast educational radio programmes to help teach children from standards one to eight.

As part of the effort to restart education, UNICEF and the Minister of Education also launched the Emergency Radio Education Programme (EREP) in May.

To date, more than 100 radio programmes have been broadcast out of a total 400, which are planned.

Florence says she now feels relieved that she can listen to her lessons on the radio. Before they used to study every evening but it was in a very disorganised manner.

"Radio lessons follow a certain order that takes you from the beginning, the middle to the end," says Florence. The radio also helps her to look forward to something every morning when she wakes up. 

While all this is good news, she has nevertheless got several challenges to contend with.

"I don’t have any interaction with my teachers and classmates and sometimes I cry when the radio teacher is going too fast and I can’t keep up.”

Shillah helping her younger children wash their hands. They have a handwashing bucket and soap at home for COVID-19 preventative measures
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Gregory Gondwe
Shillah helping her younger children wash their hands. They have a handwashing bucket and soap at home for COVID-19 preventative measures

But her mother, Shillah Dominic Chimbiya, laughs when Florence complains that in class she used to be able to raise her hand when she had a question, but can’t do it now.

“We are lucky to have a radio to listen to lessons but I know several families who don’t have one,” says Chimbiya.

The lessons came at the right time because she was getting stretched with demands from Florence and her other siblings. All her children know what time their slot in the radio lessons will come.

"For Florence, she has her breakfast by 8 am and starts waiting for her class lessons that start at 9 am and finishes at 9.30am," she says.

The advantage of radio lessons are that it has brought school into the homes, as the lessons have a logical sequence in the exact way that is done in school. 

"Where she has not understood, we go back with me using textbooks so that she has grasped the lesson as this prepares her for the next one. Once school re-opens, it will not be as disastrous as I feared when there were no radio lessons," explains Chimbiya.

In the meantime, Chimbiya, 40, and her husband have imposed strict measures at their home to try and prevent anyone in the household getting the virus.

At the house, water and handwashing soap are located in a convenient location and every visitor is asked to clean their hands thoroughly before entering.

Chumbiya has also told her children to stay home as much as possible.

“My view is we shouldn’t be in a hurry to reopen school because most of them are overcrowded and children tend to share food which could be hazardous.”

The good news is there have been no cases of the virus in Chumbiya and Florence’s village. With the preventative measures they and their community are taking, they are hoping it stays that way.