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The volunteer braving elephants and floods to nurture young minds

A volunteer teacher-in-charge is bringing education to an underserved community that battles underdevelopment and human-animal conflicts in eastern Zambia.

Linda Ngombe, bird story agency

Class is in session at Musasawanyama Community School and Charles Mvula is teaching with a confidence that belies his years or the enormity of the responsibility he shoulders. He makes every minute count because, in this remote community in eastern Zambia, access to the school, for both pupils and teachers, is far from guaranteed. All too often, nature gets in the way.

"Most of the time, our pupils cannot attend school because the paths are obstructed, especially by elephants. Someone who did not grow up here would not last a week," Mvula explained.

The community is located close to Lukusuzi National Park and while the park is a protected area, reaching communities in the area by road requires tenacity and perseverance.

According to Mvula, the government and local Red Cross have occasionally had to provide canoes when severe flooding cut all access. Development in this community, like others around the park, has been slow, and for years the school did not offer much in the way of an education.

"However these challenges do not deter us from moving forward," said the young teacher, who is determined to see changes in the community, starting with education. For that to happen, schoolchildren need to be in school and have access to learning materials.

"Even when we encounter occasional heavy floods, we remain determined to ensure that our pupils receive their lessons, except in cases where it becomes physically impossible to do so," he added.

Thanks to the determination of Mvula and a range of new teaching materials and techniques introduced at the school, things have already begun to change. Today, Musasawanyama Community School is a symbol of hope for the community it serves.

While they lack desks and enough classroom blocks to cater to all learners, the school is rich in literacy programs in and outside its environment.

Mathias Miti is the assistant District Resource Centre Coordinator for Lumezi District has witnessed this literacy-rich environment.

"We have visited the school and we were impressed to see that students could read with fluency. Charles fosters a love for learning among his students... As a district, we have seen an improvement in literacy levels in pupils from Musasawanyama," Miti shared.

What is more remarkable is that the school is run entirely by volunteers.

The dedication of a true educator

Mvula was born in the rural community of Lundazi, adjacent to the game park. His upbringing, influenced by the lack of schools within walkable distance of primary school-going children, fuelled a passion for teaching that has seen him dedicate over five years to Musasawanyama Community School, where today he is not only a teacher-in-charge, but has also taken on the role of administrator. Mvula has three volunteer teachers working alongside him.

While Mvula lacks formal training, a number of initiatives have allowed him to leverage his passion and develop teaching skills that were not available to teachers in the recent past.

Those include the GRACE holiday training sessions, organized by Zambia's Ministry of Education. The sessions serve to enhance teaching skills and methodologies and allow teachers to tap into a whole host of supporting programs and local and international initiatives.

GRACE, which stands for Grade Meetings At Resource Centres, also serves as a tech platform that teachers can use to improve aspects of their work, like lesson planning and delivery.

Mvula, who holds a Grade 12 certificate, is also working to improve his academic credentials through the General Certificate of Education (GCE) program.

In the face of the challenges experienced by the school, Mvula is proud to report a 75% improvement in literacy among the over 100 pupils, ranging from grades one to seven. He's certain of that improvement because progress is tracked through a Performance Tracking System facilitated by the USAID Let’s Read Project.

Let's Read, which is sponsored by the US government, also provides learning materials and other support to schools like Mvula's and works to showcase the positive impact of targeted interventions at schools in the region.

Overcoming challenges, nurturing dreams

At first glance, Mvula’s school seems the perfect partner for technological disruption. It has enthusiastic learners and an administrator who is happy to try new options to ensure learners get the best out of their school environment.

Indeed, across Africa, educational technology, or EdTech, is experiencing significant growth. A report by GSMA, a global mobile industry association, highlights that there has been a steady increase in the number of EdTech initiatives, with a particular focus on mobile-based solutions, due to the expansion of mobile internet coverage on the continent.

"Teachers won't face delays due to unforeseen circumstances such as floods or animal attacks, ensuring a smoother educational process,” said Mvula, explaining the opportunities that Ed-Tech solutions offer.

"The right tools for locals has the potential to boost attendance and enrolment rates significantly,” Mvula explained, adding that with technology, learners are also less impacted by teacher absenteeism or bad roads.

"By providing support for teachers in various tasks, technology lightens their workload, allowing them more room for effective teaching. Unlike humans, educational technology resources are tireless and can work tirelessly for extended periods."

However, Mvula is also realistic about the scale at which EdTech can impact remote areas like the community in which he teaches.

"In regions like Chitala which has no electricity, implementing EdTech becomes a challenging if not impossible endeavour – there is (a) need to build in-country capacity. The cost of acquiring EdTech gadgets is often prohibitive, particularly for community schools and governments are not eager to invest in such seemingly bottomless ventures,” he admitted.

"The introduction of new gadgets can sometimes evoke fear among students but the major issue is a holistic approach from government,” he added.

The reality is that in places like Lukusuzi National Park, the situation is starkly different from that of the board rooms of tech hubs in Zambia and other African countries. While the GSMA report mentions that around 95% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is covered by mobile broadband networks, in Zambia, reach remains uneven. According to a report by eLearning Africa, only about 6% of schools in Zambia have internet access, severely limiting the implementation and impact of EdTech initiatives.

Infrastructure gaps, unreliable power supply, lack of internet connectivity, and limited access to devices mean that while there is a willingness to adapt, there is no infrastructure.

Moreover, many educators lack the necessary training to effectively utilise EdTech tools.

That makes educators like Mvula and the support of local, physical initiatives like GRACE key to continued improvements in local education - something that is recognised by the villagers in the area.

"Charles's unwavering commitment and compassion in offering free education to children, while many volunteers have moved on to other opportunities, is truly inspiring,” Gibson Nyirongo, a parent from Harrison Village, said.

"What stands out about Charles is his remarkable work ethic, kindness, consideration, and patience in dealing with both parents and children, with his dedication to his job as a top priority. Charles has been with us through thick and thin and our children are inspired by his dedication to duty,” said Judith Banda, a parent from Madumera Village.

Mvula himself remains very aware of the shortcomings faced by the school, due to its remote location - as well as the natural obstacles faced by learners and teachers, every day. His prayer is that some of his students will in future study internet technology (IT) and other subjects that will enable them, too, to make a difference in communities like Musasawanyama.

“I’m happy that some of my students have gone to secondary schools. My students have different aspirations and many of them dream to become medical staff and teachers. We have a few wanting that odd job of a pilot, soldier and engineer. Nurses, doctors and teachers is always on the lips of my students,” Mvula said.

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