This past weekend I had a chance to visit Kawaza Primary School in Mwufe, a ten-hour multiple bus ride from Lusaka in the Eastern Province. This allowed me to contrast the energy problems experienced by the peri-urban schools that I’ve visited in Lusaka’s  compounds with a rural village school. To my surprise, it was the similarities that were striking. 

Kawaza averages 30 students per class with two classes per grade. The school serves the surrounding villages that lie within a few kilometres. One block of the school is electrified and is used primarily for Grades 7 to 9 for nighttime study. None of the students have electricity in their homes and access to working radios is scarce; they report to school late in the afternoon to enable them to study with electricity. 

Like the majority of the schools I visited in compounds, the school does not have computers or working radios. Schools in both locations had the big and colourful Lifeline radios of the past and used them to access the Learning at Taonga Market distance education programme.   Children participating in Taonga Market used to be able to access quality school lessons anywhere initiative the country.   Unfortunately, the Taonga Market programme is only being broadcast on community radio stations and not by the national broadcaster, ZNBC, as it once was.  The high cost of on-air broadcasting fees was is the main problem. 

The schools miss Taonga Market.  Christopher Yambayamba, the head of Kawaza Primary, spoke of how the students not only loved the interactive nature of radio learning, but that their grades improved when the school had the programme.  He believed the students also learned listening and attention skills quicker through the radio programme. At one time students even came to schools on Saturdays to hear the education programmes and then were tested on what they had learned during the week.

Kawaza Primary School also shares similar issues with access to information as schools in the compounds in Lusaka. Abigail Chimba, the Grade 2 teacher, explained that because they were not a community school, they were told that their solar and wind-up radio did not qualify to be replaced when it finally died. The radio was more than five years old. 

The lack of radio not only makes it difficult for schools, but also for community information access, especially during the rainy season. Travel becomes more difficult because the few dirt roads flood quickly, which isolates the villages and schools. They must rely on a few secondhand cellphones to reach relatives in different villages to hear even local news and connect with each other.  

Despite the different locations of schools across ZambiaZambia, whether deep rural or urban, the root of the issue involves the lack of reliable energy and poverty. available.   It really struck me how Kawaza experienced the same education issues as those schools I've visited in the city and how poverty transcends geography.  Despite the distance from Lusaka’s compounds, Kawaza had the same issues regarding education. 

Between 80 to 90 percent of the students at Pakachele Primary School, located in the rural area of Foxdale, outside Lusaka, are vulnerable children. They are either single or double orphans, meaning that one or neither parent is involved in their lives. Pakachele doesn’t charge school fees. Donors provide textbooks and writing tools, as well as breakfast and lunch. Often these are the only meals the students eat. The school also provides each student with a uniform, even though it’s not mandatory to wear one. As their one uniform becomes tattered from wearing it every day they do not have a way to mend or iron it. Often these young learners do not want to go to school without the proper clothes; they feel self-conscious without having a clean uniform to wear.

While speaking with the teachers at Pakachele for my research on energy poverty and education, I asked their opinion on how the children were affected by their lack of electricity. While they are too young to study more than one subject each night, I was interested to hear what the teachers observed on the effects of energy poverty. The vast majority of these students, Grade 1 to 5, rely on candles for all of their lighting needs. One teacher, Francis Zulu, notices a difference between students who have access to a radio and those without it. He believes the students without radio or television miss out on educational programs and feel embarrassed when other students talk about it.

The problem of embarrassment and self-esteem issues came up often. The school counselor, Theresa B. Kasonde took a moment to explain that “students feel inferior if there is no electricity at home. They isolate themselves, and will not raise their hands in class even when they know the answer”. When Ms. Kasonde meets with students who are having a difficult time, she has them draw their situation at home; their treatment at home can lead to an inferiority complex that the teachers work hard to combat. They encourage and support the students, and track their progress in and out of the classroom.

The vulnerable children of Pakachele Primary School are well cared for thanks to the support of the wonderful teachers there. They do not teach do get rich, and all admitted that there was nothing else they would rather do but teach. For the students who have so little, the 8 teachers and 1 counselor at the school must be jacks of all trades. They are teachers, confidants, and Lifelines for the vulnerable students in Ng’ombe, Lusaka.

Students in Misisi Compound, just a 10 minute drive from Lusaka’s city center, had a hard time answering the question, " when do you study?" I asked grade 6 and 7 students (aged 13 to 17) about their study habits to find out what kind of lighting they used if they studied at night.

Most students live in one or two room cement brick houses. All study at home. A few have electricity, but the majority of homes do not. But even being hooked up to the grid might simply mean a light bulb, a two-burner hotplate and a broken radio, and the hours of the day they actually have power vary widely. Some answered that because of load-shedding (intentionally shutting off the power by the power company). Others admitted to only having power for three days a week, for a few hours a day. This can cost a family anywhere from 50 to 350 kwacha a month, or roughly $10 to $70. The discrepancies in the numbers seemed random to me until Sharon Phiri, a teacher at Mount Sinai Community School, explained that on a given night your power might be cut, but your next door neighbor’s is working.

I first asked students when they studied and invariably received the answer ‘everyday’. The real question though is not when you study but how. Students admitted wishing they could spend two hours a night looking over their papers, but are often without quality lighting to do so. Later, while talking about the cost of electricity with their parents or guardians I began to understand the layered complexities of access to electricity.

ZESCO (Zambia Electricty Supply Corporation Ltd) is the country’s sole electricity supplier. However, power doesn’t always reach informal settlements. While the ZESCO website produces shutdown notices and load-shedding timetables, they are not up to date and do not include Misisi. The most recent load-shedding timetable is from July. As Godfrey Mannchishi, teacher and head of Mount Sinai puts it, “ZESCO is working as a monopoly, it has no competition and they have pride and arrogance.” Residents are quite literally left in the dark trying to predict and prepare for ongoing power cuts.

The power outages are not limited only to Misisi, but the effects there are particularly harsh. With constant cuts, residents must buy candles every day - a strain on budgets that are already stretched by lack of employment and the costs of rent, food, school fees and electricity. Esnelly Phiri, the mother of one student explained that with the cost of candles it's often a choice between using it to see to cook with charcoal or having her daughter study with it.

The situation is made worse by landlords splittng the power lines between houses; renters have little control over their supply of power. If a neighbor uses too much the electricity for the month the supply could end half after two weeks. While sitting with some parents and estimating the cost of energy per month the volatility of the system became evident. Owning a hot plate and a light bulb doesn’t mean that you won’t need to buy charcoal and candles every day to cook and see.

At first glance it seems that access to electricity in the home would translate to the ability to study more. Yet the unpredictabilities of access to electricity make it an unreliable option in Misisi and other compounds.

The World Bank estimates that there are 62 cellphones for every 100 people in Zambia. This week as I interviewed students, their families and the community school teachers of Luba Community School for my research project, I struggled to find anyone who didn’t have a cellphone in their family. Yet I quickly discovered that owning a piece of technology does not automatically translate into the opportunity to use it. Time and time again each respondent laughed at my questions about their cellphone usage.

How often do you use your phone and for what purpose? How do you charge it and how much does it cost? How often do you put more air time on it?

Very few people have electricity in their homes in Lusaka’s Garden compound.  A compound is what other African countries might call an informal settlement or township.  To charge their phones, owners deposit them at kiosks in the compound market for between one to five hours.  It costs an average of one kwacha (US 20c) per hour.  Owning a mobile means little if you don’t have the capacity to charge it. The cellphones I saw were old, handed down or resold as the batteries start to die. Then they must be charged much more often. Some phone owners I spoke with charge the old phones three times a day.

For the residents of Garden, buying minutes or talk time is a daily activity. Time is sold in small increments according to what people can afford, which might only be one to six kwacha a day. For comparison, the current conversation rate is 5.36 kwacha to the US dollar. This amount may seem small, but it adds up very quickly throughout the month to make cellphones an expensive commodity.

But it’s not just the money that makes the phones costly. By leaving their phones for hours in an airtime kiosk, people might often miss out on important information. Soko Evelyn, one of the community schoolteachers at Luba, missed a job interview for a higher paying position with the government because her phone was at a charging station. Ester Mwanza missed a call informing her that her cousin passed away; she did not hear about it until after the burial.

Cellphones can connect people from all over so that they can share information and news. For those without access to a radio, television or the Internet it may be the only opportunity to reliably learn through an SMS what else is going on in their world. Yet having one piece of technology does not take away the negative effects of a deep energy deficit, and in some cases may even add to a financial one as well. So while there may be an abundance of cellphones in Zambia, not everyone that owns one can actually afford to use it.