Aisha Community School has 584 pupils, and 60 desks.
“Sometimes we lay planks across them so the children have something to write on,” the headmaster tells us.
Even by Zambian standards, this is not a wealthy school. Aisha occupies a tiny maze of concrete rooms in the middle of Ng’ombe, a high-density slum area in the suburbs of Lusaka, surrounded by box-like dwellings and brown dirt roads. The headmaster’s office is at the back of the maze, next to the toilets, which smell. It’s the Easter holidays, but random children are lurking in corners of the school for want of anywhere better to play.
Aisha is one of a new breed of low-cost schools that have spread across Zambia in recent years: Ng’ombe alone has fifty-four of them. These ‘community schools’ are private enterprises which have sprung up to fill a gap in the market, in between Western-style private schools, which are way beyond the means of most local families, and the local government-run school, which is at the bottom of the pile . Whilst the government school is nominally free (though its school uniforms aren’t cheap), Aisha charges between $6 and $30 per pupil per term. Last year the fees were higher, the headmaster tells us, but this was more than parents could afford, and when chased for the money some responded by withdrawing their children from school. Since the drop in fees, attendance has increased. Aisha may be under-resourced, and virtually unregulated, but to parents it clearly offers value for money.
“Our pupils get good results,” the headmaster tells us proudly. “85% of them pass their exams.” He attributes this success to the fact that Aisha, unlike many community schools, uses only trained teachers.
“Do you find it hard to attract trained teachers to come and work here?” I ask.
“No, we get stacks of applicants this thick.” He separates his hands widely. “There are lots of college graduates looking for work.”
As a private enterprise, Aisha gets no money from the Zambian government. It must meet the cost of employing these teachers out of the small sums it earns in school fees.
“Does the school get any other support?” I ask.
The headmaster fishes in a cardboard box and hands us a plastic packet of what looks like dried risotto. NUTRITIOUS SOY MEAL, says the label. “We get these under a feeding programme,” the headmaster tells us. “We distribute them to the children.” It’s a way of reducing hunger and getting kids to attend school: two Millennium Development Goals for the price of one.
In one of the strange juxtapositions of old-fashioned poverty and high technology that increasingly characterise the developing world, the school also has a computer room. First came ten old, broken computers donated by a local bank. Those were all useless, but a more responsible donor later provided six working computers and trained the teachers in how to use them. AfriConnect, the company that set up iSchool, contributed some laptops and a free Internet connection. This has allowed Aisha Community School to establish Ng’ombe’s only Internet cafe.
Slum-dwellers are not heavy computer users, and earnings from the Internet cafe are modest: $50 in a good month. But this (remarkably) pays the salary of the school’s IT teacher, a geeky-but-cool young man who divides his time between running the Internet cafe , imparting IT skills to pupils, and teaching occasional computer classes to adults. Only a few adults have taken up the classes, but they help supplement the Internet cafe’s modest income and earn goodwill among the community.
Sustainable business this is not: 12 of the 21 computers are already in disrepair, and the school is clearly unable to afford replacements. Without outside help, it is hard to see how schools like Aisha will ever be able to afford to provide pupils and the community with more than the bare minima of an education.
One might also question - as Bill Gates, not a noted technophobe, once famously did - whether computers are really the best use of donor resources in desperately poor parts of the world.
“'Mothers are going to walk right up to that computer and say, ‘My children are dying, what can you do?’”, Gates said of efforts to introduce computers to the developing world. “They're not going to sit there and, like, browse eBay or something.”
In Ng’ombe, children are dying – probably a hundred or so of them a year, if the slum’s infant mortality rates are around the national average. Yet nobody seems to be complaining about the computers. And in the Aisha computer room one or two people are sitting there and browsing (though admittedly not on eBay, which is fairly useless if you don’t have a credit card or a postal address). What they seem to see in the computers is not a waste of resources, but a hope of a less decrepit and marginalised future. Whether this hope is justified or not, I don’t know, but maybe the hope in itself is worth something.
Or perhaps they are just too polite to tell us that, while computers are very nice, what the school really needs is enough desks for its pupils.
Add a Comment