Solar radios help extend education in Sierra Leone

Young relatives Susan Koroma (15) and Abdul Kargbo (13) both share the same home in the village of Pate Bana Marank village in central Sierra Leone’s Bombali District. As I discovered when I visited their home this month, they also share a sad history – in the past few months Susan has lost both her parents to the Ebola virus, while Abdul lost his mother.

The virus has claimed the lives of more than 3,400 people in Sierra Leone since May 2014, and Susan and Abdul’s community has been hit harder than most – their household alone has lost 21 of its 38 members. As a Sierra Leonean, I could sense the downbeat mood when I was there, it was palpable. Several residents told me about the experience of last seeing their family members being taken away by an ambulance to a distant treatment centre, never to be heard from again.

Gradually though, life is normalizing and Sierra Leoneans are looking to a future without Ebola. With such a young population, education is key part of that future – something that motivated UNICEF to support the government in setting up daily school radio broadcasts during the outbreak so that children could continue learning while schools were closed.

A close-up of the solar radio.
17,000 solar-powered radios are being distributed in the country.(c)UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Tanya Bindra

“I want to be a nurse when I grow up as I like to give treatment to my people,” Susan said. She told us that she has been motivated to study harder because of what she has experienced during the Ebola outbreak. “If only I had been a nurse, I would have saved a lot of my people’s lives when Ebola struck our village some months back.”

But the village, like many in Sierra Leone, is far from the national electrical grid. Residents are too poor to afford diesel generators, and many struggle to afford a radio, making the school broadcasts on the airwaves – and even the basic Ebola safety broadcasts – inaccessible.

“It is sad to see people dying like that as we did not know what exactly to do since we had no radio to listen for messages and information,” said Susan.

What is in plentiful supply in the village is sunshine. The good news is that distribution has started for 17,000 solar-powered radios to help make the Ebola school radio programmes more accessible to the most vulnerable children in Sierra Leone.

UNICEF staff member Derick Thullah explains how to use the solar powered radios as he hands them over to Ebola orphans at Pate Bana Marank village one of the hardest hit villages in Sierra Leone. (c)UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Tanya Bindra
Solar radios help to address the reality that many villages are far from the national power grid. (c)UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Tanya Bindra

And Susan and Abdul have already received their radio.

Both children’s uncle, Pa Kaprie Fallah, is the current head of their household, and he says he is very happy for the donation. “I used to have a very old radio but that has been out of use for several months and we were starving for information. This radio will help us to know the things that we should do and not do, as we try to recover from this Ebola.”

Schools reopened on 14 April 2015, and school radio programmes will now play a crucial role in enabling the curriculum to be covered before the start of the next school year.

Abdul too wants to play his own role in the Ebola fight: “I will call all my friends and neighbours in my village to sit around the radio in the evenings and listen to messages on Ebola.”

The purchase of the solar radios was made possible by funding from the IKEA Foundation and the government of the United Arab Emirates. “We say a big thank you to the donors of these radios and we will ensure that make the best use of it,” Abdul.

Issa Davies is Communications Officer working with UNICEF Sierra Leone

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