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Enrolment at Shine Zambia Reading Academy

written by Sian Jones

This year was the second time that I had been involved in the enrolment process at Shine Zambia Reading Academy, and it was truly a fascinating experience!

We have many people coming to Shine from about August every year looking for places for their children.  We take their details and ask them to come back on enrolment day, which this year was Saturday 5th January.

Last year we took around 90 names and around 90 guardians turned up on the day.  However, only around 45 of these were those who had registered originally.  The other 45 had just turned up on the day as word had spread that we were enrolling!

Given that most people living in the compounds surrounding Shine don’t know their addresses, and phone numbers usually only work about 30% of the time, this turned out to be a fairly effective way of enrolling new pupils last year.  Exactly the same thing happened this year.

It was a very long day for all of our staff, but we sat down with all of the guardians to explain our reading program at Shine.  We then spent time with each guardian collecting information about their child and their home circumstances (so that we could assess how vulnerable they are) and conducted a reading test with each child to ensure they are illiterate.  We also took a photo of every child, as we suspected that last year some pupils were swapped for younger brothers or sisters after school had opened because their guardians were so desperate to get them into school!

Doing a reading test with each child highlighted how important the work we do at Shine is.  We saw around 90 pupils that day, many who had previously been in school.  For a lot of these pupils their story was the same.  They had been going to school until their parent or guardian died and then had to drop out because no-one could pay the fees anymore.  Many of them then had to move away from their home to stay with a different relative.  If this wasn’t heart-breaking enough, when we tested the children who had previously reached Grade 4 or 5 in a school, almost every child failed our Grade 1 reading test.  In fact, many of them couldn’t read a single word, including the 2-letter words!

The thought of people struggling to raise money to send these children to school for four or five years only to find at the end of it that the children can’t read a single word is utterly tragic.  The only up-side is that it shows we are really needed in this community.

Going through the applications was a humbling experience.  It quickly dawned on us that we were suddenly in a position where we were responsible for whether a child would be given the opportunity to change their life or not – and the ‘or not’ was terrifying.  We felt that we didn’t have the right to make such serious a decision about any child’s future.

We looked carefully at each application to decide whether they fit into our policy of offering places to orphans and vulnerable children.  We didn’t get very far trying to separate them into piles of ‘vulnerable’ and ‘not-vulnerable’, as almost every child living in this community is living in poverty.  Approximately half of our applicants were single orphans or double orphans (in Zambia the term ‘single orphan’ is used to describe someone who has lost one parent and the term ‘double orphan’ is used to describe someone who has lost both of their parents).  We discovered that a lot of the single orphans were living with another relative, not their surviving parent.  If fact, many of the single orphans were being raised by a single parent before they died, so in effect they were double orphans.

To identify ‘vulnerable’ children we looked at who cares for them, how many people are living in their home, how many of these are children, how big their home is, how many people living in the home work and how many other children from the home are in school.  Most families in this community live in houses with between 1 and 3 rooms in total, often with more than 8 people living there and usually with only 1 or 2 people doing casual work.

Going through the large pile, we identified only a handful of applicants who weren’t obviously as vulnerable as everyone else and luckily we only had a handful more applicants than places.  We were so grateful that this was the case, as we honestly didn’t know how we would begin deciding which vulnerable children were most deserving of a place if it came down to choosing between them.

Three stories stand out to me that give some insight into the community we are working in:

  • One woman came to enrol her daughter, but couldn’t bring her along that day because the child’s father had died the previous day.  We offered the child a place.
  • Another guardian came to enrol his nephew, but couldn’t bring the boy with him that day because he was in hospital.  We offered the child a place.  Sadly, the child was never able to enrol with us as he died that week in hospital.
  • One child had been offered a place at Shine, but when the Aunt turned up on the first day the teachers decided that the child didn’t really need a place.  The Aunt was very clean and well dressed and obviously had enough food to eat.  She was also incredibly rude to the Shine teachers.  However, when the child came the following day he was very dirty and dressed in dirty clothes that were the wrong size and full of holes.  He looked like he hadn’t had a decent meal in ages and the teachers were certain that this child was not being looked after at home, even though his guardian seemed to have the means.  Sadly, it is not uncommon for orphans to end up living with relatives who don’t look after them properly.  This child was given a place at Shine.

The whole process of enrolment was very emotional, but it is a wonderful feeling knowing that we are able to offer some hope into the lives of these children.

Sadly, we have had many people coming to the school since enrolment looking for places for their children.  We have had to turn them away as all of our places were filled during the enrolment process and term has now begun.  However, the demand for even more places is obvious.

When we are away from Shine we can talk easily about the number of children we were able to offer places to this year and the number of places we will be able to offer next year.  We can pat ourselves on the back thinking about all of the children we are helping.  But when we have to face the guardians still bringing children to our office at Shine every day and say ‘no’ to them – after listening to the saddest stories imaginable – it is difficult not to focus on the children we aren’t yet helping.

In order for us to be able to help more children we need three things.  Firstly, we need more classrooms, and thanks to the wonderful fundraising efforts of Daisy Dowler last year, we are able to build a new classroom block this year.  Secondly, we need more trained teachers, which is why we are training 2 new teachers this year.  Thirdly, we need to increase our income.

If you have thought about becoming a monthly donor or fundraising for Shine, now is the time – we really need your help.  Please contact us to discuss how you can help us change the lives of even more children living in poverty in Zambia.

Sharing the gift of literacy with Africa's poorest children