In a classroom in a remote rural area of Africa Sixth Form students are engaging in a history lesson, earnestly analysing the controversies related to the origins and rise of Great Zimbabwe, the astonishing ruins of a civilisation that stunned early European explorers and colonists.
There is nothing so unusual in that but what is remarkable is that in a school 20 kilometres from the nearest (unreliable) electricity grid, this class is studying texts, photographs and videos projected onto the wall from a computer; in fact, one of three computers in the classroom. The computers are powered by electricity from solar panels on the school roof, and two more computers and a photocopier/printer are in use in the administration block.
Gomba High School (motto ‘Discipline, Drive, Determination’) has been fitted with solar power for lights, computers and also for water pumping as part of an Oxfam-led scheme called RuSED – Rural Sustainable Energy Development Project – funded by the European Commission and by Oxfam.
History teacher Takuranavo Chivasa explains that although some pupils had visited Great Zimbabwe, others had not and trips were expensive. But for them "it isn’t necessary because we have the videos about the controversies and you can see the walls and the patterns, and it’s the same as if you were there."
For pupils, he says, having access to the internet has fired their imaginations and encouraged reading. It has even changed their attitude towards learning because – and he smiles in amusement – they seem to believe that what is on the internet must be more reliable than what teachers or textbooks tell them "even though we say it’s the same information as is in the textbooks".
For teachers Mr Chivesa says there are two great advantages, one being simply to be able to project text onto the wall and not spend time writing in chalk on the blackboard with his back to the class. The second is the ability to find and download new textbooks, many by foreign publishers, which is cheaper and easier than trying to locate textbooks locally which can be scarce, old, expensive or damaged.
Caution Gama, aged 18, is one of the Sixth Form students in the classroom and he is delighted with what computers have brought to his favourite subject, geography, and how he "can search and get access to photos and films of Mount Kilimanjaro and learn more about volcanoes".
Solar lighting and solarised computers are also in use at Mataruse Secondary School. Light enables students to study after school hours. Mataruse School Deputy Headmaster Denlly Maphosa explains: "The children really want to read! But they don’t have a chance during the day, they are so busy; so it is only at night, and if they have no light they cannot". The school re-opens at 6p.m., the solar bulbs are switched on and often up to 30 students will return and read or do their homework; sometimes Mr Maphosa will teach extra lessons. So keen are the pupils to learn that evening classes can go on as late as 10 p.m.
For the future, staff at both schools are confident that they can raise the funds not only to maintain the solar systems but also to expand them, and to purchase more computers. The local authorities are involved and parents are hugely supportive and willing to pay a fee for use of the computers, and more money is raised from charging people for taking water supplied by the solar water pump.
In such ways Oxfam aims to help people create a ‘solar system’ in the district that will be self-sustaining via improvements in health, education, production and ability to pay for solar products.
John Magrath is a programme researcher at Oxfam GB.