Wisdom “Laddo” Mulefu has become something of a hero at EDC. Depending on who you talk to, he’s the boy who traveled countless miles just to find a school that would enroll him … the boy who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer … the boy whose wholesale love of education blossomed before our very eyes.
Sera Kariuki, an EDC educator in Zambia, has known about Laddo ever since he completed EDC’s grades 1–5 Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) program for orphans and vulnerable children in Kafue township. Word spread quickly about his accelerated mastery of math and English. “It seemed unbelievable,” Kariuki recalls. “He was older and had almost missed an opportunity to get an education. The formal system considered him ‘over age.’ But once he enrolled in the IRI school, he roared through the first five grade levels in just three years. Laddo was ready for grade 6 and wanted to enroll in formal primary school. It was a very difficult time for students completing grade 5 IRI lessons. A few were lucky to transfer into government schools. But many were forced to drop out of school, and others ended up on the streets [or] in early marriages, or simply disappeared through the cracks,” says Kariuki. “We were waiting and hoping the Ministry of Education would provide grades 6 and 7 IRI lessons.”
In the meantime, Laddo was determined to get himself into grade 6 and prove his ability. “He went around asking heads of school to let him enroll,” says Kariuki. “Nobody believed that he had completed the first five grades. He wore rags and no shoes. He didn’t have a school uniform, and he didn’t look like a child who went to school.
“But he was different. He had so much confidence.”
Laddo’s story took hold at EDC because we were lucky enough to witness his transformation—and we know there are millions like him.
In many African countries, EDC broadcasts radio lessons in communities where distance, poverty, and lack of infrastructure prevent children from attending school. Children meet under trees, in homes or churches, or in cement-block classrooms—wherever communities can find space.
When Laddo first listened to English and math lessons, he was bored, or maybe just distracted. His home responsibilities loomed large. Laddo’s father had died when he was nine months old and his mother when he was five. Laddo and his 10 siblings are known as “double orphans”—a term born of the relentless toll of AIDS in Africa. Laddo lives with his older sister in a shanty compound, 45 kilometers from Lusaka. Next to their home, traders work on the river bank, selling pig meat and sundries in unsanitary conditions.
“Life has been unfair to me ever since our parents died. My siblings love me and are proud of me, but they have their own children,” he says. As Laddo continued to work on basic lessons, he began to understand more: “The simple English used in the program helped me understand the lessons.”
A unit on manners and life skills piqued his curiosity. “The idea of the life-skills lessons is to reach children who aren’t getting much guidance at home and offer them information and skills to help them lead safe and healthy lives,” says Kariuki.
In his quest for a new school, Laddo asked some older boys about Nakatete Basic School, a local school. They discouraged him. You’d never get in, they said. But Laddo went to see Rachel Hang’andu, the school’s head teacher, anyway. Laddo made a terrible first impression, Hang’andu told us. She thought he was mentally unstable and was worried because his clothes were dirty and tattered. But Laddo’s attitude trumped his appearance. He insisted that she give him an entry exam. His scores were high, and she offered him a seat in grade 6.
Laddo scrimped and saved in order to have enough money to pay K25,000 ($5) for enrollment. His sister bought a small piece of cloth and convinced a local tailor to make Laddo a school uniform for just a few kwachas. “I sent him books, and he’d send me letters,” says Kariuki. “After a while, we started a system where I send money for books and shoes once a year.”
When he started at the new school, Laddo’s new classmates had a lot of laughs at his expense. His shoes were plastic, and he did poorly in class. “When I started school at Nakatete Basic School, my classmates laughed every time I raised my hand,” he recalls.
“It’s so difficult to be poor and orphaned,” says Kariuki. “Kids like Laddo are very sensitive about it. They feel different.”
But by the second term, his grades improved, and by the third term, he was the best student in class. The big boys started defending him when they discovered he was a good football player. By seventh grade, Laddo was one of the top 10 students in the entire province. Now, at age 16, he is excelling in eighth grade, and the school has offered to cover the expense of his fees. Sometimes he even has time to go back to Sinu Community School to teach radio lessons to second and third graders.
Originally published on May 14, 2007