Africa, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights

EDUCATION-ZIMBABWE: Getting Harder To Keep Children In School

Tonderai Kwidini

HARARE, Jan 26 2008 (IPS) - Alois Mufundisi, a media professional, earns 200 million Zimbabwean dollars, about 50 U.S. dollars on the thriving parallel market.

On paper this amount appears huge, but in real terms it is just enough to buy essential foodstuffs for half a month. He is barely able to keep his three children in school. Seven years ago he could manage without any problem. Now he has to do private jobs to supplement his income.

"Sometimes I can’t sleep thinking about where I can get my next dollar. It really pains me to think that I may not be able to pay for basic things such as my children’s education," said Mufundisi.

With hyperinflation at 8000 percent according to the Central Statistical Office (CSO), keeping children in school has become difficult in Zimbabwe. Educational standards have been on a free fall since the beginning of an unprecedented economic collapse that started in 2000, with often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms in the former regional breadbasket.

"During our time education was free," said Mufundisi. "My parents could send me and my siblings to boarding schools on my father’s civil servant salary, but now I am in danger of not being able to do the same for my children."

Schools opened in Zimbabwe on Jan. 15 and teachers in Harare have reported growing absenteeism. To make matters worse the country is facing acute shortages of food, hard currency and fuel in the economic meltdown that began in 2000.

Once Africa’s best, Zimbabwe’s educational system is now in crisis. Tens of thousands of teachers in state schools are constantly on a ‘go-slow’ action demanding a wage hike. There is an exodus of teachers to better paying jobs outside the country. The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) – one of two teachers’ representative bodies – estimates that more than 15,000 teachers left the teaching profession in 2006.

Those who stay behind spend most of the time moonlighting. Even head- teachers at private schools – where quality of education is better – are demanding bribes of up to 200 South African rands or 50 U.S. dollars in hard currency to enroll children.

"I had to pay money in foreign currency to secure a place for my daughter at a private school in Harare," Mufundisi told IPS.

A teacher at a rural Zimbabwe school who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity said, "I am quitting and going to South Africa. I have sold so many text books from my department library to supplement my meagre salary, I have to make a move before I am caught."

President Robert Mugabe’s investment in education after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 has generally been seen as the highlight of his increasingly autocratic 27-year rule, although he inherited most of the infrastructure from the former white colonial government.

PTUZ estimates that between four and five children share a textbook. There are often four children to one desk in the poorly equipped classrooms.

Students are fainting in class from hunger. Girls are missing school during the menstrual cycle because they cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. School dropout rates have shot up. Children are quitting school to supplement family incomes as vendors, commuter omnibus conductors, even sex workers.

A price-freeze ordered by the government in June last year left store shelves bare of most basic commodities, but the freeze was eased in phases to restore the viability of producers and businesses. However, supplies of goods have remained erratic.

Some Zimbabwean residential schools – hit by severe food shortages – were reported to be insisting that students bring their own supplies, according to Zimbabwean private media. The PTUZ said several boarding schools had cut short the last term of 2007 after running out of food.

The union secretary general Raymond Majongwe told IPS, "Our reports indicate that many schools will not open. These are clearly signs of the virtual collapse of the education system."

Higher education is also in crisis. The Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) – a representative body – released a report this week stating that the country has the world’s highest college dropout rate outside a war zone.

The report further states that more than 31.5 percent of students were forced out of school due to the exorbitant fees being charged in these institutions.

"The government only funds about 3 percent of the students in tertiary institutions. 80 percent are funded by their relatives," stated the report.

"Zimbabwe is facing a sharp decline in public expenditure on higher education, deteriorating teaching conditions, decaying educational facilities and infrastructure, perpetual student unrest, erosion of university autonomy, a shortage of experienced and well trained teaching staff, lack of academic freedoms, and an increasing rate of unemployment among the college graduates," the report damningly concludes.

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