Africa, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs

EDUCATION: Zimbabwe’s School System Crumbles

Stanley Kwenda

HARARE, Nov 18 2008 (IPS) - Glen View 5 Primary School in one of Harare's high-density suburbs is deserted. Classrooms are empty, desks and chairs are piled up in corners and instruction charts are peeling off the walls. Yet, the school's third term is in full swing.

Denzil Maruva (8): "We have not been going to school because teachers are on strike." Credit:  Stanley Kwenda/IPS

Denzil Maruva (8): "We have not been going to school because teachers are on strike." Credit: Stanley Kwenda/IPS

Zimbabwean school children have missed their lessons for the better part of the year as teachers have gone on strike over low pay, poor working conditions, election results and the ensuing political violence. Ongoing hostilities have also prevented children from going to school, particularly in rural and semi-rural areas where president Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF believes teachers are sympathisers of opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

"Education service delivery has been seriously compromised and is on the brink of collapse," said Zimbabwe Teachers Association (ZIMTA) president Tendai Chikowore.

Since March, teachers have refused to come to work because of low salaries, which they say can hardly pay for their transport to work. Their monthly income has become negligible because of inflation rates that have spiralled out of control – Zimbabwe has the world’s highest inflation rate of 231 million percent.

Due to the teacher strike, many parents have resigned themselves to educating their kids through home schooling. "My daughter wrote her grade seven exams this year but it was only a routine because she did not learn anything [at home] of what she was being tested. She will have to repeat the grade next year," said Wilson Mponda, a concerned parent of one of the Glen View pupils.

He explained he opted for home schooling because he lost hope in the educational system. Other parents have resorted to hiring teachers for private lessons.

But another teacher's representative body, the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), said privately educating children will not help salvaging the education backlog as it only serves to shift the responsibility of providing education from the government to parents.

PTUZ secretary general, Raymond Majongwe, warned that parents, and even private tutors, know little about how and what topics to teach children and what subjects are age-appropriate. "It's no use to resort to these short-cut solutions because the children will learn things that are not compatible with the national syllabus," he told IPS, lamenting the disintegration of the country’s educational system.

At Glen View 5 Primary School, no lessons have been taught for many months. The school building is run down, toilets are without running water and have not been flushed for days. Residents say the situation at the school places health risks and some hold the school accountable for a recent cholera outbreak, which has so far claimed more than 15 lives, mostly children in a suburb adjacent to the school.

"We cannot keep our children in a school where there is no water and their health is at risk," said Mponda.

Across the road from the school, Denzil Maruva, a grade 2 pupil, is playing soccer with his friends during the day, when children his age would normally be attending school. He says he can't remember the last time he was in class. "It was long back. We have not been going to school because teachers are on strike," said the eight-year-old.

The head teacher at Glen View 5 Primary School, who does not want to be named for fear of victimisation, said she does not anticipate the situation to improve any time soon. "There is no learning," she said.

She reckoned that only "by some miracle" would Zimbabwe manage to attain universal primary education by 2015, a target the country committed to when it subscribed to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

One teacher accused of being a MDC supporter, Susan Gumbo (not her real name), who lives in rural Rusape, about 128 kilometres outside of Harare had to abandon teaching due to lack of income. "It has become very hard to survive as a teacher. The salary can’t buy anything. It is hardly enough to take you to town to buy food. Therefore I have no reason to keep on teaching," she said.

Until today, Gumbo has not found alternative employment, and is, as a result, unable to financially support herself and her nine-year-old son.

Gumbo, who used to teach at Matsika Primary School in Makoni West, says children have not been attending school since August when teachers went on strike. Before that time, she and other teachers had to ask children to pay them with buckets of maize in return for their teaching because they had not been paid their salaries for months.

The Grain Marketing Board (GMB), government’s grain distributing body, had excluded teachers from free maize distribution because they were suspected of being MDC supporters. "They accused us of having poisoned villagers into voting for the opposition party but, like everyone, we are suffering, we are hungry, we are starving to death," said Gumbo.

She anticipates it will take a long time for the educational system to regain its strength, which the United Nations Statistics Division described in its 2004 literacy report as a "jewel in Africa".

"It pains me because I have a son who should be in school, and I know that when he goes back to school he will have to start over again. This talk about meeting the Millennium Development Goals, I no longer have any hope that it will happen," complained Gumbo.

In Karoi, 200 kilometres north of Harare, Tapiwa Mapudzi, has not been going to school since April this year and has been spending most of his time selling fruit to passengers passing through Chikangwe, a long-distance bus terminus.

"I sell fruits to help my mother who has a market here. We have no money to buy food or clothes. We used to get food at break time at school but now there is nothing," Mapudzi told IPS.

Together with other children, he lined up along the highway to Karoi, selling a variety of items during days he should have been at school.

Despite an array of educational challenges, Zimbabwe’s Acting Minister of Education, Flora Bhuka, insists everything is well in the country’s schools. "Like in every other country that is going through problems, there are challenges, but there is no reason to panic," said Bhuka who took over the ministry three months ago, on a temporary basis until a new government is put into place.

Notwithstanding this denial, she promised, to address the teacher’s plight including increasing their salaries and improving conditions of service. However, she refuted the fact that pupils no longer attend lessons despite mounting evidence in schools.

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