Many Students in Zimbabwe Find Themselves Without Schools

A girl who was turned away from school jumps a puddle. Even schools that are open lack desks and books, and fees must be paid in U.S. dollars.
A girl who was turned away from school jumps a puddle. Even schools that are open lack desks and books, and fees must be paid in U.S. dollars. (By Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi -- Associated Press)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 1, 2009

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- On many weekdays last year, Kundai Kanyemba, 16, donned his high school uniform, sat in the library and studied textbooks titled "Geography Today," "Focus on English" and "General Mathematics," tattered volumes he hoped would prepare him for year-end exams. There was no one to ask whether he had selected the right books -- teachers were on strike because their salaries had become pittances.

This year, Kundai has not attended school at all, like many Zimbabwean children. Half of public schools are closed, while teachers at others have returned only if parents pay fees in U.S. dollars, which Kundai's family cannot afford. Last year's exams remain uncorrected, preventing him from starting the next grade anyway. So Kundai spends days watching soccer matches and missing the "very, very fascinating" chemistry experiments he did when he had teachers.

"It's a basic right to go to school," the soft-spoken boy said. "Children should go to school."

As recently as the 1990s, Zimbabwe's public education system was considered the best in sub-Saharan Africa, producing a literacy rate that still hovers around 90 percent. But the system is now on the brink of collapse, and the new unity government says rescuing it is one of its most immediate challenges.

A decade of economic decline and skyrocketing inflation has gutted education coffers, leaving schools devoid of desks and chalk and driving teachers to quit for better opportunities. School attendance fell to about 20 percent last year, the United Nations says, and experts warn that a society that prizes learning is being transformed into one in which children see that street skills bring more prosperity than degrees do.

"In the long term, education is the only thing that will drive this country. . . . This is a serious threat," said Tsitsi Singizi, a UNICEF spokeswoman in Harare, the capital. "If we just have loads of children who won't be able to access education, they'll just sit at home and think it's normal."

Zimbabwe's teachers unions agreed last week to return to work Monday, citing the $100 government allowances issued to civil servants for February and government pledges to address their demands. But they want salaries comparable to those in South Africa -- at least $1,200 a month, said Oswald Madziva of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe. Their most recent pay was worth about $2, he said.

But returning teachers to the classroom will hardly repair the system. According to the union, about half of Zimbabwe's 120,000-strong teaching force has left, most moving to other nations. So class sizes, now averaging 50 students, will remain bloated, Madziva said.

One former high school math teacher, Leonard Makhankhula, said he would not be lured back until teachers get housing benefits, not to mention classroom supplies. He quit in 2007, after the black-market trading he was doing to supplement his earnings too often prompted him to abandon lessons to go make a deal.

"It's pathetic," said Makhankhula, 39. "You look at children and they are innocent souls. Other people have made their mistakes, and they are doing it at the expense of innocent souls."

The new education minister, Sen. David Coltart of the Movement for Democratic Change, likens the situation to a postwar zone and said in an interview that more than $400 million is needed to begin to rebuild the system. The Finance Ministry, he said, has already set aside $4 million to pay teachers to correct last year's exams. He said he hopes foreign donors wary of giving to a government headed by the man who plundered Zimbabwe's coffers, President Robert Mugabe, might give directly to the education department.

"If all our revenue flows have to come from our end, it's going to take years," Coltart said in his office in the dingy Education Ministry.

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