As Once-Admired Schools Wither, Zimbabwe's Young Are Left Idle
Half of Public System Is Closed; Parents Must Pay Fees for Teachers

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.

While costly private schools remain world-class and moderately priced religious schools are managing, the public schools that educate about 95 percent of students spent just 18 cents per pupil last year, down from about $6 in 1991, according to a recent U.S. Embassy report.

One high school history teacher in Harare described what she and other teachers call their "floating pool" of 20 aged textbooks, which rotates from class to class and is used by 240 students. School toilets, she said, function only because parents paid to drill a borehole; city water long ago stopped flowing. Coltart said the "vast majority" of students have no desks.

And last year, many had no teachers -- leaving students, in some cases, to teach themselves.

Two years ago, Lovemore Kuzomunhu, 19, had teachers for just two of his four classes. So Kuzomunhu and his physics classmates gave each other lessons. He taught forces and electronics, using textbooks he bought from street dealers.

Kuzomunhu finished high school last year. But with no exam results and therefore no degree, he is now teaching an 80-student math class at his alma mater. Administrators seem to trust him, he said; none has ever stopped by to assess his skills.

"It's very difficult to start on your own," Kuzomunhu, who lives in the southern Harare suburb of Chitungwiza, said of his decision to teach this year. "You don't know if it's wrong or if it's right."

The schooling that has continued survives on donations from international charities and Zimbabwean parents' steadfast dedication to education. Many scrimp to send their children to bare-bones academies known as "private colleges," which charge about $40 a month per subject. Last year, many paid striking teachers $5 to give their children one private lesson.

This year, with government permission, parents associations at many public schools drew up school budgets and determined fees -- typically $50 to $150 per pupil for each four-month term -- sufficient to attract teachers and buy toilet paper, chalk and gas for the school bus.

But those fees are out of reach for many Zimbabweans. On a recent afternoon in a township on the western edge of Harare, a tiny and barefoot Michael Muchuchu, 14, leaned against a tree in his front yard, waving at friends passing by in khaki uniforms and striped ties on their way to school.

The $25 term fee was too much, said his aunt, Petronella Muchuchu, 34, a security guard who said she made 150 trillion Zimbabwean dollars last month, "which doesn't even buy you a loaf of bread."

An aspiring electrician, Michael seemed beset by a sort of malaise.

"Uh, nothing?" he said, describing what he had been doing on this Thursday morning. "We don't have a TV. Books, I don't have any."

A few blocks away, about a third of the student body was present at the high school Michael should have been attending. In one classroom, 11 second-year math students worked on an exercise with no teacher in sight.

Nearly 20 teachers sat chatting in the staff room or soaking up the midmorning sun on outdoor benches.

"Coming doesn't mean we have started working in the real sense of the word 'work,' " said Preston Pundo, a geography and woodworking instructor, who said he had been paid $50 so far, short of the $300 monthly salary the parents association promised each teacher. "It's only a matter of setting students on some work, and then we idle around wondering where we would get the money to survive."

In downtown Harare, Kundai also wondered about his future, which he has determined will be "bleak" if he does not get his exam results and return to school. But where would the money come from? His mother is dead, he said, and a mysterious illness caused his father's leg to swell so enormously that he stopped working as a taxi driver.

Considering the circumstances, Kundai thinks he did well on the tests, particularly on a history question about the Treaty of Versailles. He is not so sure about math -- that textbook, he discovered on test day, was too advanced.

"It was very unfortunate," he said. "You can't really do math by yourself and expect to be excellent."

Special correspondent Darlington Majonga contributed to this report.

Mugabe's $250,000 Birthday

President Robert Mugabe threw himself a lavish birthday bash Saturday that reportedly cost $250,000, as the unity government failed to secure financial aid to rescue the collapsed economy.

Mugabe, who turned 85 on Feb. 21, has been in power since the end of white rule in 1980.

-- Associated Press

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