Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Adding Up the Costs of Inflation in Zimbabwe

Spiralling price rises mean textbook arithmetic doesn’t work, while schoolteachers make their own calculations about how to survive.
By Sibongile Mathuthu
Zimbabwe's skyrocketing inflation, with annual rates of over 1,000 per cent making it the world’s highest, is having a damaging impact on the education system as well as on other sectors.

For eight-year-old Chipo Gumbo, the inflation factor makes the task of grasping basic mathematical concepts a nightmare.

"In my maths books, a boy called Tendai buys sweets with cents. I don't know what cents are. When I buy sweets and chips from my teacher at break time, I use bearer's cheques," explained Chipo.

“Bearer's cheques” are a type of paper money which the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe introduced when the country ran out of banknotes. The cheques, denominated in thousands of Zimbabwean dollars, Z$, but worth only a few US cents each, are printed on plain paper with no security features. They also expire after a given period.

In the textbook, Tendai is happy with the 50 Zimbabwe cents he gets as pocket money from his parents. He can spend it on sweets, a packet of crisps and an ice lolly and still have some change left over.

But real-life pupils like Chipo need a lot more money to buy much less. On average, primary school children now get 50,000 Z$ as weekly pocket money – but despite all the zeros, the sum is worth about 50 US cents, enough to buy a handful of sweets, and no ice cream.

Teachers say the huge gap between reality and textbook economics is making learning much harder.

"There's no link whatsoever between what we want them to learn and what's happening around them, so children are confused and that makes the whole learning process a struggle," a primary school teacher in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, told IWPR.

But many teachers no longer have the energy to address these issues, because their enthusiasm has also been undermined by the effects of inflation. To supplement starvation wages, they use teaching time to sell sweets, pencils and snacks to pupils.

"If I don't sell [things], I won't have money for transport to come to class," another teacher, Ruth Ncube, told IWPR. "My salary is not enough to pay rent and buy food and clothes."

Ncube said teachers now arrive at school with big bags full of items to sell to pupils and colleagues. In the past, she said, their bags would have contained exercise books for marking, but these days they do not take work home. Most are too busy anyway - moonlighting by giving extra lessons in their homes or teaching at private colleges.

Although educational standards are suffering as a result of the erosion in salaries, school fees have now been increased to keep up with inflation.

From May, parents with children at state primary schools in urban areas will have to fork out at least 2.5 million Z$ (25 US dollars) for one term’s tuition fees and other school levies, ten times the amount they paid last term. Secondary schools are now charging 10 million Z$ a term.

After Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, the government of Robert Mugabe introduced free primary education for all, in an attempt to redress the balance that had previously been tipped against black children.

But the ideals encapsulated in slogan "education for all by the year 2000" were forgotten when the economy collapsed six years ago.

For the majority of parents, who earn less than 10 million Z$ a month, the higher charges will be beyond their means. Although pupils at rural schools pay lower fees than those in the towns, their parents earn less as well.

Fatima Sibanda from Mahole village near Insiza, east of Bulawayo, worries that the hike in fees will force many children, especially girls, to drop out of school.

"Who can afford to pay such amounts of money?" asked Sibanda. "I have to feed and clothe my children, and prices keep going up. Many children will stop going to school. Girls will get married, or look for men and get AIDS. Our sons will become criminals and die in jail."

Organisations working to safeguard children's rights predict that more and more children will drop out of school and, in a country where the unemployment rate is now more than 80 per cent, they will resort to begging, prostitution or child labour to survive.

"Inasmuch as people struggle to send their children to school even in these difficult circumstances, we have come to a point where people just want to give up," said Leonard Nkala, former president of the Zimbabwe Teachers Association.

Even though the higher fees are unaffordable for many, they do not cover the real cost of buying the most essential textbooks for each pupil.

Those parents who remain determined to ensure their children get a basic education are finding ways to keep them at school until they complete their "Ordinary Level" examinations at the age of 16.

But every thousands of pupils fail to get their O-level certificate when their parents are unable to find the money for examination fees.

Even those who do sit the exams in the mandatory five O-level subjects have recently had nothing to show for their efforts, because the Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council, ZIMSEC, has been unable to print certificates because there is not enough foreign currency to buy paper and ink for them.

As of May this year, students who did their O-level and Advanced level examinations in November 2004 had yet to receive their certificates.

They complain that the delays are disrupting their career plans, since it is hard and often impossible to get a job or start a higher education course unless you have a certificate.

"I have had to miss a whole [distance learning] semester with UNISA [the University of South Africa] because it insists that all students submit copies of their A-level certificates," said one student, Bongani Moyo. "When we enrolled with UNISA we used our result slips. But I can't seem to get my certificate from ZIMSEC."

Moyo, who is used to hearing how Zimbabwe’s education system was once among the best in Africa, quickly added an optimistic note, "I'll keep hoping things will work out some day soon."

Sibongile Mathuthu is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

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