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

AIDS Epidemic Hits Zimbabwean Education

One-third of Zimbabwe’s teachers are infected with HIV, but there is little medical help available for them.
By Tino Zhakata

Looking dehydrated and dejected, Tarisai Marikopo mumbles to herself as she struggles to pick her way out of Mukwati Building, a complex that houses Zimbabwean government departments in central Harare.


Her umpteenth visit to the Public Service Commission at Mukwati to have her pension processed has failed yet again, eight months since she had to quit her teaching job on health grounds.


At 34, Marikopo, whose emaciated frame and pitted skin tell of her long illness, fears she will eventually have to surrender in the battle with HIV, as her hope of getting money to buy essential anti-retroviral drugs - which delay the onset of AIDS, but do not cure the killer disease - fades with each passing month.


“With each visit to the pensions office, I’m losing hope of surviving,” Marikpo told IWPR as she adjusted the wig she now wears to disguise her hair loss. “I’d hoped to get my money which I badly need to buy myself drugs every month.”


Marikopo said she been trying to soldier on with teaching English and history classes at Mutoko High School, 150 kilometres northeast of the capital Harare, but had to stop when a serious bout of malaria degenerated into an unidentified illness. After missing about six months’ work because of ill health, she was advised to quit and take time out to recover.


In a rasping voice interrupted by sporadic coughing, Marikopo explained, “At first, doctors thought I had problems with chalk dust as I suffered chronic coughs as well as serious chest pains. But when I started losing weight and sweating a lot I decided to have an HIV test.”


Trying to force a grin, she went on, “I didn’t want to believe it and even wanted to kill myself when I tested positive.”


Marikopo’s husband had married a “new wife” in the United Kingdom, where he fled in 2000 after quitting his job as a manager at a fast-foods outlet in Harare.


He still sends money to Marikopo, but she is left to take care alone of their two children, Tanatswa and Tonderai, 13 and eight years old, who stay with her in the tiny home she shares with her aged parents in Chitungwiza, a dormitory town southwest of Harare.


“It’s been hell trying to fend for the children alone, especially now that I’m not well. For the past eight months I have not had my pension since I quit teaching,” she said.


Marikopo is one of hundreds of teachers who have been forced out of work in Zimbabwe by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.


According to a new survey by the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, PTUZ, nearly 600 teachers are known to have died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2004, while 362 teachers have died in the first six months of this year.


“Many more are infected [with HIV] and are suffering in silence,” said the report. “The majority of schools in Zimbabwe have lost at least one teacher to the disease and at least two or three teachers [per school] are on AIDS-related sick leave.”


The government estimates that some 27,000 of the country’s 80,000 teachers are HIV-positive.


PTUZ secretary-general Raymond Majongwe told IWPR, “A lot of teachers are dying of [AIDS]. It’s just a big scandal that no one seems to care about. The [government-run] National AIDS Council has released funds for HIV/AIDS antiretroviral drugs for the army, the police and the prison services, but there are no specific funds or programmes for teachers.”


Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. Nearly three million people in a population of 11.5 million are HIV-positive, with more than 4000 people dying each week from AIDS-related infections. Human rights organisations estimate that some 1.5 million Zimbabwean children have lost one or both parents to the pandemic.


The World Health Organisation says about 300, 000 of those infected by the virus urgently need anti-retroviral drugs, but fewer than 20,000 are receiving the treatment.


“To date, there is not a single teacher who has received anti-retroviral drugs from the programmes the government claims to have embarked on,” alleged Majongwe. “As teachers, we are enlightened about the disease, but it’s sad we have nothing to do about it at the moment.”


The PTUZ report said, “The increasing levels of poverty among teachers have contributed to the high level of attrition [from AIDS]. It is unfortunate that whilst teachers are the engine room for social behavioural change, the National AIDS Council and the Ministry of Education continue to sideline us in the battle against HIV/AIDS.”


Marikopo tried to seek help from a clinical research programme run at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare which offers free anti-retroviral drugs, but she was told the programme could not accept any more people. Parirenyatwa and one state hospital in Bulawayo, the country’s second city, are the only centres offering free anti-AIDS treatment. Teachers working in rural areas have no access to treatment.


Antiretroviral drugs are available for sale in selected Zimbabwean pharmacies, but the country’s spiralling inflation has put the price of medication beyond the reach of most people with HIV. For example, a monthly course of Stalanev - a combination of three essential drugs - which in June this year cost 400,000 Zimbabwean dollars, now costs 1.5 million, nearly the entire monthly salary of a junior teacher.


Marikopo said, “I had been hoping to get a lump sum from my 13 years of service, but the usual bureaucracy in government departments is letting me down. We can’t expect anything from the Public Service Commission. The problem is nobody there seems to know what they are supposed to be doing. There’s so much confusion there and it takes ages to have the simplest thing done. There are a lot of retired teachers who have died without getting their pensions.”


Even if Marikopo had remained at work, the 4.4 million Zimbabwean dollars that senior teachers like her take home each month is not enough to make ends meet, for one person let alone a family. Junior teachers are far worse off with take-home pay of about two million dollars. The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe estimates that a family of six needs at least 9.6 million dollars each month for a basket of basic food and household goods.


Western countries and donor organisations are reluctant to help Zimbabwe fight the AIDS epidemic, as they are doing elsewhere in Africa, because of President Robert Mugabe’s poor human rights record and autocratic tendencies, the lack of transparency in accounting for AIDS fund donations, and the politicisation of distribution of essential food and medicines.


The average amount of international funding each year in southern Africa is 74 US dollars per person infected with HIV, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. But in Zimbabwe that figure is just four dollars a head. Critics say the Zimbabwean government has not been doing enough to make sure anti-retroviral drugs reach the infected, and that distribution is skewed by political preferences.


“Teachers are going into prostitution because they can’t sustain themselves,” said an angry Majongwe. Noting that President Mugabe was himself once a schoolteacher, Majongwe said, “As a product of this profession, [he] must go back to basics and improve conditions of the profession that made him what he is today.”


Tino Zhakata is the pseudonym used by an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.