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Boarding Schools in Crisis

Parents are pulling their children out of schools which have run out of food, water, and electricity.
Millions of schoolchildren throughout Zimbabwe had to endure dreadful conditions as they began a new term this month, as a result of power cuts and water and food shortages.

Jane Musekiwa, whose daughter Nyarai is in the first class at a mission boarding school in Mutoko, about 150 kilometres northeast of Harare, said the trip to her child’s school turned into a nightmare when she realised what kind of life her daughter would have to endure there.

“What I saw was not what I had bargained for,” said Musekiwa.

In the past, it was prestigious for middle-income families such as hers to send their children to boarding schools.

But Musekiwa described how she almost cried when she discovered that for the three-month term, her daughter would be drinking and bathing with water from an unprotected source, and would spend long hours without the electricity needed for study and entertainment.

According to Musekiwa, on opening day, the school was bereft of basic foodstuffs such as the staple “sadza maize meal, chicken, beef and greens.

She said there was no bread, let alone eggs, for breakfast, and the school headmistress had no idea when the situation would return to normal.

Musekiwa said one teacher told her privately that the problems had also been there the previous term.

“Last term, the only sounds at night in the dormitories were of girls crying themselves to sleep. Some were even threatening to commit suicide if their parents did not pull them out of the boarding school,” she said, quoting the teacher.

Nyarai is just one of the hundreds of thousands of scholars braving harsh conditions at boarding schools as a result of problems brought on by the collapse of the country’s economy over the past nine years.

Zimbabwe’s inflation rate is now over 8,000 per cent as prices rise every day, and most foodstuffs have to be sourced from the black market.

A price freeze ordered by President Robert Mugabe's government in July 2007 that was meant to ease the plight of consumers has only worsened the shortages of basic commodities, and this is hitting boarding schools hard, with most facing difficulties in getting food, electricity and water.

The authorities at Kwenda High School in Wedza, some 150 km from Harare, have advised pupils not to return until further notice this term, because the school has had no power since rains damaged electricity cables in the area.

Without electricity, the school cannot pump water from boreholes for sanitation or to prepare food. It is also missing basic foodstuffs such as maize meal for its boarders.

As well as power and water, schools also face a serious shortage of books, with some relying on cross border traders who import teaching materials from Zambia and sell them at exorbitant prices.

Parents are now faced with a tough choice between leaving their children to endure difficult conditions at the once-fashionable boarding schools, or taking them out and spending millions on transport to get them to day schools.

Many parents are still frantically looking for places at day schools closer to home, as they try to spare their children from suffering three months of hell at boarding school.

It now costs between 2.5 billion and six billion Zimbabwean dollars, ZWD, a term for private boarding school fees, or between 500 and 1,200 US dollars, calculated at the more realistic black-market exchange rate.

Parents who send their children to state schools still have to fork out between 1.2 and two billion ZWD a term

Boarding schools are now demanding payments of half the fees up front to allow them to buy in groceries from neighbouring South Africa. The money is used to buy South African rands on the black market, and the schools then send runners across the Limpopo River to buy the foodstuffs.

George Mhandire, another parent whose child attends a private school in Masvingo, 300 km south-east of Harare, is desperate to the 2.6 billion ZWD the institution is demanding in advance for his son’s place.

“I just don’t know what to do now. The school wants half the levy in cash and the other half electronically transferred into their account. I don’t know how I am going to raise that money.”

Mhandire said that while he understood why schools resorted to this practice, he was still unable to find the cash.

“If they don’t do that, our kids will starve, he said. “Some parents are already paying the fees in foreign currency but this is too much for me.”

Others can no longer afford private school fees and are trying to secure places at government schools, where the quality of education has deteriorated over the past ten years due to a loss of teachers and shortage of teaching materials.

Frustrated and demoralised by low government salaries and inadequate teaching aids, teachers have left state schools in droves. They have either been poached by private schools or have crossed the borders to neighbouring countries in search of greener pastures.

Granny MaMoyo, from the working class suburb of Highfield, Harare, whose grandson attends a private school in Chegutu, 100km away, told IWPR that her daughter in the UK could no longer afford the 2.6 billion ZWD she has to pay for this term.

Many families like hers depend on relatives scattered all over the globe for financial support.

“It is just too much money, even for my daughter in the UK. She can’t afford it. She wanted the best for her son but it looks like we have to transfer him to a government school regardless of the poor facilities,” she said.

MaMoyo said the demand for places meant she was struggling to find a new school for the boy.

“The problem is that schools opened this week but I still haven’t found a place for him,” she said. “The scramble for places is intense.”

Nonthando Bhebhe is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

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