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Mugabe's Education Revolution Reversed

Zimbabwean president’s past improvements to education system now under threat.
By Benedict Unendoro
President Robert Mugabe’s success in creating an “education revolution”, raising literacy rates in Zimbabwe to 98 per cent by the late 1990s, is fast unravelling.

Analysts say the major advances made in education following Zimbabwe’s independence are now being reversed. In ten years’ time, there will be a whole generation of illiterate people, and the literacy rate will drop from one of the world’s highest to just 40 or 50 per cent of the adult population.

When Zimbabwe became independent from Britain in 1980, Mugabe promised “Education for All by 2000”.

Schools were built everywhere to ensure that every child had a school within walking distance. Every village had a pre-school facility, secondary schools were added on to primary schools, and tertiary education was also expanded, with at least one university in each of the country’s ten administrative provinces.

The government’s Department of Adult and Continuing Education focused on those who wanted to continue studying under difficult circumstances. In addition to adult literacy classes, free correspondence modules were supplied to villagers with no access to formal schooling.

But all this is now coming to nought – and nowhere is this more evident than in Masvingo province in southern Zimbabwe

Masvingo, with a population of about two million, is of particular importance because it used to have arguably the most educated population in Zimbabwe.

According to Joseph Muzenda, a retired headmaster in the province, the reason for this was simple, “Being a dry province where little agriculture is possible, parents invested in the education of their children, so they would get formal employment in the cities and then help their families.”

While many factors have contributed to the decline in state-funded education in Zimbabwe over the past ten years, the most important is clearly the contraction of government spending – the country is broke.

“Education was solely financed by the taxpayer, except if it was [religious] mission education,” said Muzenda.

“Every school got what were called ‘vote allocations’ from central government, which they would use to buy all the essentials such as textbooks, exercise books and furniture. These vote allocations have become virtually worthless.”

Although education has received the largest share of government spending ever since 1980, in recent years, the value of this has been eroded to almost nothing.

“Schools now have no textbooks or exercise books, let alone furniture,” said Happison Zvodya, a primary school teacher in Masvingo province.

“Teachers have advised parents to buy their children these essentials, but that is impossible because the little money people here ever get is used to buy food.”

This drought-prone province has not had a decent rainy season in the past five years, and people depend mostly on handouts from aid agencies.

In June, the Zimbabwean government banned humanitarian groups from distributing food. Although this ban has now been relaxed, the agencies must meet strict new conditions related to reporting their activities.

The government’s “Food-for-Work” programme used to help. This programme, under which villagers worked on roads, schools and other infrastructure in return for food aid, was meant to ensure that a dependency syndrome did not emerge.

However, it has now been discontinued because the government simply does not have the resources to sustain it.

With neither food handouts nor food-for-work schemes putting food on the table, education has been relegated to the lowest priority as families spend most of their time looking for sustenance.

“The dropout rate is escalating. Children as young as ten no longer see the importance of school. They would rather be in the neighbouring farms looking for fruit and mopani worms for sale,” said Zvodya.

“Teenagers are involved in other activities, such as gold panning and the making of curios, which they sell to foreigners along the Masvingo-Beitbridge road.”

Indeed, a drive along this road, the gateway to South Africa, shows up a roaring trade in wooden curios, earthenware pots, and mopani worms – moth larvae considered a delicacy all over Zimbabwe.

In Masvingo, the collapse of the education system is a double tragedy. Not only will the elderly, who used to benefit from their children’s education as an insurance against hunger, have nothing to resort to, but the social fabric of the province has been torn.

Many young people now engage in criminal activities such as poaching game, while increasing numbers of young women turn to prostitution.

The education sector throughout the country has also been adversely hit by a brain drain which has seen teachers leave in the country in droves, unhappy with poor pay and working conditions.

The average salary in the teaching profession is the equivalent of 15 US dollars a month.

According to the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, 25,000 teachers left the profession last year alone.

The figure is much higher this year, according to Raymond Majongwe, the union’s secretary-general. While Zimbabwe needs 120,000 teachers at all levels, the primary and secondary school sector is being run by just half that number.

The problem looks set to get worse. Last month, it was reported that very few candidates were taking up places at teacher training colleges; others felt it was not worth their while. The ministry of higher education is considering dropping entry qualifications in order to attract trainees.

“Teacher absenteeism is rampant in schools. Those who have not chosen to flee are engaging in all sorts of coping mechanisms,” said Zvodya, who is also about to leave his job.

He described how teachers at his school, located close to the border with South Africa and Mozambique, fail to turn up for work for weeks at a time.

He explained that they “take turns to go to South Africa to look for piecework, mostly in the construction industry. They can be away for as long as a month, while other teachers cover their backs. Others go to Mozambique to buy wares for resale.”

According to Zvodya, there is little monitoring of absenteeism, since head teachers may be themselves be taking time off, while local education officials are grossly underpaid and lack the car fuel and motivation to investigate such cases.

Benedict Unendoro is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.