Zimbabwe: an insight into school life

By Andrew Newmarch, Zimbabwe Portfolio Advisor

It was getting late in the day. School children, teachers and community members had gathered to welcome a visitor from Australia and to give thanks for financial assistance to the school. The students of the secondary school in Buhera community lived within a four kilometre radius from the school; others who lived further were not required to stay as they might have up to seven kilometres to walk home.

So the first thing that struck me was that all these children had to walk to school. In fact, if they finish secondary school and go on to Form 5 and 6 (equivalent to Year 11 and 12 in Australia), the nearest school is 15 kilometres.

We assume certain standards when we talk about ‘school’ in Australia. Firstly, there will be buildings built to government standards. They will be equipped with furniture and other equipment as well as having power, water, toilets and teachers. The school in Buhera community now has three school buildings, the third one built with World Vision assistance and equipped with desks and chairs.

When the school started with two buildings, they had very few teachers. Remote areas are required to build teacher’s houses to attract staff. In most cases, the standard teacher’s house is a room, maybe two, that allows the teacher to have shelter. The toilet is the school pit latrines. Water is something the teacher has to collect themselves from the borehole, if there is one. Cooking is done on an outdoor fireplace.

Initially the school had empty classrooms. As the third building has been completed and furniture has come, and particularly as community members have begun constructing teachers’ housing, applications to teach at this school have increased and so have the students. Teachers can see the community spirit to invest in education.

There is no power to these buildings and so the notion of having a computer is still a dream. They would have to purchase a generator, perhaps powered by solar panels, to provide power. The toilets are a block of pit latrines but there is no water supply to the school. That means that if a child wants to wash their hands after going to the toilet – and children are taught about this – they must bring their own water to school! Could you imagine this happening in an Australian school?

The system of education in Zimbabwe, particularly in rural areas, relies heavily on community input. It comes down to communities, working with whoever they can find to support them, to build infrastructure for their schools. In many places, classes are still held under a tree. Some places can do better than that but the ‘room’ is still only something like a cattle stall – a set of poles holding up a thatched roof, a kind of stick wall halfway up the poles and a brick wall at one end holding up a blackboard.

The dedication of some staff is outstanding. In another primary school, I met a headmaster who was running a quite efficient school. He asked me if I had smelt the paraffin when I was in one of the classrooms. This was his lighting at night because he was living in a storeroom, the size of a photocopying room. There were no houses built for staff yet. He gets to travel back to his home once a month, sometimes once a fortnight.

World Vision doesn’t usually invest so heavily in infrastructure as it is doing in Zimbabwe. However, in circumstances like this, a more pragmatic line is being taken whereby there is a realisation that if we don’t assist, there will be no access to the limited education (or health) services available. That will condemn children to be even further behind than they already are. It’s all a far cry from what children in Australia experience of school.