Zimbabwe is a country that has been shunned by the powerful nations of the West for political reasons. As always, it’s the ordinary people who are worst affected by the boycotts and suffer hardship. In addition to the severe economic downturn since 2001, the AIDS epidemic has decimated the adult population and left more than a million children at risk, vulnerable and orphaned. Schools in rural areas especially struggle to raise enough money from fees to buy the most basic items because so many cannot pay the school fees. One school I visited in May 2014 had only received fees for 2 children out of a total of 241. The fees were $20 per term.
There are many confronting issues. Children arrive at school hungry because they haven’t eaten; children have to sit outside because there’s no classroom and no furniture to sit on; children frequently have no books or writing materials; children have to walk long distances to school (typically 6 – 10km every morning and every afternoon); children are often sexually molested on their way to school, a major problem in the region. And every school has a large number of children who are orphans: roughly a third of all enrolments at the schools I visited were classified OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children).
Building classrooms helps the whole community. Zimbabweans value education very highly and the self-esteem of the whole local community is raised if it’s considered to have a proper school. The local school is typically also a community centre, with teachers, parents, guardians and especially grandparents involved at many levels.
If a school is overcrowded and has limited resources many children are forced to enrol more distant schools. Travelling for hours by foot through the bush places children at high risk of sexual assault.
If there are not enough classrooms to accommodate the number of children enrolled, classes have to be held outside. It is often extremely hot, and heavy rain and storms disrupt outside classes through November and December. Children studying in classrooms can concentrate better on the task at hand, and learning outcomes are improved as a result.
Better teaching conditions also mean that schools reduce teacher turnover, a recurrent problem for many rural schools.
As a Zimbabwean-born primary school teacher living in Sydney, the discrepancy between the educational privileges my family and community enjoy and the lack of opportunity available to so many others, is particularly troubling.