CHII CHIRIKUITA : WHAT’S UP?: Six: The Day The Rainbow Fell On The Floor

“Look” she said to me, pointing to the multi-coloured powder paint that had fallen onto the tarmac, “the rainbow fell on the floor.”  She stood there, eyes wide, hands on her hips, her oversized school uniform making her look smaller than her 6 years. 

Then, I watched her skip away, satchel in tow, to the school hall.  Yes, the rainbow had come crashing down from the sky and onto the floor landing in the car park of a private school.

In these, Associated Trust Schools (ATS), parents who are unable to pay school fees see their children excluded:  barred from the classroom, separated from their friends, these sprites are exiled to the school hall. There are many parents who struggle to make the fee payments which range from anything between US$500 – US$1500 per term (3 months) depending on the school.

And the handful of private and state schools where parents can pay large supplements to teachers’ salaries to subsidise the running of the school, are the only ones that are fully functional at the moment. 

But in a bold move this week, the new Minister of Education, Sports, Arts and Culture, David Coltart, announced that no child should be excluded from school for non-payment of fees. Arrangements for payment in instalment now have to be made to ensure that every child no matter the school has access to education.

This is just the beginning of what Mr Coltart, who reported for duty only a month ago, has had to deal with.

From once having one of the highest standards of education in Africa, recording a 72% national O-level pass rate in the mid 1990’s, last year it crashed to 11%.  With the mid 1990 implementation of Economic Structural Adjustment the Zimbabwean government spent less and less on education, so that by 2006 expenditure on education was only 13% of the national budget. By this time hyper-inflation had begun to bite, and it is estimated that in 2008, the value of government spending per child was equivalent to just 18 cents.

The many children in government run schools did not receive an education last year. The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe estimates that the majority of pupils in the country had a total of 23 days uninterrupted in the classroom.

The academic year should have just been cancelled!

2008 saw teachers go on strike, their salaries worthless, eroded by stagnation and inflation that was officially pegged at 231 million percent.  Many teachers simply could not afford to go to work because their monthly pay was less than the bus fare for the same period.  This, coupled with election violence, the assault of teachers by ZANU PF militia, the looting of schools and the use of some school premises as torture centres dealt the final blow to Zimbabwe’s education system.

And now, virtually all rural schools are closed as well as some urban ones.  Even if they were open and teachers tried to teach the vast majority of schools do not have desks, they do not have textbooks, chalk, exercise books.  Overwhelmed by water and power cuts, buildings are in a state of disrepair and children are adrift.

Nothing is more true than for some of Zimbabwe’s most vulnerable, homeless, hungry and abused:  street kids.   At a workshop held at Streets Ahead, a care and drop-in service for street children, girls write and paint their dreams – murals of beautiful visions of healthy and happy futures.  Here girls and boys can drop in during the day, take a shower, have a meal and engage in activities such as art, drama, craft.  It’s a classroom even though it may not be formally recognised as such, there are many such classroom spaces in and around Zimbabwe, without walls or desks. Its an unidyllic idyll.

The girls talk and discuss as they work. As economic orphans (children are left behind whilst their parents go in search of forex) girl headed households mean that girls shoulder the burden of care.  Sexual violence and rape has meant that many girls now nurse babies. 

But the small people go on with the business of living and learning.  There are many ways to learn, formal and informal and life in Zimbabwe teaches children skills to survive.

No matter where they are located, children always find time to play, run, laugh, have mud fights, right in the midst of everything.  Life always goes on for the living.   Children dream dreams even though the rainbow has fallen out of the sky.

In the formal learning domain, teachers have threatened to go on strike at the end of April 2009 if their salary demands are not met.  Coltart makes no bones of the fact that right now the coffers the empty.  Before he can fund teachers demands, he needs to know how many teachers he has.  There is no computerised database at present and the departments records are apparently in a chaotic state.  In the past few years, many teachers have left Zimbabwe, for jobs elsewhere. It is believed that the number of teachers currently in Zimbabwe is less than 50 percent of a full complement of 140 000.

A think tank comprised of educationalist from various sectors has been put together in order to provide strategic direction and advise in rebuilding and reviving education in Zimbabwe.  The board includes amongst others, former Minister of Education Dr Fay Chung, Zimbabwe Teachers Association President Tendai Chikoore, politician Ms Trudy Stevenson, clergy man Father Joe Arimoso as well as Dr Stanly Hadebe.

Infrastructure is important.  Having the teachers in place is important.  Having the money is important.  But one of the lessons that we can take from history is that it is not enough.  Education is one of those rights that requires active mobilisation, organisation and vigilance.  We have to think outside of the current parameters.  What kind of country do we want?  What kinds of citizens do we want in this country?  What kind of curriculum is going to facilitate that? 

In Zimbabwe today, education includes the participation of everyone from children, women, men, the young and the elderly, everyone has to work to construct new relations and consciousness both inside and outside the classroom.  This includes a broad, relevant and dynamic curriculum, healthy cultures of questioning, debate and critique.  It includes an expanded understanding of what constitutes education.  Participation in seminars, assemblies, walks, volunteer work, acts of solidarity, coming together across the divides to learn and teach reading and writing, to talk and discuss, and more than this, to read and write the reality of life.

This is the hard work.

The work that will reflect and refract a gazillion rainbows in the lives of that six year old little girl standing in the school parking lot and for hundreds and thousands like her all  around the country.    


About Prespone Matawira

Prespone Matawira is a Zimbabwean feminist organizer, educator, writer.