If Zimbabwe were human, the country would need more years of therapy than its 30 years of independence. According to Foreign Policy, in 2010, Zimbabwe was fourth on the “Failed State Index.” In 2006, it was declared to be the unhappiest place on earth—ahead of Zimbabwe on the “Happiness Index” were countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and North Korea. In 2008, it had inflation rates not seen since the Weimar Republic: prices of goods changed as customers walked to the tills. By any measure, Zimbabweans should just have given up, switched off what little lights remained burning, and hightailed it to the nearest border.

Zimbabwe’s collapse is jarring because it has been so fast. Particularly, in education, where it once led all of Africa, Zimbabwe has had a dizzying fall. The papers are full of stories of teachers at government schools threatening to strike, of pupils being sent home for not paying school fees, of overcrowded classrooms and poorly maintained schools.

At the beginning of last year, I planned to write about the state of education in coalition

Zimbabwe. In September 2008, Zimbabwe woke to a new chapter in its history. For the first time since independence, Zanu PF, the party of the rooster emblem, was no longer cock of the walk. Mugabe’s party entered into a power-sharing arrangement with the MDC, the opposition party that has sworn to reverse the economic decline. Ministerial portfolios were divvied up between the three parties to the coalition. The Ministry of Education, or, to give it its full name, The Ministry of Education, Sport, Art, and Culture, went to the smaller of the two MDC parties, and is headed by David Coltart, a lawyer and senator from Bulawayo. Senator Coltart is known as one of the most accessible of the ministers. His door was open when I walked in to tell him about my project, and to ask for his permission to visit government schools.

My initial plan had been to go to all of Zimbabwe’s ten provinces, and visit two primary schools and two secondary schools in each province. I soon came to realize that bureaucracy had not quite caught up with the reality of the new coalition government. The head of the first government school I visited would not see me because I did not have the authority of the provincial head.

“But the Minister signed my letter,” I protested and produced the letter signed by Senator Coltart.

Not good enough, clearly.

“That letter was not signed by the provincial director,” I was told.

I went to Chester House in Harare to see the Provincial Director, a small man in an over-furnished office who put a stamp on it, signed it, and wrote, “APPROVED” above his signature, effectively approving his boss’s approval. After that, I had to see the District Officer, a smiling woman with a complicated hairstyle who put down her tea and biscuits to stamp the minister’s letter, appending her own approval to the other two approvals. A friend who works closely with the Ministry of Education shrugs when I tell him this anecdote. He explains that the Senator’s Permanent Secretary—said to be a staunch Zanu PF supporter—is apparently involved in a war of attrition with his MDC minister, almost, my source says, as though he does not want the minister to succeed.

I decide to limit my visits to the schools to which I have a personal connection: a writer visiting her old schools to write about them, I reason, is an entirely different thing to an unknown person walking into strange schools, even with ministerial approval.

Besides, I am lucky to have gone to five schools in Zimbabwe, six if I include the University of Zimbabwe.

“Why so many?” my photographer, Rudo Nyangulu asks.

I explain to her that I am of the generation that started school in Rhodesia, continued in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and finished in Zimbabwe. Those were the days of social mobility, of dismantled racial barriers. I did the first year of my primary education at Chembira Government Primary School, did Grade 2 at Kundai Government Primary School, and then did Grades 4 to 7 at Alfred Beit Primary School before completing my secondary education at St. Dominic’s Secondary School and St. Ignatius’ College. It is to these old schools that Rudo and I turn in the company of our driver, Innocent.

My first school was Chembira School, the first government primary school to be built in Glen Norah, a black township established in the early 1970s. There were more children than there were school places, which meant that about 80 pupils shared a classroom, with a group of children coming to school in the mornings and another in the afternoons. Until the classroom cleared, my classmates and I sat under a tree with our teacher. “Hot seating” only ended when a new school opened the following year.

What Zimbabwe did particularly well in the first twenty years of its life was to correct the racial injustice that had denied quality universal education to the majority of the country’s black children.

Behind the administration block is the tap from where we drank water in our cupped hands. “A DAY IN SCHOOL IS A GAIN ON ETERNITY” says a notice on the board inside the reception. Below this is a large poster outlining the school’s plans for the next five years, the most ambitious being to build a new block of classrooms. When I tell the deputy headmistress that I am an old pupil, she welcomes me with a hug of delight, especially when I mention where I have been since 1978. This being Zimbabwe, it turns out that she knows one of my aunts—they did their teacher training together in the 70s.

Hot seating is back again as there are simply too many children for the available classrooms—1, 315 in all. Glen Norah is in the catchment area of the Hopley Farm informal settlement, she explains, which means that they have many children from very poor families. The BEAM programme is important for them, the deputy head says, and shows me a group of parents assisting in sorting through applications in the staff room.

By the BEAM programme, she means the “Basic Education Assistance Module,” a donor-funded scheme that aims to ensure that children from poor families stay in school: it is aimed at what its multilateral donors call OVCs—orphans and other vulnerable children. They have their fees and levies paid for them and are supplied with uniforms and stationery.

“But what about children not covered under the BEAM? Would you expel children whose parents cannot pay fees?’ I ask.

There have been several stand-offs between schools and the Ministry, with the latter insisting that schools cannot expel children for not paying fees, while schools point out that without fees, they are unable to run. In addition to the government-set school fees of about 20 dollars for a term of three months, there is the “development levy,” which varies from small amounts at the poorer schools to hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars at the better-off schools. The levy is charged directly by each School Development Association—the SDAs are made up of parents and teachers. Faced with a perpetually broke government, the SDAs have been the drivers of school development. In fact, the plan to build a new classroom block at Chembira is an SDA project.

“We do not expel children,” the deputy headmistress says. “You find that many such children have just one parent, and so, even if they are not orphans exactly, they will be covered somehow.”

She tells me that the SDA levies at Chembira have enabled them to pay for two extra teachers, and for their Traditional Dance coach. The school has won the country’s leading Traditional Dance competition for school children. Last year, Chembira came top in the whole country, she tells me proudly.

“We are doing really well. We have an excellent coach,’ she beams, “Someone who really believes in his job.”

Does the same commitment extend to the classroom, I ask. Are their teachers as committed to excellence as the dance coach?

“There are challenges,’ she admits. “There are simply not enough teachers for all the children.”

As we walk around the school, I meet the two oldest teachers; they must have been there when I was, I prod them eagerly for memories of my old teacher, but 1978 is too far in the past. Our tour of the school coincides with break-time. The children, eager for any diversion, follow us around. Rudo’s camera is like a magnet; they jostle to have their pictures taken. As the deputy headmistress tries to keep the children at a distance, I ask her about the pressures facing the schools. She tells me what I will hear at the two other primary schools I will visit: that the Grade Zero classes are adding pressure to already pressured schools.

In 2005, the government introduced an Early Development class, ECD, informally called

Grade Zero. It was intended to address the reality that not all parents could afford to send their children to crèches, which were all privately run and tended to be expensive.

The idea was that all children should, before the formal start of primary school, be equipped with the social skills they need to start school.

A wonderful initiative in theory, but, as with many things in Zimbabwe, the devil was in the implementation. The government did not build more classrooms to accommodate

Grade Zero children, who need toys, picture books and specialized learning aids. In the first few years, there were no teachers who were properly qualified in early childhood development. Many government schools were already struggling with too many children, falling infrastructure and indifferent and unmotivated teachers, if they were not absent. Grade Zero has thus added more children to schools without accompanying improvements in infrastructure.

“We really want to educate poor children but we can’t educate anyone without money, no?” says Sister Elizabeth.

I remark to the deputy head that Chembira has the same number of toilets it had 30 years ago.

“That’s when they are working,” she says, ominously.

We visit the Grade Zero classroom. It is the room that was once the library, and still has LIBRARY written on the door. Efforts have gone into making it cheerful. The floor has been carefully swept. Children learn to distinguish shapes from old boxes of different sizes. The walls are decorated with collages made of pictures from newspapers and magazines. It is woefully inadequate, and, at the same time, heroic in a way that is heartbreaking.

“When the new classroom block is built,” the headmistress says, “then this can be a library again.

“But we have no books,” she adds as an afterthought. “You see why we need help?”

To understand what has gone wrong at schools like Chembira requires an understanding of what it used to do well. What Zimbabwe did particularly well in the first twenty years of its life was to correct the racial injustice that had denied quality universal education to the majority of the country’s black children: throughout the history of the colony, state education was bottlenecked to ensure that fewer and fewer blacks had access to education as they progressed up to tertiary education.

Government schools for whites, and to a lesser extent, those for Coloreds and Indians, had the best resources, while the “Africans only” schools, the Group B schools like Chembira, suffered from overcrowding, inadequately trained teachers and no resources. It is no wonder that at independence, the government, and its first leader, Mugabe, a teacher, considered it the chief priority, even ahead of land reform, to respond to the thirst for education. But in the last ten short years of Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis, these hard won gains have been all but lost.

Chishawasha is a short drive from central Harare. It would be shorter still if the dust road from the turn off at Enterprise Road were tarred. We crawl along the dust road. The surrounding Shawasha Hills have become a fashionable new development, dotted with new houses built with new money. The valley itself remains resolutely rural: Innocent stops the car to let two small boys herd their cows along the road.

Chishawasha is Catholic Central, with four schools, a clinic, the regional seminary and a cathedral all built on land that Rhodesia’s founder, Cecil John Rhodes, gave to the Jesuits in 1890s. It is prime land. The school overlooks the old Valley of the Millionaires—after the Federation of the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland collapsed, its last Governor- General, Simon Ramsay, Lord Dalhousie, set up a farm here.

We drive to St Dominic’s Secondary school. Everything seems to be exactly the same. The redbrick classrooms. The convent with its Dominican sisters. The school hall were mass was held and where we sat exams. The statue of the Virgin in the grotto. There is Sister Elizabeth, with her gentle face and German accent, and there, Mr. Madubeko, the headmaster and my old science teacher. A highly selective girls’ school, St Dominic’s was every parent’s dream. It offered a first class education in an austere but nurturing Catholic environment, far from the temptations of town. Daughters of the wealthy mixed with girls from poor rural families, their common bond academic excellence.

“Is the school still committed to educating girls from all backgrounds?” I ask my former teachers.

“We really want to educate poor children but we can’t educate anyone without money, no?” says Sister Elizabeth

Mr. Madubeko confirms this but clarifies that even though only those able to pay fees come to the school, they aim to keep the fees low. The fees are currently less than 400 dollars a term. Sister Elizabeth explains that in years when they got donations from overseas, they could pay for girls who may have lost their parents and were unable to continue.

The more I look, the more I see changes. The library has moved to a room twice its former size. There is a new A-Level block, built in 2001, which offers accommodation for 40 girls. St Dominic’s has received an impressive number of Secretary’s Bells; at a hundred percent, the school consistently has the highest pass rate for A-Levels in the country.

“We do not take girls with less than 5 As at O-Level if they were here,” Sister Elizabeth says. “And if they come from outside the school, they have to have 8 As.” Mr. Madubeko bemoans the current pass-rate of 90 per cent at O-Level, the lowest it has been in ten years. “When I was at St Dominic’s,” I remark, feeling smug, “The pass-rate was 100 percent.”

Mr. Madubeko sighs and says that they are often under pressure to take girls who are not up to standard. One of the girls tells me later that one of Zimbabwe’s top army generals had a daughter here. An army truck drove up every Saturday to bring her food, even though this was against the school rules. Mr. Madubeko is circumspect about the kind of pressures he is under, saying only that these pressures prevent a perfect pass rate.

The same faces I crept past those many years ago, trying very hard not to attract any attention, are still here, among them Sister Elizabeth, Sister Veronica, the deputy headmaster and his wife, who teaches science, Mai Farai, the Librarian, and Mr. Madubeko himself who has been here since 1975.

For the Dominican nuns, it is clear: the convent, and so the school, is their home. “But the others, why do the other teachers stay so long?” I ask.

Mr. Mutangara, deputy head since 1987, laughs and says, “There is nowhere else to go.”

Mr. Madubeko explains it has been a stable home and a wonderful environment for his children who all grew up in the valley. It also helps, he says, that the staff receives a better salary than the ministry salary—it is topped up by money from fees. He becomes wistful as he wonders whether his staying so long has been good or bad for the school.

We move around the school taking photographs and find girls hard at work. A class in social geography is exploring the concept of equality under socialism. In the food and nutrition class, the girls are learning to make a curry. In this same room, my classmates and I were taught to make food meant for cold English winters, shepherd’s pie and toad-in-the-hole, Yorkshire pudding and apple crumble. At the end of the corridor is a literature room. There are five girls there now, with books before them, discussing Measure for Measure.

As we leave, I take a look at the school’s vision statement on the notice board. One of the aims of the school, according to this, is “preparation for life in all its dimensions, its profound meaning and transformation beyond death to eternal life.” There is no way of measuring whether the school achieves this. What it achieves without question are stellar results: twenty-three years after I left, St Dominic’s is clearly still one of the top schools in the country.

From St Dominic’s, I went to St Ignatius College as one of the 40 girls at Zimbabwe’s finest Jesuit school for boys. Our mission was partly to help the boys move with ease between the all-boys environment of Form 1 to 4 to the co-educational A-Levels. With us, they got used to girls before being unleashed on an unsuspecting world. But we were there mainly because Mary Ward, a forward-thinking English nun who founded the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, now called the Congregation of Jesus, dreamed of setting up girls’ schools on the Jesuit model. The Mary Ward girls, as we were called, shared classes with the boys.

We received a first class education.

Since its establishment on 1962, St Ignatius has educated generations of brilliant boys from poor and modest backgrounds: better-off families in search of a Jesuit education tend to send their sons to St. Ignatius’ posher brother school in town, St. George’s College.

When I visit St Ignatius with Rudo and Innocent, it is like stepping into the achingly familiar. I was very happy here. The school is built on a hill, with the Chishawasha valley on one side and a view of the Valley of the Millionaires from Mary Ward House. Rich red earth is everywhere, at one with the red bricks of the well-maintained buildings. Father Roland von Nidda, the rector, is expansive in his welcome. He takes us from classroom to classroom. My visit inspires him to invite me to the Prize-Giving Day as a guest of honor.

Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, likes to say that the real scope of the tragedy of Mugabe’s most recent years in power is that he has destroyed not only what he inherited at independence, but also what he built himself.

It is here that I see my old school at its very best.

I speak to the boys and girls about what the school meant to me, about the Jesuits priests and Mary Ward sisters who taught me, about the fierce ambition they burned in me to not only do exceptionally well but also, in the words of St Ignatius of Loyola, to find a way to set the world on fire. I tell them about my little rebellions, abandoning Catholicism for Buddhism, only to find myself as lonely as my headmaster Father Berridge had predicted: I would probably be the only Buddhist in Zimbabwe, he had said.

“I also want to be a Buddhist,” whispers a small Form 2 boy to me later, as I give out his prize.

Father Von Nidda emphasizes in his speech that the school aims for a holistic education.

Over tea, he tells me that he wants to send into the world compassionate young men and women with critical minds. “And they are so bright,” he says. “My goodness they are bright. I do worry though that some of them take religion too seriously.”

The prizes follow. The sun hits my eyes as I give out certificate after certificate, for best A-Level results, for the top ten in each class. There are school colors in volleyball, swimming, netball, rugby, soccer, basketball and chess. It is inspiring to see both the fierce competition and the pleasure in the pursuit of excellence. There is humor and camaraderie in the competitiveness. Peels of ululation ring out as exultant parents dance little jigs to celebrate their children. The teachers are just as competitive. They receive prizes for every record they break.

As I hand out their certificates and congratulate the A-level students who did exceptionally well in both the Cambridge and Zimbabwe school examinations, I ask where they are headed, and what they will read.

“I will do medicine in South Africa,” says one.

“I am off to York University in Canada,” says another.

They want to study medicine and accountancy, law and engineering, architecture and actuarial science.

“If I can’t go anywhere else,” the former head girl, Nancy Kachingwe, tells me, “Then it will have to be the University of Zimbabwe.’

Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, likes to say that the real scope of the tragedy of Mugabe’s most recent years in power is that he has destroyed not only what he inherited at independence, but also what he built himself. My journey around my childhood confirms that, far from being an enabler and builder, the government has actually been an inhibitor and destroyer. The successful schools are those where government interference is felt the least, private schools that, untainted by government control, have managed to thrive.

Even in the government schools, though, all is not quite lost. Individuals have managed to make a difference, even against the odds; ordinary people like the headmaster and teachers at Kundai; the engaged parents in the SDA at Chembira. Even Alfred Beit, which fell the furthest of my previous schools, has barely hung on because parents have agreed to pay more fees than government demands.

It is hard to shake the sense I got that money has replaced race in Zimbabwe. In Rhodesia, race determined whether a child was guaranteed a good education. In post-crisis Zimbabwe, it is now class that is the determinant. It is the ability of the parents to pay that determines whether their children get a good education. A Zimbabwean PhD student has written a thesis that argues that this generation of children will be less literate then their parents, a terrifying possibility that brings with it the specter of social upheavals to come.

In one respect, the Zimbabwe of my education is the same Zimbabwe today. It is a country filled with children who manage to find happiness in difficult circumstances, who make toys out of bricks, who study in the light of candles, and who are filled with imaginations and ambitions that are bigger than the collapse of their failed state.

Photographs by Rudo Nyangulu.

Petina Gappah

Petina Gappah is a lawyer and writer. Her first book, An Elegy for Easterly won the Guardian First Book Award in 2009 and was a finalist for the Orwell Prize and the LA Times Book Prize. She currently lives in Harare.

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