Guildford United Reformed Church

83 Portsmouth Road, Guildford, Surrey GU2 4BS


Zimbabwe – One person’s experience

This month’s article describes a trip by F Herring to Zimbabwe and describes the state of education there.

In July of this year, I went on my first ever trip to Zimbabwe, joining a group from Broadway United Reformed Church in Walsall with the specific task of helping at Falcon Junior School in Harare, a school founded by Broadway’s current minister, Wilbert Sayimani, and his wife Irene. They had started the school in their local church in 2008, when they witnessed the collapse of educational provision. The school is financed privately, but the school fees are pitched so low that even less well-off parents should be able to afford them. And yet, at the end of every term the school faces the problems that many parents haven’t afforded the school fees and there is a struggle to pay rent for the premises and to pay the teachers.

We were accommodated with local families and received a wonderful taste of Zimbabwean hospitality. The families we stayed with were well enough off to be able to feed us and to look after all our needs. But we still got some insight into the difficulties life in Zimbabwe poses, even now while the country is said to be on a programme of recovery from the famine conditions of 2008.

I stayed with families where the grandparent generation was trying make ends meet without the security of drawing a pension, where they were looking after grandchildren and great-grandchildren during their time in education, while the entire economically active generation of their children were in the US, in Britain or in South Africa, supporting them from abroad to the best of their ability. Any food left over from our table was gratefully received by worse-off neighbours.

The daily power cuts were impacting particularly harshly on school life. During our third week, there was no available power during school hours on any of the days. We had brought along computers and had installed an IT lab in the school, but the timetable for giving the children computer education was dictated by the availability of electricity. In town, there was no evening street lighting, and evening power cuts meant traffic lights were out of order and there was massive traffic chaos in complete darkness. Police are not usually available, as they are needed to man the ubiquitous road blocks. Apparently, revenue from the fines they impose is needed to pay police, civil servants and teachers… Many residents are despondent about these conditions, especially as ‘important’ areas like the well-off quarters and districts where government ministers live never suffer power cuts and a programme to power traffic lights with solar panels has so far only reached those areas. In the same way, affluent areas get rubbish collections, while in middle-income and poor areas people have to burn their rubbish. These fires and fumes from diesel generators during power cuts are a real burden on the city’s air quality.

The state of education is still difficult. This country, that once had the highest literacy rate in all of Africa, is now struggling to educate its children at all. The educational infrastructure has simply collapsed and people reckon it will take several generations to rebuild it. There are state schools – not entirely free, but fairly affordable – but they cater for 50 children per class and 2 sessions of different pupils per day. Some charities run low-cost private schools (like the school we attended), and those who can afford it will have their children educated at commercial private schools at a cost of $2000 per term. We had occasion to ask some school leavers about their plans for higher education, and they all talked in terms of studying in the US, Britain or South Africa. There was nothing for them locally.

On our first Sunday, we visited a Presbyterian Church in Gweru. This church is set in a deprived area of the town, and the church members witness daily how the children from their neighbourhood cannot access education. The church have now found a small house on a local estate for their minister and are using the manse on their premises as a Secondary School. They have some 100 children crowded into living rooms and bedrooms, but everybody is pleased with the opportunity to learn, and the church has great plans for building extension blocks for the school on their premises.

On our final Sunday, we worshipped at the Presbyterian Church in Mhangura, a mining town where the Copper mine closed down some 10 years ago. Since then, the only income came from occasional agricultural jobs at surrounding farms. We witnessed desperate poverty – and incredible generosity when these people gave us, a group of some 20 people, a Sunday lunch fit for a king. The only comment from them – the Lord provides!
Through common British friends, we made contact with a Zimbabwean family, Weston and Liz Muronzi, who had set up a feeding programme for AIDS orphans in their rural home north of Harare. The orphans stay in their villages with their extended families, but come daily to the Muronzi home for a meal, for education and for training in useful skills like growing food, carpentry and sewing. There are now some 200 children attending the programme, and they walk from villages up to 10 km away. There are plans to build a health centre and a primary school in the near future (www.letsgivethemhope.org).

And we were able to visit the Christian Aid Offices in Harare, where
we were given a great welcome and in-depth information about current programmes Christian Aid are involved with. All the programmes supported by Commitment for Life Programmes are taking place in the South-West of the country (Matabeleland), where there are particular problems with drought caused by climate change. They gave us details of their current programme of planting crops for drought conditions and the impressive results. Helped by support from Commitment for Life these methods have now found their way into the curriculum of national agricultural colleges.
Another thing that struck me was the country’s need to rebuild its tourist industry. When we visited tourist attractions and craft markets, we were pretty much the only visitors and were keenly aware of artisans offering fantastic goods for sale at really good prices, but of course we couldn’t buy everything. When we spent a night in a safari lodge, we came across the same phenomenon: great service, excellent facilities and no other customers in sight.