HARARE, 29 January 2008 (IRIN) - Two weeks into the new term, Tatenda Marimire, 13, has spent more time as an unpaid errand boy for his school than getting to grips with algebra, because there are no teachers. Like most civil servants, educators have increasingly stayed away from work to seek other sources of income to survive hyperinflation.
"We are spending most of the time cutting grass, cleaning dormitories and running errands for members of staff that have reported for duty, and this makes us feel like young workers without salaries," he complained. "We don't know where the teachers are and if we will manage to learn at all."
The Zimbabwean government has been struggling to pay its employees inflation-related salaries and the education sector has been one of the worst affected by the eight-year economic crisis. On 24 January the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), the country's biggest group of educators, issued a statement calling for a strike over general unhappiness with recent salary hikes.
The union had asked for a minimum monthly salary of Z$1,770 million (about US$321 at the parallel foreign exchange market rate of Z$5.5 million to US$1) for at least the first quarter of 2008, but only Z$141 million (about US$25) per month was put on the table.
The government has not publicly released official inflation figures for the last two months but the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that the rate has reached 100,000 percent and is still rising.
Too weak to teach
"We are stressed, our bodies are weak and our minds numb," said the PTUZ statement. "Prolonged exposure to poverty has destroyed the professional person in us. We are facing a slow death."
Low teacher morale, the brain drain, inadequate financing, poverty and hunger were some of the challenges the education sector was facing, according to the 2004 government progress report on the UN Millennium Development Goals.
Many teachers have sought to supplement their meagre salaries by cross-border trading, illegal gold panning, informal foreign currency trading and even sex work.
The PTUZ statement said reporting for work would only deceive children and their parents into believing that meaningful learning was taking place at schools, whereas it was not: "We do not want to convert classroom blocks into shopping malls and shopping centres. We do not want to covert our students into customers."
A senior teacher at Marimire's school in Chitungwiza, a town about 30km south of the capital, Harare, admitted that they had been affected by the shortage of teachers.
"Even the strike that PTUZ is calling for would be meaningless because the teachers are just not there [because they have left the profession or even the country], and through interaction with my colleagues in and outside Chitungwiza and Harare I have heard that the situation is bad in almost every school, with private schools being less affected," said the teacher, who did not want to be named.
The school was unable to pay the salaries demanded by private tutors and had approached university students awaiting the start of a new semester in March to help out temporarily. "This is just a way of managing the crisis, but we are lost as to what permanent solution we can have. Teachers have been abandoning classrooms over the years, sometimes without even bothering to tender their resignations, but this year seems to be the worst."
In another statement urging parents to support their strike, the PTUZ noted that more than three million Zimbabweans have fled the country to seek economic refuge in other countries. The brain drain has also acutely affected the health, construction, engineering and manufacturing sectors.
Many parents are angry because their children are receiving little or no education. According to the latest statistics by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Zimbabwe still has an overall literacy rate of over 90 percent, the highest in southern Africa, which analysts attribute to an aggressive policy in the 1980s that aimed to bring about universal education.
But the high inflation rate has drastically undermined the allocation for procuring teaching and learning materials, according to the government's Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture.
Primary school enrolment rates were above 90 percent in 2004, but attendance and completion rates have been dropping because of rising costs, which have also affected the quality of education: in 2004, the Grade 7 examination pass rate was 67 percent and the textbook-pupil ratio was low, ranging between 1:6 and 1:10 in all subjects, according to the ministry.
"Yes, this country might have one of the highest literacy rates on the continent, but the falling standards in the education sector are definitely bound to drastically lower the quality of local qualifications," commented John Sakarombe, whose daughter is in a boarding school outside the city of Gweru in Midlands Province.
When he visited her recently, his daughter complained of erratic food supplies and power cuts, and said they had to cook their own meals because most of the kitchen staff had left. The pupils have been forced to use the bucket system because the school did not have the funds to hire plumbers to clear the blocked sewer system, and this exposed them to communicable diseases, he added.
"I feel cheated and am fed up," said Sakarombe. "I paid more than one billion dollars [in school fees] - not easy money to raise, especially as we are coming from the Christmas holiday ... but this is what I am getting."
Some schools even urge students to buy groceries for their teachers, because the prices of commodities have now risen beyond the reach of the majority.
In an attempt to help the poor cope with high prices, the government announced this week that it would be introducing "People's Shops" to cater to low-income groups.
According to the official Herald newspaper, industry and international trade minister Obert Mpofu said the shops would ensure that disadvantaged groups and people earning very low incomes could buy basic commodities at affordable prices.
The concept has been borrowed from Angola, which has allocated US$1.5 billion to build such shops throughout the country.