After exactly 28 years, I returned to my old school, Gokomere High School, last week. As I left the Harare-Masvingo Highway, driving up the gravel road to the school, the familiarity of the scenery gripped me so strongly it felt eerily like the clock had wound back 20 years.
The old football pitch which greets you as you break out of the dusty farm road from the highway, the classroom blocks to your right, the dining hall at the opposite side, the junior boarding hostels next to it, the Grotto — still standing majestically right ahead — and that imposing structure housing the headmaster’s office bearing the bold inscription of the proud and powerful school motto: “Vincere Caritate/ Conquer with Love” — all brought memories flooding back to the best days of my life.
There are, of course, new structures planted all around the school — evidence of growth and development — but it is one such new structure that struck me dumb, and has continued to haunt me since that visit.
I saw pupils streaming in and out of pit latrines! I could not believe my eyes but true, there, right in front of me, boys — my age 30 years ago — were using the long drop toilet at Gokomere High School.
The headmaster later told me pit toilets had been put up at all students’ hostels way back in the early 2000s when water supply systems “collapsed”. But how could this have ever happened? How could one of the country’s best schools have gone through such regression?
Blair toilets would have perhaps been better. They are a hygienic revolutionary design for a long-drop toilet, odourless, very clean and free of flies. A pit toilet is taking things too far in this age!
If it was a desperate stopgap measure, then it should be that — a stopgap measure!
The headmaster said water runs from the taps only three times a day — one hour in the morning, one hour in the afternoon and one hour in the evening.
Those are the only times that students are allowed to use running-water ablutions. After the hour, all toilets are closed and it is back to the pit latrine!
The cause for this desperate situation is as painful as is the sight of boys and girls running to relieve themselves (supposedly even at night) in the long blocks of toilets at a school like Gokomere.
When Zimbabwe plunged into politically-driven economic chaos in 2002 and the rule of law ceased to exist, the school’s water pumps, scattered around the mission farm, were stripped and stolen. The situation was aggravated by the drought that ravaged the country that year.
Authorities had no option but to dig pit latrines, otherwise the school would have inevitably shut down. So the pit toilets came as an emergency measure to keep the school running, but let’s face it, the long drop is just not the thing at a boarding high school.
What must be avoided is perpetuation of a situation wrought upon the school by a once-upon-a-time national crisis.
School authorities — the church and administrators of the school — are doing the best they can to keep Gokomere on the country’s charts of academic excellence, but a lot needs to be done to restore the dignity of the school.
The object of my visit to Gokomere last week was a meeting of the school’s old students. There are concerted efforts to put together a Gokomere High Old Students’ Association (GHOSA). The determination displayed by members to bring change to the school provides a much-needed lift to the spirit.
Gokomere has churned out thousands of professional big brains — doctors, lawyers, engineers, business executives, bankers, teachers, farmers, politicians; you name it — people capable of returning the school to its former glory.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is a product of Gokomere, like are countless other political luminaries who occupy high offices in the land. They are expected, as are all ex-students of this great school, to plough back to the institution that made them what they are.
School authorities have warmed up to the idea of former students rekindling the fire and it now rests with individual ex-students to take up the challenge — to at least bring back water to the school and pull down the pit latrines.
In various schools across the country, infrastructure has deteriorated to unprecedented levels, forcing many children to learn in the open.
The restoration of the education system in Zimbabwe will require the adoption of cost-efficient and effective strategies by government, communities and partners, with the ultimate aim to rebuild schools to standards that ideally match or surpass those of the pre-2000 era.
Upon assumption of office two years ago, Education minister David Coltart suggested the establishment of Academies of Excellence — institutions that would be established within a framework of immediate recovery imperatives.
Whatever became of this brilliant idea, we may never know, but the fact remains that Zimbabwe’s education pride hangs precariously on the precipice if schools like Gokomere are allowed to plummet to Upper-Top standards — even toilet-wise.