BY JOHN MOKWETSI
CHINHOYI, Zimbabwe – Timothy Hoba, 12 years old, sits on the edge of the wooden bench with five other Grade 4 students in a classroom at Newlands Primary school in Chinhoyi, Mashonaland West. He is lucky to have that seat in a space that is packed with 34 students, forcing some to sit uncomfortably on the concrete floor. The classroom measures 5 x 5 metres: a floor area of only 25 square metres.
The roof is made of iron sheets that make noise as they rattle on a windy afternoon. They are supported by decaying wooden beams that have become home to termites and cobwebs. It is unbearably hot inside and the teacher keeps the door open to allow in some fresh air. The beams that support the roof are weather-beaten and in different states of decay. The rainy season has started and there is evidence that in the previous season, rain dripped down through the cracks on the walls. The structure that was built using homemade low-quality bricks – known popularly as farm bricks – has white paint that has since turned a shade of yellow and is peeling in some areas, a sign of dereliction.
Timothy is candid: “We are too crowded in this classroom and at some point, one of the iron sheets was blown off by wind, and during the rainy season we had to relocate to the special class. The room is usually hot in summer and cold in winter. Despite the fact that the roof was fixed there are still holes that let in water. There are bugs that also have made a home in this class.”
Newlands is situated 10 km from Chinhoyi town and about 100 km from the capital, Harare. Reaching the school requires travel on a rocky off-road for about a kilometre. The school was developed in two farmhouses that are 200 metres apart and once belonged to a commercial farmer. The first house accommodates Grades 4 to 7 while the other is inhabited by early learners aged 3 to 5, and students in Grades 1 to 3. Newlands was opened in 2003 after the country’s fast track land reform programme. It has an enrolment of about 400 students. The area’s population includes both resettled farmers and illegal gold-panners.
“When one of us has flu and they decide to come to school, it is easy to [catch it]. At one point one of us had chicken pox and we did not know it and it ended up affecting some of us. Although we have many books it is hard to read in class because most of us feel sleepy all the time,” Timothy said.
The farmhouse rooms, which have since been turned into classrooms, are each crammed with than 60 students, some using benches as desks. The white ceiling made of cardboard has partially caved in and sags dangerously, while water stains from the leaking roof, form uncoordinated shapes over what exists. One of the rooms has no roof and has since been turned into storage space for firewood. The walls are littered with graffiti. The perimeter fence that once kept stray domestic animals at bay has given way. The previously pristine house used to have electricity, but the now-vandalised sockets mean there’s nothing but darkness at night.
About 50 metres from the farmhouse, a new modern building has been constructed and has brought a lot of excitement in the resettlement area and to students like Timothy. The school started construction of the block in 2018 after it became a beneficiary of the School Improvement Grant (SIG) that has helped many disadvantaged schools in Zimbabwe.
The grant was made possible thanks to the Education Development Fund (EDF II), 2012-2020: a multi-donor pooled funding mechanism supported by UK aid from the UK government and the German Development Bank (KfW). The SIG is a component of the Education Development Fund (EDF). The EDF enables donors to jointly support the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education is its activities, with UNICEF managing the funds and providing technical support.
Timothy is excited: “Everyone wants to be in those classrooms and the teacher said we will have more space and will not have to squash on one bench like now. I am happy that we will not have to change classes whenever it rains or feel sleepy when it is hot.” Timothy whose parents are deceased stays with his aunt and uncle about a kilometre from the school. He said his family survives on subsistence farming and selling vegetables. Timothy dreams of being a teacher when he finishes school.
Ms. Chengetai Mashaya, acting Deputy School Principal of Newlands Primary says: “We have benefited a lot from the School Improvement Grant. We are not short of text books because we received those about three years ago, before we got the grant for this infrastructure. What is fundamental though is that we have started to build a block that allows our students to have a safer learning space. The situation now is that we are crowded and there is a lot of interference because classes are not sound proofed.”
Chengetai explained that because the farmhouse was dilapidated and small, it caused a lot of health hazards and most parents discouraged their children from coming to school. “There is new hope in that we are finishing up this block that will [accommodate] two grades and we will also build another one. This will help free-up space and encourage learning. The rain is coming and my fear is that [the old farmhouse] is no longer safe. Only last week a roof was blown away. The worst could have happened. We have lost furniture before. You will now understand why the SIG is making this community hopeful. Our aim is to build six blocks eventually,” Chengetai revealed.
Chengetai said after the construction of the new block, the school was chosen by a technology company, GoDigital, to benefit from their social responsibility programme of providing internet to vulnerable schools. “This block has given us more benefits because we are starting to resemble a proper school. Parents who did not take us seriously, are starting to participate in our construction of this block. Even companies are beginning to look at us differently and willing to invest more. Education must win,” said Chengetai, who as she outlined that eLearning was important in modern ways of teaching. She also hopes that the school will soon be able to re-establish electricity infrastructure.
As class comes to an end, the excited children of Newlands Primary, clad in their maroon uniforms, run out onto the dusty open space to play, drowning out the sound of dogs barking in the distance. For a moment, before leaving the classroom, Timothy pauses clutching his English text book – a prized possession – and reaffirms his dream. “One day I want to be able to teach others. It is a job I would love to do. If I do not make it as a teacher, I want to be a driver so that I can see other places.” And with that he runs out to join his classmates.