INSIDE a scruffy room, Blessed Garimoto sits on an old single bed. On the floor are dirty pots strewn around and a plate with a few dried vegetables stashed in a corner. Outside, only a small portion of the yard is neatly cleared. Long dry grass and blackjack thorns surround it. Sounds from outside fill the room through the window. Birds chirp and goats bleat. Garimoto is only 17, but was living alone in Rusike village, east of Harare and about 15 kilometres from his home, since he was 14, when he started his first year in secondary school.

“My grandparents decided that it was better for me to temporarily stay here to be closer to school because there are no secondary schools in the resettlement area where we reside,” said Garimoto. The teenager has been under his grandparents’ care since he was eight, following his parents’ divorce and his father’s relocation to South Africa.

“I was afraid of going to live alone, but I was counselled and told living alone was a part of growing up,” said the reserved boy.

Garimoto’s grandparents relocated from Rusike village, where he goes to school, to Belvedore, a farming area in Goromonzi, Mashonaland East, in 2007, after acquiring land through the land reform programme. The programme was undertaken by former President Robert Mugabe’s government to address land ownership disparities between the white minority who owned most farms in Zimbabwe when the black majority who owned a small fraction. Through the programme, which started in 2000, the government distributed over 6 000 properties previously owned by white farmers to more than 168 000 black Zimbabweans, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Although the programme partly addressed the land dispute, a new challenge emerged. Most of these commercial farms previously owned by white farmers did not have schools. Most white owners enrolled their children in expensive boarding schools — which they could afford — or drove them to faraway schools where they could access the best education.

Black farmers who later occupied this land now had a new challenge: Where would their children go to school if they wanted a quality education? Although boarding schools were an option, they were too expensive for some.

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A temporary solution becomes a permanent problem

The country needed a solution to bridge the gap between the few available schools and thousands of newly-settled farmer’s children. The government offered a quick fix, establishing primary and secondary “satellite” schools as a short-term measure.

The name is derived from the fact that these satellite schools were an extension of the few established schools available in these farming areas, said Caiphas Nziramasanga, an education expert who led the Nziramasanga Commission on education in 1999 and a former lecturer with the University of Zimbabwe’s department of education. The satellite schools remained unregistered and had no proper infrastructure. In some areas, tobacco barns were converted into classrooms.

Shumba, a teacher who asked to be identified by his totem, said parents rent their children rooms close to school for various reasons, such as a lack of schools in their communities or a preference for schools far from home with a higher pass rate.

“The established schools provide supervision and all administrative work for the satellite school,” Nziramasanga said.

Two decades later, access to education challenge in these areas persists. Satellite schools intended as only a temporary solution, remain the only option available to many. They are inadequate and continue to face significant challenges such as lack of proper infrastructure.

To provide their children with better education, some parents and guardians, like Garimoto’s grandfather, enrol their children in schools far from their homes — sometimes many kilometres away — they then rent accommodation for them in nearby villages or rural business centers. This is despite Director’s Circular Number 5 of 2011 on access to education in Zimbabwe, which states that learners should not travel more than five kilometres to access education.

The arrangement is more common among those seeking secondary education, as Zimbabwe has more primary schools than secondary schools. According to the 2021 Annual Education Statistics Report, Zimbabwe has 5 329 registered primary schools compared with 2 090 registered secondary schools and 1 087 satellite primary schools compared with 876 satellite secondary schools.

While the arrangement allows students to access quality education, say sources who spoke to Global Press Journal, it affects their well-being, academic performance and leaves them vulnerable to abuse and peer pressure.

Longing for home

Garimoto said living alone makes him an easy target for thieves, who can easily monitor his routine. They already know that, for most of the day, he will be in school. Thieves have broken into his house and stolen his belongings. He has other concerns, too, such as running out of food. Sometimes when this happens, he survives on one meal a day. On many days, he just longs to be home.

Blessed’s grandfather, Damiano Garimoto, said that before the government resettled his family, they had access to schools in Rusike.

The 86-year-old said when the government allocated him land, a government representative promised to build schools, he  had hoped it wouldn’t take too long.

“Till today nothing has been built. It pains me that Blessed stays far. You always have fears of what might happen to him when he is alone,” said the elder Garimoto.

Because of his age, he is unable to walk the long distance and often has no money to visit his grandson. But he must get used to the arrangement, as he cannot give up his land to be closer to a school. It helps that his grandson is close to completing secondary school.

Admire Chikukwa, 19, a Form 6 student who lives with his brother, said they moved from their home in Murehwa, a rural area in eastern Zimbabwe, because no schools close to his village offered high school education. The pass rate for secondary schools in his area is also low. At first, the two brothers found a room in a rural business centre in Rusike. They paid 16 United States dollars a monthas rentals. But the environment was unfit for students.

“It’s a busy and noisy area, and it was hard to get time to study because of the distractions. I had to make sure each day I study at school and go home after I had done all my school work,” he said.

Chikukwa said the disruptions affected his grades.

“I believe if I was in a different environment at that time, I could have attained A grades in all my subjects at O-Level [secondary school] but I got five A’s from 10 subjects,” he said.

A villager who lives in Harare offered the brothers his house for free while maintaining it and garden. Although it’s a quieter environment and the independence that comes with living alone is great, Chikukwa said sometimes he needs parental guidance and comfort.

His situation does not deter him. “I want to be an actuarial scientist and I have to ensure that I pass with flying colors,” he said.

Tsitsi Mguwata, a counselling psychologist based in Mutare, said children or teenagers living alone can face psychosocial and economic challenges such as hunger, starvation, dropping out of school, trauma, stress, exploitation and vulnerability to abuse.

“Anxiety disorders which may involve panic or excessive worry can be one of the most prevalent emotional disorders experienced by this age band, especially when they stay alone with minimum parental support, supervision and empathy,” she said.

Mguwata adds that anxiety, distress and depressive disorders can profoundly affect school attendance and lead to social withdrawal, isolation and loneliness.

“Till today nothing has been built. It pains me that Blessed stays far. You always have fears of what might happen to him while he is alone.”

 “Behavioural disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, characterised by difficulty in paying attention, excessive activity, eating disorder and acting without regard to consequences are likely to be common among adolescents who stay alone,” she said.

But Mguwata said such behaviours cannot be entirely linked to living alone because learners living with their parents also experience these challenges.

Living alone only increases the levels of exposure, she said.

Shumba, who asked to be identified by his totem, has been teaching in rural Zimbabwe for more than 20 years. He said that students whose parents rent them houses close to school do so for various reasons.

“For some, there are no secondary schools in their communities. For others, it’s because they are looking for a school with better pass rate or there is no provision of A-Level (high school) at the available institutions,” Shumba said.

These rented spaces do not offer students an environment conducive to devoting themselves wholly to learning, Shumba said. Additionally, students end up taking on parental roles, which denies them a chance to be children.

“Sometimes these situations affect the grades that the children attain at O-level or A-level and most end up taking professions that they never intended to venture in because of poor grades,” he said.

He adds that the government initiated low-cost boarding schools for children living far from schools, but only in a few communities.

“There is need to move fast to establish these schools to protect the children who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, drug abuse, among others,” said Shumba.

Work in progress

But Taungana Ndoro, the spokesperson for the Primary and Secondary Education ministry, said the government is still working to find solutions for resettled farmers.

“In every area where resettlement took place two decades ago, we have schools within the vicinity of those communities. Resettlement is ongoing, people are still being resettled and we work to ensure that we construct schools in those areas,” said Ndoro.

Ndoro adds that the government is addressing the issue in areas without a secondary school within a kilometre radius.

Meanwhile, the government has implemented low-cost boarding facilities, he said.

“To the very few areas where they are not close to schools, we have initiated low-cost boarding where the students travel on a Monday, have matrons and stay at the school for a week, then travel back home on Friday,” he said.

Although farmers like Blessed Garimoto’s grandfather celebrated after acquiring land through the land reform programme, the move presented a new problem: the lack of schools on the previously white-owned farms. They grapple with the problem even today.

Ndoro did not provide data on where these areas are or how many low-cost boarding facilities have been implemented. He admits there are students staying in rented accommodations but said the number is very low.

“They face challenges similar to what child-headed families face, but obviously they do not stay very far from school and we make sure that we assign senior teachers to oversee them even when they are not in school. We still check on them,” Ndoro said.

Obert Masaraure, the national president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, said in places where the government has not established proper schools, parents must come up with private initiatives that enhance the chances of their children accessing a quality education. Failure to do so will only perpetuate inequalities.

“Learners who are unfortunate and fail to access right to education are condemned to perpetual poverty,” he said.

Despite the challenges Garimoto faces, he said he still enjoys the independence that comes with living alone.

It “gives me ample time to do my schoolwork without other pressures, because at home there will be a lot of work that needs to be done, and it eats in my time for studies,” he said.