Navigating a field of red mud that covered the potholed road, the scene in front of me was beautiful and desperate side by side, a scene that has become the dramatically contrasting face of Zimbabwe that we see every day, everywhere we go, 41 years after independence.
On the left water cascaded out of a cleft in the rock, run-off from the kopje above, sparkling in the sun, filling the streams, reviving the vegetation. Shoulder-high grass and big trees, their bark dark after days of rain, their leaves clean, green and shiny. On the rock face in every crack and crevice, there are thick tussocks of grass and sedges.
And the Resurrection bushes have all come back to life.
This amazing plant, which spends most of the year as a tough, scratchy curl of brown sticks, comes back to life with the rain, transforming into dense bushes covered with small, aromatic leaves.
On the roadside facing this spectacle is a small home-made wooden shack, tattered plastic on parts of the roof, a blackened pot upturned on a rock. Two children, barefoot and in ragged clothes, bored and staring, watch me navigate the muddy road. One holds out a chicken for sale. On the right hand side of the road a small, skeletal, emaciated dog stands, hair raised, staring up a tree where a huge eagle sits, eyeballing the animal; fear in the eyes of one, superiority in the eyes of the other, the epitome of life in Zimbabwe today.
As I continue along the mud-crusted road the faces of the children give life to the story I’ve been hearing from people desperate after a year without education for their children.
One father from a rural area told me that his nine-year-old son had been in school for six weeks and three days in 2020, and not for a single day yet this year.
Desperate for education
Desperate to educate his boy, they went to the rural school where the child is enrolled but the headmaster sent them away: there were no provisions for Covid-19 protection, no piped water even, and there were no teachers. Returning to the school some weeks later they pleaded for books, lesson notes, anything they could spare so they could try and teach the boy at home. The school had nothing.
Parents contacted a teacher and he wanted US$1 (R14.65) per child for a morning if there were a group of children; US$5 (R73.27) a morning if there was only one child.
A group of children gathered at a private house but it wasn’t safe, no running water, no social distancing; the village leaders said this was too risky with Covid-19 and put a stop to it.
There is no electricity or internet connection here so in desperation the father went to the nearest town and bought the only two text books he could afford that were suitable for his son’s age. The boy’s mother now tries to teach him at home. Mostly she can only manage an hour or two twice a week because this is the main growing season, the fields have to be planted and cultivated, the vegetable gardens tended and weeded, the livestock herded, firewood gathered, water carried, food cooked.
National pass rate a failure
Last week the government announced that 327 559 candidates sat Grade 7 examinations in December 2020 and the national pass rate was just 37.11% – a shocking figure, but unsurprising when you know that only a very small percentage of children had access to online learning, private tutors or any structured teaching at all.
A government spokesman blamed teachers for the 37% pass rate and Robson Chere, secretary-general of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (Artuz), said: “Last year was characterised by total incapacitation of teachers who were earning less than US$50 [R732.65 a month].” Artuz advised government that no exams should be administered for the simple reason that “learners did not learn”, but no one listened to the advice of the teachers.
A glimpse into the past
With these facts heavy on my heart I waved to the children and their chicken on the roadside and proceeded along the muddy, eroded road, eventually arriving at the place where I was going to see an ancient San rock painting. Through the tall grass, over the fallen branches, round the big rock, a short scramble up to the huge concave boulder and there the paintings are: an enormous elephant, hunters with spears, bows and arrows, an aardvark and an ostrich.
Overwhelmed with the emotion of this land and the images of then and now, I walked back into 2021.
Sitting in a tall, empty granary three metres above ground with a tatty thatched roof, three children sit and watch. In a nearby field of yellowed, flooded maize two young teenagers guide the oxen pulling a cart.
We exchange waves and my heart aches at their lost year of learning.
These are the custodians of Zimbabwe’s magnificent legacy, of paintings one or two thousand years old. What would their paintings today be?
Cathy Buckle is a Zimbabwean writer and blogger living in Marondera, Zimbabwe.
Copyright © Cathy Buckle