HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Renias Muchemi polishes a wardrobe frame among carpenters in a makeshift workshop in Glen View, a suburb of Zimbabwe’s capital. Wood shavings litter the floor, and the smells of glue and paint sour the air. In the noonday heat, sweat drips from Muchemi’s face.
Muchemi does carpentry for extra income. A secondary school teacher, he says he doesn’t earn enough to take care of his wife, three children and parents.
“Becoming a teacher was a dream come true,” says Muchemi, 34, his eyes teary. “I am regretting the profession I joined as I have now become a laughingstock.”
Zimbabwe’s public schools fully reopened in November after the coronavirus pandemic shut them down in late March. But while students have returned, many teachers remain missing.
Instructors have been on strike over compensation issues and what they say is a lack of personal protective equipment at schools, as the coronavirus continues to reveal fault lines and gaps in Zimbabwe’s struggling education system.
In recent weeks, at least eight schools nationwide have shut down for all except those taking national exams after students tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe
The pandemic has already exposed economic and regional inequities among the country’s primary and secondary students. Now it has surfaced ongoing tensions between the government and teachers, who say the pandemic has only reinforced that they are underpaid and overwhelmed.
It wasn’t always like this. Fay King Chung, minister of Primary and Secondary Education from 1988 to 1992, says that during her time in office, teachers earned up to 40,850 Zimbabwean dollars (ZWL) ($500) a month.
But over the last two decades a series of political and economic crises sapped Zimbabwe’s school system of resources, and teachers were among the casualties.
Zimbabwe’s instructors have gone on strike repeatedly since 2015. They were earning an average of 4,000 ZWL ($49) a month, and in October they rejected an increase to 12,000 ZWL ($147). In November, the government offered a minimum salary of 18,000 ZWL ($220) a month.
Instructors say that given their working conditions, the offer isn’t enough. They say they lack computers and textbooks. Some schools don’t have running water, and others don’t have electricity.
Before in-person classes restarted in November, education officials said schools would be equipped with hand sanitizers, masks, thermometers, hand-washing stations and isolation holding bays. Students were supposed to practice physical distancing and take other protective measures, such as not sharing textbooks.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe has about 136,000 teachers, but instructors say they can’t enforce coronavirus measures in classes that routinely pack in more than 40 students. (A spokesman for the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education says the coronavirus measures were designed for classes of no more than 35 students.)
Rose, a secondary school mathematics teacher for 15 years, says her school does not fully follow measures to curb the virus.
“We do not have personal protective equipment,” says Rose, who asked not to be fully identified for fear of retribution. “The masks they gave us do not fit. They look like they are for young children.”
Rose earns 11,000 ZWL ($134) a month. She boosts her monthly income by $60 by conducting extra lessons for students.
In some classes, five pupils must share one textbook, she says. “We are incapacitated.”
Shy and soft-spoken, Muchemi teaches geography and heritage studies and says he earns 11,289 ZWL ($138) a month. Some of his classes cram in as many as 60 students. Given all the work, he says, his salary falls short.
“If you are in town, you cannot even afford to buy a banana for your children,” he says. “I also dream to drive a car, to buy houses, but this isn’t happening.”
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Muchemi says teachers’ battles hurt students, too, as they aren’t receiving an adequate education. And Zanele Mutwazi, in her last year of high school in Harare, agrees.
“When we closed, we had not completed the syllabus, so we had anticipation that when we opened, we would cover more work,” says the 18-year-old. “But right now it’s a mess.”
Before schools fully reopened, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education offered digital instruction as well as learning via radio. As many Zimbabweans own neither digital devices nor a radio, lots of poorer students couldn’t access lessons.
Now students are turning up for classes, but many teachers are not.
In November, Mutwazi worried about national examinations, used to determine university eligibility. Feeling unprepared, she took extra lessons, which cost up to 1,634 ZWL ($20) a month.
“At times I do not go to school because there is no point of going where there are no teachers,” Mutwazi says. “I have no words about the situation we are in. It’s devastating.”
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Taungana Blessing Ndoro, director of communications and advocacy for the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, says Zimbabwe’s schools are operating relatively smoothly.
“There may be challenges here and there with teaching, but learning is taking place,” he says.
Paul Mavima, minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, says the government signed an agreement Nov. 16 with the Apex Council, a body that represents civil servants, including teachers. He says the council accepted the government’s offer of a 41% salary increase and an additional 10% coronavirus allowance for teachers.
“They have agreed to working on a roadmap for continuous improvement as the economy improves,” Mavima says.
Some instructors have now returned to classes at least once a week, but several of Zimbabwe’s eight teachers unions have yet to approve the agreement.
Meanwhile, Ndoro says the government is recruiting about 5,300 teachers to reduce the number of students in classes and thus ensure schools can enforce physical distancing.
Obert Masaraure, president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, says the teachers he represents want to return to work, but they are hamstrung.
“The teachers are prepared to be even fired because they feel they are dead already,” says Masaraure. “They believe what they are earning is not enough to be sacrificing their lives.”
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She is an internationally acclaimed economy and education reporter.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.