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Preparing for the best but fearing the worst

Venture just 15-minutes out of leafy, downtown Harare and you will find some of the capital’s oldest and most neglected suburbs. Today they are home to those displaced by Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 and bear living testimony to the real state the country is in.

On the road out of Harare proper we pass swathes of people walking out the city. They stick their thumbs up for a lift as we pass. Due to astronomical inflation, finding local transport in Harare is about as easy as finding a bus in a London snowdrift. Cars are broken down, fuel is a luxury and if you catch a local bus the chances are you’ll be getting out to push every time it stops – which from my experience of African buses will be a lot!

Apparently to catch a bus the short ride into town costs US $1 for 2 people so you have to travel with a partner to make it worthwhile – that is if you can find yourself a dollar in the first place. It’s really no wonder then that people are trying to hitch a ride with us!

As we steam out of town on the highway we enter lush countryside, picked out with Zimbabwe’s famous rock formations. They look familiar and then I realise that they also grace the face of the 10 trillion dollar bill in my pocket.

We pass clusters of small supermarkets and peering in I can see the empty white shelves. Since the government’s approval for the use of foreign exchange, everything is paid for in US dollars or South African rand. These precious notes are like gold dust and so for the smaller shop owners and poorer consumers the foreign currency isn’t making much difference.

Unexpectedly, my first impressions of the suburb we’re visiting are quite heart-warming: Rows of neatly tended gardens, children playing hopscotch in the street and parents looking on watchfully as they sit together and chat in the afternoon sun. But things are not what they seem.

The gardens and in fact every spare inch of earth around is crammed with maize, growing tall and green. Desire for maize (used to make Sadza the nation’s staple dish – looks like porridge, tastes like mashed potato) is so high that people have been trading their only cattle for just a few bags. This impromptu and unbalanced bartering system is a result of the financial crisis and constitutes an extreme coping strategy.

The children are playing in the street because most have not returned to school after their extended Christmas holiday. Without proper wages many qualified teachers have left the country. Those remaining are mostly too busy surviving to teach children that cannot afford to pay school fees in foreign currency.

Many parents I meet are unable to pay these fees or find enough goods to pay in kind with. As a result their children simply haven’t been able to resume their education. For a nation whose education system was once a shining example in Africa, with 90% primary enrolment rate, this is a heavy blow.
We paid a visit to a local school that we are supporting with education materials, training and an early-childhood-development programme – something the government has said should be available in every school, but because of the recent economic disaster this initiative has received virtually no support.

The grade zero classroom (as its known) is characterised by bare walls, devoid of appropriate furniture or anything resembling toys and games; the poorly supported teachers making the best of a desperate situation with charades and songs – a far cry from the nursery education provided back in England.

I spoke to the head-teacher who is preparing for the best but fearing the worst. Her dynamic and positive nature is emulated in the school motto – “It’s better to have a target and miss than to have no target at all”.

While we discussed our programme she tended to parents enquiring about the ways that they could pay their child’s fees. She told us about the school’s lack of toilets and broken borehole, which have made ensuring proper hygiene a serious challenge in the face of the cholera epidemic.

The cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe has now killed over 3,000 people and infected over 60,000. This is the worst outbreak in Africa for 15 years and is forecast to continue for the whole of 2009.

If schools like this one don’t receive support to bring the water and sanitation system up to scratch soon, serious risk could be posed to teachers and students; many schools are not even able to raise the funds for mops, buckets and detergent.

In some areas public gatherings are banned because of cholera fears and one infected child in school could lead to a devastating outbreak; yet education is seen as vital by the local communities and so no one wants the schools to shut.

Like this head-teacher, every Zimbabwean I’ve met has been extremely determined, dedicated and optimistic about their country. Perhaps people feel that things can now surely only get better.

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