As the young senior student at Tabudirira primary school hits a huge iron metal dangling from a tree, which serves as a bell, a bong sound fills the air of the school yard, sending about 300 children, most of them without uniforms, scampering to the assembly point where the Zimbabwean flag is hoisted on a pole.
The school functions as one but does not look like one.
The establishment is a pole-and-mud structure with a grass thatch while the other classroom block is an abandoned old farmhouse.
Except for a few, the pupils, as they stream to the assembly point, run barefoot.
“We enjoy being at school; what we want is to get educated and change our lives,” Agrippa Chumunorwa, a student at the school, says.
“Most of the pupils you see around here are orphans and some come from very poor families, but at least we have people sending us to school,” adds Chamunorwa, who is 14 years old and in Grade seven, the highest primary level of education and the highest level at the school.
Zimbabwe’s primary level of education starts from Grade one and ends at Grade seven.
86 percent pass rate
The primary school-going age in the southern African nation is generally from six to 13 years old.
Records from Mutoko District Education office in Mashonaland East Province indicate that Tabudirira Primary school, last year boasted an 86 percent pass rate for Grade seven examination results.
And true to the statistics given in the public domain, the school here has turned out to be one of the makeshift structures contributing to Zimbabwe’s over 90 percent literacy rate, this amid reports that Zimbabweans generally value education over everything else.
But UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics in 2015 estimated that 83.6 percent of Zimbabweans aged 15 and older were literate in 2011.
According to the UNESCO estimates, several other Sub-Saharan African countries had higher literacy rates than Zimbabwe, including Equatorial Guinea (94.2 percent), South Africa (93 percent) or Gabon (89 percent).
Meanwhile, a 2015 survey titled Financial Wellbeing Survey Report: Priorities of the Zimbabwean Employee, showed that most Zimbabwean employees prioritized school fees ahead of other expenses.
The report was compiled by Memory Nguwi, who is the managing consultant of Industrial Psychology Consultants, a Zimbabwean management and human resources consulting firm.
Education, a basic human right
“Regardless of how much an individual earns, school fees, food, rent and accommodation still remain the most important things that employees consider when spending their money,” the report said.
And since independence in 1980, this Southern African nation’s government has always prioritized education by giving it the highest allocation in its national budgets.
Education in primary and secondary public schools was declared by President Robert Mugabe to be a basic human right.
But that has not been the case when it came to upgrading school infrastructure over the past three decades.
As a result, several makeshift schools like Tabudirira in Mashonaland East Province are still suffering from poor infrastructure 37 years after Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain.
Still, the increasing number of makeshift schools across Zimbabwe’s rural and urban areas have performed against all odds, producing better-than-expected academic results.
“Hard work has produced the results we enjoy here even though we teach our pupils in temporary structures,” says a teacher at Tabudirira Primary school who refused to be named for professional reasons. “There are no classrooms, but our pupils are very hardworking; that’s why they do well despite the challenges we have.”
Over 1,400 makeshift schools
The thriving makeshift schools, some of which are run by indigenous entrepreneurs are not only in the country’s rural areas, but the urban areas as well.
“We have no proper classroom facilities even here closer to the capital city and although our pupils do well in their studies, they also learn under trees exposed to the vagaries of weather,” says Marylyn Sigauke, a teacher at a makeshift school in the Caledonia informal settlement just outside Harare.
According to the Ministry of Education, Zimbabwe has 1,425 makeshift schools in both rural and urban areas, this despite this country boasting about the strides it has made over the years in the education sector, which many rights activists however dismiss.
From 1980 at independence, Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF-led government has advertised the investments it made in 5,753 primary schools and 2,312 secondary schools, employing over 70,000 primary school teachers to date, 90 percent of whom are qualified teachers.
“Developments in education such as the building of more proper schools in Zimbabwe ended in the early 1990s and all the schools that have followed are mere temporary structures and one wonders how teachers are managing to produce good results. Really, Zimbabwe with proper schools infrastructure would be amongst the best in terms of education globally,” says Claris Madhuku, director of the Platform for Youth Development, a civil society organization.
In 2014, Education Minister Lazarus Dokora, went on record claiming his Ministry had secured a 23-million-dollar loan facility from China to improve the infrastructure of makeshift schools.
While literacy is assured in this Southern African nation, the rest is not.
Based on statistics from Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, approximately 30,000 students graduate annually from the country’s institutions of higher learning, this amidst the country’s official unemployment rate of 10.7 percent, which in reality, however, stands above 80 percent of the adult population of this country of 13 million people who have no formal employment.