By Cathy Buckle
If only our leaders would walk in our shoes for one day. Just one day.
When a youngster came running up to my gate as I arrived home I wondered what had happened. A ball thrown into my yard maybe, a broken window perhaps, or a missing dog.
“Hello, are you okay?” I asked. Polite and courteous, the youngster greeted me, asked me how I was, shuffled his feet a bit, then plucked up his courage and asked me if he could have a book.
Just starting senior school he was looking for a copy of one of my books which is a prescribed English set-book for young seniors in government schools.
I told him I didn’t have any books on hand and was sorry that I couldn’t help him, but wished him good luck with his studies.
He walked off slowly up the hill, kicking stones, the way youngsters do to let you know they’re feeling sulky and dejected.
The book he wanted is priced at US$8.50, before the retail mark-up, a fortune in a country where teachers’ salaries are less than they were in 2018 before the Zimbabwe dollar was reintroduced.
The president of the Teachers Union said this week that the recent decision to tax the US dollar portion of teachers’ salaries was not a product of collective bargaining; he described the latest government tax as ‘one-armed banditry.’
It is the latest in a plethora of one-armed banditry tactics here including a 100% increase in road toll gate fees, 15% tax on lenses and frames of spectacles, 15% tax on braille books, braille typewriters, braille watches, non-motorised wheelchairs and even crutches. It’s all become so obscene, so punitive.
Year after year, decade after decade through Zimbabwe’s decline, I seem to be writing almost this exact same column; nothing has changed and yet there is such a hunger for knowledge in our country.
Off to school …
Early in the mornings out there on the main highways, through the suburban neighbourhoods and down the country roads, the children are heading off to school before most people are even out of bed.
Lines and lines of them, little poppets walking miles to school every day.
Rain or shine, they are there in their bright purple or navy blue or bottle green uniforms, satchels on their backs, walking to school – along the roads, single file down invisible paths in the towering green grass, or dodging puddles on red, muddy country roads.
Many of them walk barefoot, their shoes laced together and hanging around their necks so they don’t get them dirty before they get to school. Around little muddy puddles near the schools you see them laughing and joking, taking turns to wash the mud off their legs before they put their shoes back on.
On the highways, if you wave at them when you pass by, you catch their excited voices on the wind, laughing and calling out hello, little hands up everywhere waving back.
It’s such a romantic, emotional picture I can paint for you with my words but nothing is ever as it seems.
The harsh reality
The reality is that teachers are on a rolling go-slow because they just aren’t being paid enough to even get to work, let alone pay rent, buy food and medicine or buy an $8.50 English literature set book for their own child.
We can only draw our own conclusions about how much learning is going on in those schools because last week, when the 2023 Zimbabwe School Examinations Council O-Level examination results were released, only 29.4% of candidates across the country had managed to pass five subjects.
Waiting at a traffic light near a very fancy brand-new shopping mall in a Harare suburb, a young man caught my attention. Perhaps 19 years old, he stood at the traffic lights holding a cardboard sign and in charcoal he had written two words: PLIZ HELP.
It wasn’t that long ago he too had been one of those little poppets walking to school, through the tall green grass, shoes round his neck, waving excitedly.
The irony of it hit me in the face, and then the shame of it.
There was a long line of big fancy vehicles in front of me waiting for the lights to change, but no one helped him.
As I drew near I put my window down and held out a few dollars to the youngster. He patted his chest in gratitude and took the money and that was it, a fleeting moment and our lives went in different directions.
I know what I saw in that youngster’s eyes in that brief moment at the traffic lights; it’s a look so many of us here have had at one time or other in the last 24 years in Zimbabwe as we navigate endless cycles of disputed elections, political turmoil and economic crisis. If only our leaders would walk in our shoes for one day. Just one day. If only.