Zimbabwe Schools

History teacher Knox Sonopai is witness to the rapid depletion of educators at Mufakose 3 High School. “You’d come to school and someone’s not there and next thing you hear, he’s gone,” he said. (Jeffrey Barbee / For The Times)

Mufakose, Zimbabwe

The first to go was the English teacher. Six months later, the commerce teacher followed. The next year, 2005, the trickle turned into an exodus. By 2007, the departures from Mufakose 3 High School were like bricks in a collapsing building: math, science, accounting and many other teachers, all leaving their careers behind to work as cleaners, shop assistants, laborers in other countries.

Zimbabwe's education system, once the best in Africa, is being demolished teacher by teacher.

Some of the teachers at Mufakose 3, outside the capital, Harare, called in sick and were never seen at the school again. Others didn't bother to call and just disappeared.

"You'd come to school and someone's not there and next thing you hear, he's gone," said Knox Sonopai, 43, a history teacher at Mufakose 3.

In 2007, 25,000 teachers fled the country, according to the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe. In the first two months of this year, 8,000 more disappeared. A staggering 150,000 teaching vacancies can't be filled. The Education Ministry sends out high school graduates with no degree or experience to do the job.

In a country where the official inflation rate is 100,000%, teachers simply can't afford to teach.

Before last month's national elections, teachers went on strike to protest salaries of 500 million Zimbabwean dollars a month -- about $10. Their salaries went up 700% to end the strike (paid, perhaps not coincidentally, just before the vote) but the raise is being gobbled by hyperinflation.

"One hundred percent of teachers have resigned, mentally, even though they remain in schools," said the teachers union president, Takavafira Zhou. "They're no longer interested in teaching. They're just looking for somewhere to go.

"The education system is a vital hub of the country. It has a ripple effect. In the long term, the country will suffer very much."

Francis, a teacher at neighboring Mufakose 1 High School who declined to give his last name for fear of dismissal, said 60 of 110 teachers there left last year.

"Every holiday we lose more teachers," he said.

Last October, history teacher Sonopai and a colleague, Clever Mudadi, 33, gambled their lives crossing the crocodile-infested Limpopo River into South Africa. They tried to get work as teachers but ended up as laborers digging foundations for about $15 a week. In the end, humiliated by the work, they turned around and went home.

"It was bad," Mudadi said. "We lost a lot of weight. We felt hurt. I can't describe it."

"We never expected to do that kind of work, but we had to do it," Sonopai said. "We had no option. We were stranded."

Mudadi, whose first name, Clever, seems to have shaped him from birth to be a teacher, has a young, boyish face and pauses thoughtfully before putting anything into words. Sonopai's face is long and mournful. He is the more talkative of the two.

They're men with calm, cautious voices and soft hands used to chalk dust, not spades and blisters and days of toil. When the pair talk about their South African adventure, they seem almost pained by the memories. There are soft sighs. They stare vacantly. Teachers used to be some of the most respected people in Zimbabwean communities, but now "you are the laughingstock of the community," said primary school teacher Richard Tshuma, 35.

"When you are going to the shops because it is payday for teachers, people laugh at you and say it's better to be a street vendor selling vegetables. You'll make more money."

At rallies before the elections, which saw the ruling ZANU-PF party lose its parliamentary majority for the first time in 28 years of power, President Robert Mugabe made a point of giving out computers to teach children computer literacy.