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.
At Mufakose 1 High School, 10 new computers were donated last year by the government. But only one is still working, and students never get to touch it. It’s been taken over by school office workers for typing letters.
In most schools, computers are a dream. Even textbooks are so scarce that 35 children must share one, according to the teachers union. Children sit crammed 80 to a classroom, sometimes on the floor.
At Mufakose 3, schoolboy Bernard Tinashe stared straight ahead with dreamy eyes as he painted a 10-year-old’s vision of someone in a white coat curing the dying and the sick. He recited his hopes and dreams in a singsong classroom voice, as if learned by rote.
“I-want-to-be-a-doctor-because-I-want-to-give-people-medicine-when-they’re-sick. Sometimes-they-don’t-get-medicine-because-in-this-country-there’s-no-medicine. To-learn-is-the-best-thing-in-Zimbabwe-so-that-you-can-be-educated-so-that-you-can-learn-something-that-you-can-do.”
When there aren’t enough teachers or there’s a strike (a frequent occurrence these days), children are sent home or spend the day outside playing.
“School’s boring,” Bernard said, “because there are no teachers and we don’t learn anything. You just sit and read books but the teachers are not there. Sometimes we are just sitting on the ground or sitting waiting for our parents to come and get us and then we’ll go home.”
He said some of the children were mischievously delighted when classes were canceled, but not him: “It makes me feel unhappy. I’ll never get to be educated. I’ll never get to be a doctor. I’m not learning.”
With education standards plummeting, the pass rate for the high school exams called the O-levels fell from about 70% in the mid-1990s to 13% last year.
The higher education system is equally troubled, starving Zimbabwe’s hospitals of doctors and the mining sector of engineers. Zimbabwe’s mining sector, the country’s last significant source of exports, needs 1,100 skilled specialists.
“The technical institutions have been smashed,” said Tony Hawkins, an independent economist. “We can’t regenerate our own skills.
“There are these myths about Zimbabwe having this highly educated workforce. Well, we did, but they have all gone. The second myth is that they will come back with a change of government. But the more skilled you are, the less likely you are to return.”
Catherine Mangwaira, 31, of Mufakose despairs for the future of her 14-year-old daughter, Privilege, a bright child who wants to be a flight attendant. It’s a dream Privilege feels slipping through her fingers.
“She had good results in grade 7,” Mangwaira said. “She says, ‘I love school, but l’m not learning anything.’ She’s even forgetting the things she’s learned before.”
Sandra Chiramba, 13, is so shy that she can barely whisper her hopes. She wriggled and looked away in an agony of embarrassment. She has trouble articulating her fears of how a poor education is ruining her future.
“I’m worried,” was all she could whisper. There was a long, painful silence. And suddenly her tears spilled, too many to catch on her fingertips.