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Cottages at Lupane Business Centre used by children as boarding facilities. Image by Calvin Manika, March 2023
In Matabeleland, remote schools have brought with them a host of challenges. However, the local community has banded together to develop innovative solutions that have yielded impressive results. By working collectively, they have found ways to overcome barriers such as long distances, exorbitant boarding costs, and lacklustre academic performance.
This story is part of a reporting series supported by the Pulitzer Centre.
LUPANE (The Citizen Bulletin) — Jane Moyo* 16 walks approximately 22 km to her nearest secondary school in Lupane, Matabeleland North.
“We are used to the distance and walking. It is just that most of our time is spent on the road travelling to and from school. At home I need to do homework and help my grandmother,” says Moyo.
Moyo is among learners in the district who have to walk long distances to and from school.
Local secondary schools are located in remote areas and learners have to travel long distances to reach them.
Lupane district has two public high schools with boarding facilities and these accommodate a few learners. The rest have to walk long distances to attend day schools.
“The time spent walking should be spent studying,” says Bongani Masuku, a parent.
Francis Ngwenya, a local councillor says every ward should have a school.
Although there is no public data showing the distribution of schools per ward in Zimbabwe, data from the annual Ministry of Primary and Secondary Schools (MoPse) shows that Matabeleland has fewer public schools than other regions in Zimbabwe.
In an effort to provide a better educational environment, parents appealed to local business people in various shopping centres to provide affordable boarding houses for learners.
At Lupane business centre which is near the popular Mabhikwa High School and St Luke’s business centre near Zwangendaba High School, most learners have found relief from this arrangement.
A similar model has been used in Binga and Tsholotsho.
“Around here, we have Mabhikwa High school, it is one of the highest-performing schools in Matabeleland North, unfortunately most of our locals do not afford school boarding facilities,” says Evans Mashonganyika, a Lupane-based businessman.
“When parents approached us, we realised that we have some rooms behind our shops which we can accommodate children at a low fee which is affordable.”
Evans Mashonganyika, businessman in Lupane
The collaboration between parents and the business community is more than a business opportunity; it is an example of community parenting. Most shops near reputed schools had empty rooms. Parents pay monthly to renovate rooms to make them hospitable.
In some instances, business people drive children to school when it rains or rush them to the clinic. In return, parents bring goats as a token of appreciation.
Matabeleland North's poor public education infrastructure has led to low-cost boarding and child renters. The Citizen Bulletin has previously reported about the issue, in stories which are part of this series.
Depending on the location and amenities, boarding facilities in shopping centres might cost $20 and $30 per month. Parents claim that the rent is inexpensive compared to conventional boarding schools.
They applaud the business people for putting in the extra mile to protect their children in makeshift boarding facilities.
“It is not easy to entrust someone with our children. However, the owners in most cases assume a parental role and monitor their activities while at their place of residence. It makes our lives easier,” says Masuku.
Research shows that girls have a higher risk of sexual abuse among children who travel long distances. Most rural girls struggle to complete Form 4 after falling pregnant while some learners engage in drug and illegal substance abuse.
Some of the makeshift boarding facilities have solar systems which provide light to students during load shedding. Image by Calvin Manika, March 2023
“It is very unfortunate that as owners of improvised boarding facilities unlike school boarding facilities, we can do literally nothing in that space,” says Mashonganyika.
“We do our best here at home but when one is on her way to school we will not be around. Most of these girls feel more independent now. The energy they once used for walking is now converted into sexual activities. We are losing them,” says Mashonganyika.
Previously, many girls fell victim to home-based boarding facilities after becoming pregnant. Parents whose children fell pregnant say lack of supervision was to blame.
They admitted that creating boarding facilities out of school bounds is a learning process and they are improving each day.
Girls are protected by giving them a preference for safe rooms, ideally ones near their landlords. To gather information on their foster children's inappropriate behaviour, parents and business owners have developed a variety of surveillance techniques.
Mashonganyika says the mitigation measures are effective.
“We spy on our young girls on their way to school to prevent them from falling victim to sexual activities,” says Mashonganyika.
“In addition, we know the distance after knocking them off and calculate the time they will be here. If there is anything, we always ask. The secret is to assume parental responsibility rather than treating it as a business.”
According to UNICEF Zimbabwe 2023 - ‘Back to school for All’ message, government education spending was below the agreed global target of 20%.
Pro-development activists say reaching the 20% target is needed to ensure access to quality education for all children including those from marginalised communities.
Those behind the initiative say load shedding is another challenge faced by learners housed in those boarding facilities.
“During night studies, load shedding is the greatest drawback for these children. Some of us with large solar systems provide them with light but others are unable to. They use candles.”
Siphelile Ndlovu, a shop owner
“We want to ensure that studying is better than what they were used to in their rural homes.”
In November 2020 during his visit to St Paul High School in Lupane, then Vice President Kembo Mohadi said the government was working on eradicating “bush” boarding facilities which expose girls to dangers.
Bush boarding facilities comprise shacks that accommodate pupils living far away from schools without boarding facilities. In these makeshift compounds, there are no basic facilities such as toilets and bathrooms.
Business people spearheading the initiative argue that their facilities are different from bush boarding as they offer children decent accommodation and help them attain their academic goals, a service the central government fails to deliver.
They say they make sure day scholars in their residence study with their counterparts at boarding schools.
“Despite the small money, we are doing this to help our community and make education more appealing to children,” says Ndlovu.
“We also learn from other communities like Nkayi and Tsholotsho which are doing the same. As they prepare for exams, we need to help them attend night study sessions with those residing in school boarding facilities.”
Magonganyika says they have learned a lot from the initiative despite its shortcomings.
“We have learnt that we can use local resources to uplift our community and make education accessible even to those at the bottom of the ladder,” he says.
“Our collaboration teaches us that access to education starts by finding each other as people in the same community. It must not be a wealth competition.”
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