Death, spies and Aids: another day at school

As stricken Zimbabwe enters an uneasy power-sharing alliance, Paul Martin reports from Harare on the plight of its teachers

By day, Raymond Majongwe works as a teachers' union leader. But he is better known in Zimbabwe for his protest songs, which are distributed secretly and which voice his anguish and hopes for his strife-torn country.

"Now is the time - to forget the anger and hatred of the past, to bury the hatchet, and to bury the AK-47s and come together," one of his songs goes. "Now is the time to unite."

Raymond, a tubby, engaging 38-year-old, and his wife Loice, who is also a teacher, have seen colleagues arrested, abused and killed. The Majongwe family has been subjected to a range of intimidation from the authorities ever since he became an official of the Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe.

"They even cut the house's electricity for 33 consecutive days, while the houses next door all had power," he recalled, between frantic phone calls to harassed union members. "It's obvious why."

It was early morning. I had just slept at the Majongwes' bungalow in a middle-class, previously white suburb of Harare. Raymond had collected me from Harare airport the night before, at one point veering down a side road to avoid a suspect tailing vehicle.

I had almost got no further than passport control because I had made an ill-advised quip. The immigration officer was examining the British passport of a traveller ahead of me, and had stamped it.

"Oh, so you do let British people in here," I said.

"See what lies they spread about us, and people like you believe them," the officer snapped. "I don't know why I should let a person like you in."

But he did. I was masquerading as a South African trade union official, with an old and seldom-used South African passport. If they found the small video camera I was carrying to make a documentary, I would say I wanted to show my trade union colleagues the continued work of teachers in Zimbabwe. If found, I hoped I would simply be expelled from the country, rather than being unveiled as a journalist, detained and beaten up.

Teachers get paid Z$200 (new Zimbabwean dollars) a month. The new denomination was created after inflation became so ludicrous that the central bank slashed 10 noughts off the currency. But 200 of these dollars buys next to nothing - perhaps 20 loaves, if you can find them. I saw women furtively selling bread at night on street corners.

Loice Majongwe works at one of the very few good-quality state schools left in Zimbabwe, a relic of the colonial days when its education system was seen as the best in Africa - for all races. Sprinklers swish across the smooth hockey and soccer lawns. Next door, a neighbouring school's stagnant swimming pool and weed-ridden fields trigger memories of better times.

It is no surprise that schools are decaying. Teachers are in the front line, and were singled out by President Robert Mugabe and the ruling Zanu- PF party earlier this year as "enemies of the state", even though the president is a former teacher.

According to Raymond, Mr Mugabe is right to recognise that teachers pose risks to dictatorships. "They know we open children's minds and give them courage, and those are two things the authorities fear most," he said. "Some of our teachers, especially in rural areas, have been spied on and betrayed by other teachers. Our teachers have even been betrayed by children telling their Zanu-PF parents what teachers have said in class."

Raymond took me to a graveyard outside Harare. A headteacher lies buried there, alongside about 80 people who have been killed in this year's violence. "He was shot through the head in June - a day after being abducted - with a single bullet," said Raymond as he put flowers on the grave, a simple mound of mud. "First, though, he was severely tortured, and badly burned."

The union knows of four more of its members killed in what they say was cold blood.

Later, Raymond drove me through an empty industrial zone towards a secondary school. Half a mile away, he stopped. "Too dangerous for me to go in - the guards at the school gate are Zanu-PF and they all know who I am," he explained. I'll be arrested and so will you."

Instead, some of his more anonymous union officials went into the school. From behind a tree, they doled out goods to the teachers: maize, flower, tea, toothpaste - all items in short supply and all unaffordable.

At another school, we were invited to the prefects' room, where several of them, including the head boy, were keen to speak to a foreign journalist. But soon a teacher burst in and demanded that we leave. "He's the only Zanu-PF teacher here; I didn't know he'd been promoted," said one union official. We left, wondering whether the teacher would call the police.

At nearby Mutasa Primary, we watched teachers inside their classrooms. The head was absent; in fact, more than half the staff have gone AWOL or disappeared, some from political pressure, the rest because of demoralisation and extremely low pay. We have replacements who often don't even have any A-levels," said teacher Charles Mubwandarikwa. "Many sell cool drinks and ice-creams and oranges in the playground to supplement their income, you see."

The fabric of the school is deteriorating, but the neatly uniformed children are still there. As I walk in, they stand and chant, "Good morning, Sir."

The pupils, all aged nine, show considerable knowledge of the scourge of Zimbabwe - the Aids epidemic. "It comes from sharing blades and needles," they told me. One child had lost an auntie; another boy said his sister had Aids but was still alive.

Charles, their teacher, carries scars from a beating at Zanu-PF headquarters, but the English lesson he teaches is tinged with political correctness - about a child who warns the black "freedom fighters" when soldiers from the former white regime are about to pass, so that the guerrillas can set off landmines.

"They beat us with iron bars and clubs - but when we later went to lay a complaint with the police, the cops accused us of starting the violence," Charles recalled. He says more than 7,000 teachers out of a workforce of some 80,000 are considered "displaced people", unable to return to their jobs or homes.

Raymond's union has been campaigning against HIV among teachers and pupils, and against abuse of girls by adults. Posters on both subjects adorn the walls of schools and the union offices. Other posters decry the Mugabe leadership. There is also a photograph album depicting injured people in gruesome close-up. "That's me," said an office staff member, pointing to a picture displaying a jaw with most of the teeth missing.

But could this brutality be a thing of the past? Raymond is astonishingly optimistic. "I see a great future for Zimbabwe," he said. "What makes me proud is how little violence there is on the streets. Despite all we have gone through, Harare is still the safest city in Africa."

His union is part of the unofficial civil opposition to Mr Mugabe. On his paper-strewn desk is a wildlife poster that appears to show a leopard being chased by an antelope.

"This photo means we cannot be the prey any more," said Raymond. "From now on we are going to be the hunters."

Paul Martin, editor of World News amp; Features, has made a film with Zimbabwean teachers.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you