'So difficult to turn my back on my kids'

19th June 2009 at 01:00
With teachers in Zimbabwe facing violence from Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF, one who fled to Britain reveals how she was forced out of a job she loved

It was when she saw fellow teachers being beaten by members of their own families that Tich Kanjanda knew she had to leave Zimbabwe.

The 38-year-old primary teacher left her job, husband and two young children in Harare and sought asylum in Britain. Her case has been highlighted by the British Red Cross during Refugee Week, which started on Monday.

Although she loved her job, life as a teacher was not easy for Ms Kanjanda. Staff shared a basic house on school premises, 37 miles from the nearest town. They were underpaid, their classes overfull, and pupils regularly had to sit on the dirt floor.

So teachers were particularly keen to support the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai's opposition party, when it was set up in 1999. It promised improvements to their lives, as well as the lives of their pupils' families. Last year, it signed a power-sharing agreement with Mugabe's Zanu-PF, but this has done little to heal political divisions.

"We didn't think it (support for MDC) was dangerous," said Ms Kanjanda. "We used to speak openly about opposition parties. But MDC became a threat to the government. If they (the government) didn't act, MDC would be in power."

And so they began to act. A group of agitators for Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party visited Ms Kanjanda's school and began upbraiding teachers in front of their pupils. Then they made the teachers dance publicly to punish them for their support of MDC.

"We had to dance because we were afraid of being beaten," Ms Kanjanda said. "But you feel belittled. You just lose your confidence. You're humiliated in front of the kids. You're a teacher; they have respect. And we lost that respect."

Shortly after, Ms Kanjanda volunteered as a monitor during a local by-election. Again, Zanu-PF workers sought her out. She had not listened, they said. She needed to be punished.

Other teachers at the school were also being threatened, beaten and intimidated, often by their own relatives. "I knew I had to go," Ms Kanjanda said. "I was in danger."

She and her husband sold as many possessions as possible to raise money for an air ticket to London. She left behind her husband and her sons, aged two and four.

"That was the most difficult thing. So difficult, to turn my back on my kids," she said. "I didn't know what would happen to them when I left. The government might say, 'OK, you've left - we're going to attack your children.'"

It took Ms Kanjanda a year to raise the money to bring her family to Britain, and another four months for their visa to be cleared. By the time they arrived, her youngest son no longer recognised her.

"He was clinging to his father all the time," she said. "It was so hard. I wanted to hug him, but he didn't know who I was."

Now Ms Kanjanda has acquired British citizenship and is training to become a mental health nurse.

"I miss teaching. I do. When pupils excel in exams, you know you have given them that knowledge," she said.

"But at home kids respect the teacher. It's different here - there's a lot of frustration. But I hope to become a tutor at nursing. I'd like to go back to teaching at a different level.

"Of course, it's very difficult, to have everything in Zimbabwe: my parents, my in-laws, my brothers and sisters. But enough is enough. I've suffered enough."

- www.redcross.org.uk

SCHOOLS LEFT EMPTY

Teachers have been targeted by Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, which treats them all as opposition activists. As a result, many teachers and their families have been abducted, tortured, burnt alive, or had their homes torched, according to Amnesty International.

At the start of term in May 2007, local education workers estimated that 5,000 teaching posts remained empty because teachers were too fearful to return to school. A significant number fled the country, usually to South Africa or Botswana.

Schools, particularly in rural areas, have been closed by Zanu-PF supporters, who occupy the premises and use them as military bases. Campaigns against teachers were again stepped up during national elections in 2008.

Those teachers who remain in the country fear they will be similarly vulnerable during the next elections in 2010.

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