Satellite schools established in the aftermath of the country’s chaotic land reform program — and later — are in dire straits.
GWANDA, Zimbabwe—Creepy, resembling an abandoned village homestead, it is perhaps the most tumbledown building.
This old and dilapidated block depicts a former cattle ranching farmhouse with precariously cracked walls, blown off zinc sheets, broken doors and window panes, and dusty floors.
Still, it serves as a primary school for the people of Dwala, a marginalized community in Gwanda, Matabeleland South.
“The infrastructure is bad; this is not an ideal learning environment,” says an 11–year–old Grade 5 Dwala Primary School pupil who cannot be named for ethical reasons.
“It's raining these days, and the roof leaks. We all squash in one corner to avoid water dripping from the falling cylinder in other parts of the classroom,” adds the pupil who spoke to The Citizen Bulletin with parental consent.
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The Citizen Bulletin visited the school and made a glaring discovery: There is nothing resembling a school inside the school except some cluttered classroom chairs.
Learners from different grades attend lessons in the same farmhouse, except kindergarten pupils who attend theirs under trees.
The lounge accommodates grades 5, 6 and 7, with each grade occupying its own corner.
Grades 3 and 4 share a kitchen, grades 1 and 2 share a garage, while the remaining rooms — four bedrooms — serve as accommodation for eight teachers.
This is not an isolated case as thousands of learners attend ill-equipped satellite schools across Matabeleland. The schools were established during the chaotic land reform program of 2000, and later to address a rising shortage of schools across the country.
According to a 2021 report by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, Zimbabwe has at least 1900 registered satellite schools. The greater region of Matabeleland which comprises Matabeleland North, Bulawayo and Matabeleland South has a total of 349 satellite schools.
Matabeleland North has a total of 223 satellite schools, while Matabeleland South and Bulawayo have a total of 110 and 16 satellite schools respectively, official government data analyzed by The Citizen Bulletin shows.
Dwala primary has an estimated enrollment of 300 students and reels from an abject shortage of almost everything except pupils, says Ward 23 Councilor Mthokozisi Tshuma.
“Having a single class with four different grades is a disaster on its own. A pupil can't concentrate in a class where four teachers teach different subjects at the same time in the same room.”
In its latest report, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education says rural schools, especially satellite ones and those in underserved communities, remain in poor condition.
However, Taungana Ndoro, spokesperson for the Education Ministry, says satellite schools provide quality education just like mainstream ones.
“They provide quality education already,” Ndoro told The Citizen Bulletin via WhatsApp.
But several independent reports on public education gleaned by The Citizen Bulletin show that satellite schools across the country, Matabeleland included, are in dire straits.
Satellite schools have precipitated educational injustices and inequitable access to education, says Pfurai Chimhunde in his 2021 study on the emergency of satellite schools and access to education in Zimbabwe.
“Satellite schools suffer from squalid infrastructure, acute shortage of resources, rampant school dropouts and general shortage of classrooms and teaching staff,” Pfurai says.
A snap survey conducted by The Citizen Bulletin in Matabeleland South shows that primary schools such as Dwala, Mashura, Dryhook and Riverblock in Gwanda district and Ghovha in Beitbridge district, are hit particularly hard by a lack of basic infrastructure to support quality education.
Matabeleland North also faces the same problem. For example, satellite schools in Bubi, Enaleni Primary, Emhlabathini Primary and Emkhonyeni Primary are ill-equipped and struggle to meet basic standards for a conducive learning environment.
A study titled “Education on the edges: Reflection on satellite schools in Binga District” by Laison Mwiinde and Taruvinga Muzingili shines a light on shortcomings of satellite schools in Matabeleland North.
A public education pundit, Benny Moyo, says teachers are not keen to work in Matabeleland because of poor infrastructure, bad roads, and lack of access to reliable sources of water in local schools.
“All that affects children. We get the worst of teachers as the best leave,” says Moyo.
“We need a deliberate affirmative action policy which targets Matabeleland in terms of infrastructure, deployment of learning material, recruitment and deployment of teachers that are based and equipped to work in the region.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, poor infrastructure and lack of classrooms in satellite schools was laid bare.
Tshuma says classroom shortages in ill-equipped schools such as Dwala made it difficult for children to follow COVID-19 measures such as social distancing.
“With three fully packed classrooms, there was no way social distancing could be practiced,” says Tshuma.
Nonhlanhla Sibanda, a 33-year-old parent, says Dwala Primary School is not suitable for her child, but she has no other choice.
“I wish to transfer my child, but l can’t afford anything else other than Dwala Primary School,” Sibanda says.
Tuition for a single term costs ZAR300 ($US17), according to Dwala Primary School Development Committee Chairperson, Clifford Masevedze.
But most parents cannot afford the fees because of poverty, Masevedze says.
“Out of over 300 pupils, only 10% can afford to pay fees, and we can’t even think of infrastructure development.”
Since 2010, the central government’s spending on education has been fluctuating with only 9 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) spent in that year. In 2012 and 2014, the central government spent at least 30 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on education. However, this dropped to 16 percent in the year 2020, public data shows.
Data on education spending for the year 2021 and 2022 has not yet been made public. However, in the 2023 national budget, the central government promised to fund the education sector with ZW$787,8 billion (US$1,2 billion). Of this lump sum, ZW$631,3 billion (US$976 million) was allocated to primary and secondary education.
Sibongisiwe Banda says despite an 18,5% budget increase for public education for 2023, there is no positive change she hopes to see given that there is no clear government policy to fund public schools in underserved communities such as Dwala.
“The government has failed us,” says Banda, a 27-year-old mother of a Grade 3 pupil at Dwala Primary School.
Editor’s note: The reporter of this story, Melody Mpande, translated some interviews from Ndebele to English.