Two teachers were conducting lessons — one teacher on one end of the classroom and the other at the other end with about 20 pupils ranging from ages six to 15 all squeezed into the small room learning how to read and write.
Signs of deprivation were clearly visible among the students as some of them walked barefooted on the cold classroom floor while others had slippers (pata pata), and a few lucky ones had tennis shoes.
These are the piteous conditions of children in Rugare, Harare, who attend a bridging school every day that is meant to teach children of any age who have never attended any formal school to read and write.
The makeshift single classroom has visible potholes — but the teachers running the bridging class tried as much as possible to make it look like any classroom at a formal school where one would see charts of the alphabet and numbers on the classroom wall.
One of the teachers, Mharidzo Zihove, pointed to a chart with Shona words using a dry, long stick cut from a tree as children read and constructed sentences using the words.
The teacher on the other side, Theodore Shano, could be heard posing mathematical mental questions to his class and the children shouting the answers back to the teacher.
According to Zihove, who doubles up as director of the bridging class and teacher, as well as wife of Apostolic Church of Pentecost Zimbabwe (Rugare branch) Pastor Henry Zihove, the children were mostly orphans who had never attended any formal school due to lack of funds.
Zihove said the bridging school was not a formal school, but was meant to introduce the children who had never attended school in their lives to numbers, reading and writing so that they could later join formal schools in Rugare.
“I launched the bridging school in 2011 after I noted that there was too much deprivation in Rugare and many children often loitered in the streets and did not attend school,” Zihove said.
“Initially, my plan was to introduce a feeding programme for children who were hungry so that they can get fed during lunch on a daily basis, but I later changed my mind and decided to develop a playground for them so that they could play games after feeding.”
However, Zihove said during the time she played games with the kids she noticed that some of them were unable to read and write, while others were school dropouts.
“After feeding the children, we would play a few games with them and then dismiss them. What I noted was that after they were dismissed they started roaming the streets with nothing to do.
While interacting with the children, I also noticed that their literacy levels ranged from illiterate to those who had attended infant learning, but later dropped out of school after their parents passed away. I was touched by their plight and discussed the issue with my husband Pastor Zihove to ensure we formed a bridging school to teach the children how to read and write,” she said.
“I discovered that some of the children were 14 and even 15 years old, but they had never learnt how to read or write. My husband discussed the issue with Elizabeth Ndawana, a secretary in the church orphan care department, and she volunteered together with four other people to become teachers to the children. That is how we started the bridging school.”
Viva Network equips volunteers
While explaining how four people who were not qualified teachers managed to teach children of different ages and levels how to read and write, Zihove said a non-governmental organisation called Viva Network helped with the training of the volunteers to teach children at the bridging school.
“Viva Network helped the volunteer teachers by conducting a one-week teacher training programme. We decided to take in four volunteers so that when others were unable to report for work there would always be someone around to attend to the children. The volunteers are not given any stipends, but they do this for the love of seeing children getting a chance to attain education in life.”
She said the children who were already teenagers were given crash primary education programmes and if they were fast learners they were elevated to join Grade Five classes at formal schools after attending bridging school for only one year.
A total of 37 children from Rugare have gone through the bridging school since 2011 when it was formed. Zihove said she also managed to get four children enrolled at formal primary schools in Rugare in 2011, in 2012 five were enrolled, in 2013 the number increased to 10 children, and in 2014 they managed to enrol 12 children into formal primary school.
“First, we put the children into one class and then we assess their capabilities and performance before we upgrade them to different levels. We had a case of an 18-year-old teenager who joined the bridging class, but we later discovered she was shy to learn with small kids and we had to arrange private lessons for her. We believe that even teenagers who have never been to school can begin to learn how to read and write.
They might not necessarily get to attain high school learning levels, but at least we want them to be able to read and write so that they are abreast with what is happening in the world,” Zihove said.
One of the teachers, Theodore Shano, said they assessed the different competence levels of the children through oral and written tests.
“Their competence levels differ. Some are fast learners while others are slow. Some have never been to school while others had attended school and learnt the basics. Those are the ones who jump straight to Grade Five or Six when they join formal schools. A lot of patience is needed when teaching such children because their educational levels are different and they also come from different backgrounds and circumstances.
“We get their backgrounds and life history and file it as it would help us know how to handle each child. For example, some of the children are victims of child abuse and when we discuss such a topic during social studies lessons we ensure we use the right language and methods in order not to worsen the child’s situation. The reason why we keep their files is to ensure that if a new teacher were to take over they will not struggle to try and understand the background and situation of each child,” Shano said.
He said given a chance, the majority of the orphans and destitute children they enrolled into bridging class could easily become professional people later in life.
One of the girls, Takunda Chikunumbu, who had never attended school was enrolled into bridging class and after one year she was assessed and enrolled as a Grade Three student at a formal primary school. Her school records and performance were impressive and she came third in her class last term.
“We try to run the bridging school as any formal school. Lessons start at nine o’clock in the morning and finish at 12.30pm.
Break time is from 10.00am to 10.30am and at one o’clock we feed the children. We also do some sporting activities like athletics, football and netball to keep the children fit,” he said.
School faces many challenges
On challenges they faced in running the bridging class, Zihove said during winter some children came to school very late as they did not have shoes or jerseys and they preferred to warm themselves in the sun.
“We have shortages of textbooks, exercise books and pens, as well as teaching aids. Organisations such as Viva Network, Hands of Hope Trust, the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe and other well wishers donate books and food, but they are not enough. We need textbooks for Grades One to Seven. We also have challenges with school furniture. Initially we used benches from the church until Viva Network donated two long tables and benches for children to sit on. The classroom floor has potholes and the kids do not have protective clothing. The children use two toilets and we need more of those. We also wish to construct another classroom so that children of different levels learn in separate classrooms,” Zihove said.
She said most of the children did not have birth certificates and some of their time was spent trying to compile the requisite documents with guardians of the children to ensure they were registered at the Registrar-General’s Office birth registry.
“We have also assisted many children to acquire birth certificates so that they can be enrolled at formal schools. The church is the one that is paying school fees for the children that managed to get enrolled and it is $53 per child. Some children managed to get into the Basic Education Assistance Module (Beam) programme,” she said.
Pastor Zihove said the problem in Rugare was that most parents were of foreign origin (Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia) and used to work for the almost comatose National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ).
“Most people in Rugare are old retired people who are NRZ pensioners. They relocated to Zimbabwe to look for jobs when they were already old and by the time they retired most of their kids were still of school going age. Now they cannot afford to pay fees for their children. Some of them are orphaned children,” he said.
Beam fails to cater for children in need
The Basic Education Assistance Module (Beam) was conceived as part of the Enhanced Social Protection Project (ESPP) which was launched by the Government of Zimbabwe in the year 2000.
The programme was launched in response to worsening social conditions in the country that were causing the poor to suffer deepening multiple shocks (escalating prices of basic commodities, retrenchments and high unemployment rates, high drop outs of school children and high interest and inflation rates).
Beam is said to be the largest form of educational assistance in the country to date, alongside other interventions by the private sector, churches, non-governmental organisations, individual families and communities.
However, in 2014 principal director in the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Sydney Mhishi said only
83 000 out of 750 000 primary school and 250 000 secondary school children in need of assistance under Beam designed for children from poor families would be assisted.
Mhishi told Parliament that the reason for failure to cater for all the children was that government had allocated only $15 million towards Beam instead of the $73 million that his ministry had requested-Newsday