It is Friday morning and Help Mabwe is preparing to give the illicit lessons of the day. In the back of his house, the teacher has created a classroom with an old canvas and some wooden posts.
A few broken chairs and benches, and an old blackboard complete the furnishings of the Mabwe backyard university in Kuwadzana, a township 15 km west of central Harare.
Faced with the indefinite closure of schools in Zimbabwe, this garden classroom is the only option for many children and young people in Kuwadzana.
The country’s schools were closed in March 2020. Some began to reopen in October for students to take exams, but all were closed indefinitely in January when Covid cases began to rise again.
The closures led to an almost 10% drop in the number of children who passed their national seventh grade exams last year. More than 80 schools did not register any passes.
“Homeschooling is the answer to the current dilemma that we find ourselves in,” says Mabwe, as he welcomes students arriving for a sociology conference.
At Mabwe’s home university, students pay $ 10 (£ 7.25) a month, while the poorest children, mostly orphans, can study for free, he says.
“There are cases where parents cannot pay for lessons. We can have a gentlemen’s agreement. There are some children who are orphans, so we take about 10 and teach them for free.
“This is also part of our corporate social responsibility. We are in the community and we want to serve the community. We are not driven by money, but by the need to improve life. “
Some of his students arrive without eating. “It is one of the factors that contributes to a low approval rate. I wish I had the resources to feed some of them, ”says Mabwe.
Home schools have sprung up in Harare municipalities, but the government has warned teachers should not open their own classrooms, claiming that these are illegal under lockdown rules. The government has banned gatherings of any kind due to the recent increase in the number of cases. Since the pandemic began, Zimbabwe has Recorded more than 35,000 coronavirus cases and 1,400 deaths.
Before Covid, the government was already beginning to crack down on teachers establishing private universities, or charge fees take extra classes outside of the normal school day to subsidize low wages.
Unregistered private universities have been the subject of frequent raids by police and municipal officials. Some officials have demanded bribes to keep them operating, teachers say.
“Despite the setbacks, we are seeing good results,” says Mabwe. “We have problems with the authorities. The city council and education officials always harass us but at the end of the day we want the children to win. We want education to win.
“We are passionate about teaching. There are several teachers who teach like backyard schools, but they are working well. “
During the lockdown, the government wants students to learn through online classes and radio lectures, but Internet access is considered a luxury and the costs are prohibitive for the poorest families.
“Trying to teach lessons online doesn’t work,” says Moud Maenzanise, a teacher who transformed her terrace into a teaching area for five students. “Sometimes a teacher needs physical contact with a student because [otherwise] you will be producing a half student.
“There is a need to assess the physiological capacity of the student and online lessons do not allow it. We need to build the whole person, but we cannot do it online. The online lessons are for the rich in the north, but here in the ghetto parents can’t afford that. “
She adds: “We always make sure to improve. We would like the government to give us recognition, instead of having constant battles with them. It is a problem of overregulation. “
Mernard Mapuke, who has turned his garage into a makeshift classroom, says thousands of children in municipalities are at risk of dropping out of school.
“Every time I talk to some of these kids, I can tell they are no longer interested in school. The only solution is to help them at home while we wait to go back to school. If not, we are creating a very dangerous society, ”says Mapuke.
“There is absolute poverty here … but we want the child of the ghetto to understand that education will end the endemic poverty, which is associated with the ghetto. We always instill in them a culture of believing in themselves. Therefore, we need to carry out these lessons, ”he says.
But the President of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), Raymond Majongwe, described the teachers establishing homeschooling as “bad apples” who were exposing children to Covid-19.
“The real tragedy is that quality assurance becomes a problem in these schools. But the closing of schools has created a vacuum, so people are responding to that. Even bad apples are also teaching, ”says Majongwe.
“We need adequate systems. This is why hospitals cannot just open everywhere, the education system should be like that too. These backyard schools cannot be the solution. “
Majongwe urged the government to address teacher complaints about salary and conditions to ensure better test scores this year.
Teachers in Zimbabwe are paid the equivalent of $ 50 a month. Last year, tools were removed above payment and lack of personal protective equipment in schools.
Mabwe is committed to continuing to run the university in his home tent. “These backyard schools are their students’ only hope.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism