A GROUP of pupils march and sing like soldiers in the dust and dirt unperturbed as they troop towards their new learning centre.
The song is one of self-praise and the manner in which they sing it shows that they are proud to belong to Molo Primary School in the Bubi district of Matabeleland North province.
With their faces beaming, the pupils march for about one-and-a-half kilometres from their former dilapidated school of colapsing mud huts to brand new brick and mortar classroom blocks built at a cost of $112 000 donated by the Japanese embassy with the World Vision administering the funds.
There was no school in the Mateteni area and children had to walk 20km to the nearest school. As a result, the community decided to build a mud school in 2006 to save the children from walking the treacherous long journey to acquire an education.
Sadly though no other improvement was added to the community’s desire to have a school and mud structures remained their only source of hope until the Japanese embassy intervened and turned their dream into a reality.
From the dilapidated mud structures, the pupils were marching to a completely different environment; four blocks with two classrooms each.
While the Molo Primary School experience looks like the “lived-happily-ever-after tale”, it happens to be one of the few schools in the country that has been transformed from ruins to a proper learning centre.
Scores of schools find themselves in similar circumstances with pupils learning under trees or dilapidated structures, but unlike Molo whose cries were answered, their neglect continues with no sign of a solution on the horizon.
The toilet Molo used before the Japanese embassy intervention was a mere pit under an awkwardly grass-thatched pole -and-dagga structure.
Only a few of the people that witnessed the handing over of the new school to the community braved the strong stench to inspect the toilet the pupils used.
A teacher leading the delegates on a guided tour of the old school pointed to a few stones strewn across one of the mud classrooms.
“These were the benches,” the teacher said. “Pupils would sit and listen, but had to change positions and lie on the dusty floor when they were writing.” This also meant that the exercise books’ lifespan was shortened and pupils’ handwritings could not be perfected. One of the mud walls was smoothened and painted in black and used as a chalk board.
It was evident that the children’s future linguistic abilities were shaped on that makeshift board as there was a series on Ndebele phonetics inscribed in different colours, but not as legible as on a proper chalkboard.
Another classroom only had three walls and despite the possible danger it posed, the school continued using it as there was no alternative. The fourth side had collapsed and the best the school authorities could do was to clear the debris and let learning activities continue.
The alternative would have been to learn from outside, but as the guide teacher said, this was impossible during the rainy season.
The grass thatch roofs of two other classroom blocks were collapsing inward and there were branches at the entrance to block naughty children or animals from straying in. At the far end of the school, there are six more huts used as teachers’ houses.
“This is my mansion,” the guide teacher pointed with a smile. “The other hut is the headmaster’s office.”
The building of the brand new school was a welcome development for the Mateteni community which also played a part by moulding bricks and providing locally-available materials.
The pupils may have crossed over to new lands, but the teachers have to make do with the huts and the smelly surroundings. In fact, general housing in the community is much better than the teachers’ “cottages”.
The pupils have literally turned a new chapter, with model classrooms, but as the MP for Bubi Clifford Sibanda said, there are 20 more schools in the district which were similar to or worse than Molo’s previous state.
“Our plea is for you (Japanese embassy) and other stakeholders to extend this assistance to these other schools,” Sibanda said.
Interestingly, the old mud school was used as a polling station during the July 31 2013 harmonised elections.
While Sibanda highlighted the plight of 20 schools, Primary and Secondary Education deputy minister Paul Mavhima painted a more gloomy picture by revealing that there are about 1 500 such schools countrywide, which were mostly satellite schools. Mavhima said even some established schools needed complete overhaul or major facelift as “the decade-long economic challenges have had an effect”.
If $112 000 has such transformative power, one wonders how a country boasting the highest literacy rate on the continent would let things go this far before intervening.
While the pupils cheered as they entered their new classroom environment, it could also be acknowledged that a sizeable number has passed through such conditions and may have had their future destroyed.
The students have hope and a significant number raised their hands when asked how many wanted to be professors in future, but this alone is not an ingredient for success.
The communities have shown their willingness to make available what they can and it is now incumbent upon the government to play its role and ensure that the country not only boasts high literacy rates, but quality education as well.