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With flight of teachers, education collapses

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Los Angeles Times / April 13, 2008

MUFAKOSE, Zimbabwe - The first to go was the English teacher. Six months later, the commerce teacher followed. The next year, 2005, the trickle turned into an exodus.

By 2007, the departures from Mufakose 3 High School were like bricks in a collapsing building: math, science, accounting and many other teachers, all leaving their careers to work as cleaners, shop assistants, and laborers in other countries.

Zimbabwe's education system, once the best in Africa, is being demolished teacher by teacher.

Some of the teachers at Mufakose 3, outside the capital, Harare, called in sick and were never seen at the school again. Others didn't bother to call and just disappeared.

"You'd come to school and someone's not there, and next thing you hear, he's gone," said Knox Sonopai, 43, a history teacher at Mufakose 3.

In 2007, about 25,000 teachers fled the country, according to the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe. In the first two months of this year, 8,000 more disappeared. A staggering 150,000 teaching vacancies can't be filled. The Education Ministry sends out high school graduates with no degree or experience to do the job.

In a country where the official inflation rate is 100,000 percent, teachers simply can't afford to teach.

Before last month's national elections, teachers went on strike to protest salaries of 500 million Zimbabwean dollars a month, about $10 in US currency. Their salaries went up 700 percent to end the strike - aid, perhaps not coincidentally, just before the vote - but the raise is being gobbled by hyperinflation.

"One hundred percent of teachers have resigned, mentally, even though they remain in schools," said the teachers union president, Takavafira Zhou. "They're no longer interested in teaching. They're just looking for somewhere to go.

"The education system is a vital hub of the country. It has a ripple effect. In the long term, the country will suffer very much."

Francis, a teacher at neighboring Mufakose 1 High School who declined to give his last name for fear of dismissal, said 60 of 110 teachers there left last year.

"Every holiday we lose more teachers," he said.

Last October, history teacher Sonopai and a colleague, Clever Mudadi, 33, gambled their lives crossing the crocodile-infested Limpopo River into South Africa. They tried to get work as teachers but ended up as laborers digging foundations for about $15 a week. In the end, humiliated by the work, they turned around and returned home.

"It was bad," Mudadi said. "We lost a lot of weight. We felt hurt. I can't describe it."

Teachers used to be some of the most respected people in Zimbabwean communities, but now "you are the laughingstock of the community," said primary school teacher Richard Tshuma, 35.

At rallies before the elections, which saw the ruling ZANU-PF party lose its parliamentary majority for the first time in 28 years, President Robert Mugabe made a point of giving out computers to teach children computer literacy. In most schools, computers are a dream. Textbooks are so scarce that 35 children must share one, according to the teachers union. Children sit crammed 80 to a classroom, sometimes on the floor.

With education standards plummeting, the pass rate for the high school exams called the O-levels fell from about 70 percent in the mid-1990s to 13 percent last year. The higher education system is equally troubled, starving Zimbabwe's hospitals of doctors and the mining sector of engineers.

"The technical institutions have been smashed," said Tony Hawkins, an independent economist. "We can't regenerate our own skills."

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