Zim pupils face a blacked-out fu­ture

Coun­try’s fre­quent power out­ages threaten its chil­dren’s pri­mary and sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion, writes RAY MWAREYA

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

NEARLY ev­ery­one in Zim­babwe strug­gles with the coun­try’s fail­ing elec­tric­ity sup­ply, but for many ru­ral young peo­ple it may be their fu­ture that is at risk of shut­ting down, ex­perts say. Among the hard­est hit by wors­en­ing elec­tric­ity short­ages across the coun­try are school pupils, par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral ar­eas.

Black­outs linked to drought are lead­ing to dis­rupted or can­celled classes, most of all in ru­ral schools, which serve about 55 per­cent of the coun­try’s pupils, school of­fi­cials say.

The cri­sis also is dis­cour­ag­ing teach­ers from work­ing in the coun­try­side and threat­en­ing the health and the job prospects of young peo­ple.

Elec­tric­ity is an in­creas­ingly scarce com­mod­ity in Zim­babwe. The coun­try gets much of its elec­tric­ity from hy­dropower, but wa­ter lev­els in Lake Kariba, the world’s largest man-made reser­voir, have plum­meted by 30 per­cent through drought.

Kariba is meant to con­trib­ute 819 megawatts (MW) to­wards meet­ing the coun­try’s peak na­tional de­mand of 1 345MW, but out­put from the lake has fallen to just 470MW.

Zim­babwe’s ci­ties and vil­lages are now fre­quently struck by 10-hour black­outs.

“Schools are hard­est hit in this en­ergy poverty de­ba­cle,” said Loyd Bako of the Zim­babwe Ru­ral School Teach­ers Union, one of the coun­try most prom­i­nent trade unions.

Betty Ny­oni, 17, a pupil from Demene, in the south of the coun­try, would like to be­come an elec­tri­cian de­sign­ing cell­phone tow­ers, but is frus­trated by her school ex­pe­ri­ence.

“We nor­mally have no elec­tric­ity. We skip ex­per­i­ments in elec­tri­cal physics and switch­board de­signs. Our test marks flop, and are in­fe­rior to stu­dents in city schools with bet­ter power sup­plies,” she said.

Bako agrees that com­puter equip­ment, agri­cul­ture work­shops and sci­ence lab­o­ra­to­ries are of­ten left idle by the power cuts.

“Last week I vis­ited a sec­ondary school where stu­dents used a smoky diesel gen­er­a­tor to dry seeds for a farm ex­per­i­ment. You can’t pro­duce re­sults in such chaos,” he said.

In re­cent years progress has been made in out­fit­ting Zim­babwe’s ru­ral schools with sci­ence lab­o­ra­to­ries, elec­tric sock­ets and work­shops with elec­tri­cally pow­ered ma­chines. The gov­ern­ment, donors and stu­dent alumni bod­ies joined hands to plant tech­nol­ogy in far-flung schools.

The Ru­ral Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion Pro­gramme, a state agency, says 803 schools had elec­tric­ity in­stalled and 402 ru­ral school and clin­ics had been fit­ted with mini grid so­lar reser­voirs by May 2015.

The agency’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Joshua Mashamba, said the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion has had mul­ti­ple com­mu­nity ben­e­fits.

“When a ru­ral school is elec­tri­fied, a nearby clinic and growth point is cov­ered too,” he said. Growth points are ru­ral hubs where the gov­ern­ment builds clin­ics, banks and other busi­nesses in one place.

But the power short­ages are now chok­ing progress.

At many ru­ral sec­ondary schools, sciences and tech­ni­cal sub­jects like fash­ion and de­sign are taught only on pa­per. Fridges that should freeze and pre­serve sci­ence sam­ples for bi­ol­ogy classes are un­able to func­tion. Ma­chines to cut cloth de­signs for pupils can­not be turned on.

“Stu­dents are learn­ing out of (their) imag­i­na­tion,” said Chen­jerai Gwata, head of pol­icy at the non-profit Zim­babwe Con­sor­tium for Civic Ed­u­ca­tion. “Power is down and you bump into pri­mary school stu­dents who try to learn what a web­site is in front of a lap­top that’s switched off !”

An­drew Mlambo, an econ­o­mist in the cap­i­tal, Harare, is alarmed by the po­ten­tial im­pact of the en­ergy short­age on pupils’ fu­tures. “Zim­babwe is weighed down by over 70 per­cent job­less­ness. Stu­dents who ob­tain sci­ence and tech­ni­cal qual­i­fi­ca­tions have bet­ter chances in a shrink­ing job mar­ket.”

Re­li­able elec­tric­ity is also a mat­ter of health for pupils and com­mu­ni­ties. In the coun­try’s dri­est prov­ince of Mata­bele­land, elec­tric­ity is needed to run ir­ri­ga­tion pumps for veg­etable gar­dens that feed or­phaned chil­dren and to power clin­ics.

Par­ents feel the pain of the power short­age too. Don­ald Dziva of Hwedza, one of Zim­babwe’s rich­est farm­ing dis­tricts, owns a maize-grind­ing mill and butch­ery.

“Nowa­days elec­tric­ity is avail­able only from 8pm to 5am. I sleep in my mill or butch­ery just to catch elec­tric­ity when it’s switched back on. I’m forced to sell meat or re­fine grain at night. My losses are mas­sive. Two of my kids may (have to) briefly stop at­tend­ing col­lege next year,” he said.

Noma Here, sec­re­tary of the Zim­babwe Na­tional Crèche Schools As­so­ci­a­tion, which over­sees 140 early child­hood schools, said power short­ages are among prob­lems mak­ing it hard for ru­ral schools to re­cruit teach­ers. “Most grad­u­ate teach­ers I know shun ru­ral schools with no elec­tric­ity and piped wa­ter. For them th­ese are no-go-ar­eas.”

Ac­cord­ing to Zim­babwe’s ed­u­ca­tion min­istry, there is a short­age of 1 521 sci­ence and math­e­mat­ics teach­ers in the coun­try. Many qual­i­fied teach­ers leave the coun­try to seek bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions and wages in neigh­bour­ing South Africa, Namibia and Swazi­land.

“Very few young, up­wardly mobile teach­ers want to con­duct evening classes in ru­ral schools when power re­turns,” Noma said.

The ed­u­ca­tion min­istry was not avail­able to com­ment on the elec­tric­ity cri­sis in schools.

In­no­va­tors sug­gest that al­ter­na­tive sources of en­ergy should be tried for Zim­babwe’s ru­ral schools to im­prove ac­cess to re­li­able power.

One pos­si­ble so­lu­tion is mount­ing so­lar pan­els on top of class­rooms to tap into the coun­try’s abun­dant sun­shine.

But Mlambo, the econ­o­mist, is scep­ti­cal. “So­lar is clean but ex­pen­sive. The most re­cent school so­lar equip­ment kit for one school of 300 stu­dents costs $2 200 (R24 000).” – Reuters

‘We nor­mally have no

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

TIME OUT: Elec­tric­ity black­outs in Zim­babwe, linked to drought, have led to dis­rupted or can­celled classes, above all in ru­ral schools, of­fi­cials say.

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