Rusike, Zimbabwe — Dearth of schools near redistributed farmland forces families to rent distant accommodations where children live alone and attend classes.
Inside a scruffy room, Blessed Garimoto sits on an old single bed. On the floor are dirty pots strewn about and a plate with a few dried vegetables stashed in a corner. Outside, only a small portion of the yard is neatly cleared. Long dried grass and blackjack thorns surround it. Sounds from outside fill the room through the window. Birds chirp. Goats bleat. Garimoto is only 17, but he has been living alone in Rusike village, east of Harare and about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from his home, since he was 14, when he started his first year of secondary school.
“My grandparents decided that it was better for me to temporarily stay here [to be closer to school] because there are no secondary [schools] in the resettlement area [where] we reside,” says Garimoto. The teenager has been under his grandparents’ care since he was 8, following his parents’ divorce and his father’s relocation to South Africa.
“I was afraid of going to live alone, but I was counseled and told that going to live alone was a part of growing up,” says the shy and reserved Garimoto.
Garimoto’s grandparents moved from Rusike village, where he goes to school, to Belvedore, a farming area in Goromonzi, eastern Zimbabwe, in 2007, after acquiring land through the Land Reform Program. The program was a series of policies undertaken by former president Robert Mugabe’s government to address land ownership between the white minority who owned large farms in Zimbabwe and the black majority who did not own farms. Through the program, which started in 2000, the government distributed over 6,000 properties previously owned by white farmers to more than 168,000 black Zimbabweans, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Although the program partly addressed the issue of land, another issue emerged. Most of these commercial farms previously owned by white farmers did not have schools. White owners usually enrolled their children in boarding schools — which they could afford — or drove them to faraway schools where they could access the best education.
Black farmers who moved onto this land now had a new problem: Where would their children go to school if they wanted a quality education? Although boarding schools were an option, they were too expensive for some of the resettled farmers.
A temporary solution becomes a permanent problem
The country needed a solution to bridge the gap between the few available schools and thousands of newly settled farms. The government offered a quick fix, establishing primary and secondary “satellite” schools as a short-term measure.
The name comes from the fact that these schools were an extension of the few established schools available in these farming areas, says Dr. Caiphas Nziramasanga, an education expert who led the Nziramasanga Commission into education in 1999 and a former lecturer with the University of Zimbabwe’s department of education. The satellite schools remained unregistered and had no proper infrastructure. In some areas, tobacco barns were converted into classrooms.
“The established school provides supervision and all administrative work for the satellite school,” Nziramasanga says.
Two decades later, the challenge of access to education in these areas persists. Satellite schools intended as only a temporary solution, remain the only option available to many. They are inadequate and continue to face significant challenges such as lack of proper infrastructure.
To provide their children with better education, some parents and guardians, like Garimoto’s grandfather, enroll their children in schools far from their homes — sometimes many kilometers away — then rent them accommodations in nearby villages or rural business centers. This is despite Director’s Circular Number 5 of 2011 on access to education in Zimbabwe, which states that learners should not travel more than 5 kilometers (3 miles) to access education.
The arrangement is more common among those seeking secondary school education, as Zimbabwe has more primary schools than secondary schools. According to the 2021 Annual Education Statistics Report, Zimbabwe has 5,329 registered primary schools compared with 2,090 registered secondary schools, and 1,087 satellite primary schools compared with 876 satellite secondary schools.
While the arrangement allows students to access quality education, say sources who spoke to Global Press Journal, it affects their well-being and academic performance, and leaves them vulnerable to abuse and peer pressure.
Longing for home
Garimoto says living alone makes him an easy target for thieves, who can easily monitor his routine. They already know that, for most of the day, he will be in school. Thieves have broken into his house and stolen his belongings. He has other concerns, too, such as running out of food. Sometimes when this happens, he survives on one meal a day. On many days, he just longs to be home.
Garimoto’s grandfather, Damiano Garimoto, says that before the government resettled his family, they had access to schools in Rusike. The 86-year-old says when the government allocated him land, he did not immediately think about school access. After a government representative promised to build schools, he hoped it wouldn’t take too long.
“Till today nothing has been built. It pains me that Blessed stays far. You always have fears of what might happen to him while he is alone,” says the elder Garimoto.
Because of his age, he is unable to walk the distance and often has no money to visit his grandson. But he must get used to the arrangement, as he cannot give up his land to be closer to a school. It helps that his grandson is close to completing secondary school.
Admire Chikukwa, 19, a Form 6 student who lives with his brother, says they both moved from their home in Murehwa, a rural area in eastern Zimbabwe, because no schools close to his village offered high school education. The pass rate for secondary school in his area is also low. At first, the two brothers found a room in a rural business center in Rusike. They paid 16 United States dollars a month in rent. But the environment was unfit for students.
“It’s a busy and noisy area, and it was hard to get time to study because of the distraction. I had to make sure each day I study at school and go home after I had done all my schoolwork,” he says.
Chikukwa says the disruptions affected his grades.
“I believe if I was in a different environment at that time, I could have attained A grades in all my subjects at O-level [secondary school] but only got five A’s from 10 subjects,” says Chikukwa.
A villager who lives in Harare offered them his house. They could live rent-free while maintaining the house and garden. Although it’s a quieter environment and the independence that comes with living alone is great, Chikukwa says sometimes he needs parental guidance and comfort.
His situation does not deter him. “I want to be an actuarial scientist, and I have to ensure that I pass with flying colors,” he says.
Tsitsi Mguwata, a counseling psychologist based in Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe, says children or teenagers living alone can face psychosocial and economic challenges such as hunger, starvation, dropping out of school, trauma and stress, exploitation and vulnerability to abuse.
“Anxiety disorders which may involve panic or excessive worry can be one of the most prevalent emotional disorders experienced by this age band, especially when they stay alone with minimum parental support, supervision and empathy,” she says.
Mguwata adds that anxiety, distress and depressive disorders can profoundly affect school attendance and lead to social withdrawal, isolation and loneliness.
“Behavioral disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, characterized by difficulty in paying attention, excessive activity, eating disorder and acting without regard to consequences are likely to be common among adolescents who stay alone,” she says.
But Mguwata says such behaviors cannot be entirely linked to living alone because learners living with their parents also experience these challenges.
Living alone “only increases the levels of exposure,” she says.
Shumba, who asked to be identified by his totem for fear of retribution, has been teaching in rural Zimbabwe for more than 20 years. He says that students whose parents rent them houses close to school do so for various reasons.
“For some, there are no secondary schools in their communities. For others, it’s because they are looking for a school with better pass rate or there is no provision of A-level [high school] at the available institutions,” Shumba says.
These rented spaces do not offer students an environment conducive to devoting themselves wholly to school, Shumba says. Additionally, students end up taking on parental roles, which denies them a chance to be children.
“Sometimes these situations affect the grades that the children attain at O-level or A-level, and most end up taking professions that they never intended to venture in because of poor grades,” he says.
He adds that the government initiated low-cost boarding schools for children living far from schools, but only in a few communities.
“There is need to move fast to establish these schools to protect the children who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, drug abuse, among others,” says Shumba.
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Work in progress
But Taungana Ndoro, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, says the government is still working to resettle farmers and find solutions.
“In every area where resettlement took place two decades ago, we have schools within the vicinity of those communities. Resettlement is ongoing, people are still being resettled, and we work to ensure that we construct schools in those areas,” says Ndoro.
Ndoro adds that the government is trying to address the issue in areas without a secondary school within a 5-kilometer radius.
Meanwhile, the government has implemented low-cost boarding facilities, he says.
“To the very few areas where they are not close to schools, we have initiated low-cost boarding where the students travel on a Monday, have matrons and stay at the school for a week, then travel back home on Friday,” he says.
He did not provide data on where these areas are or how many low-cost boarding facilities have been implemented. He admits there are students staying in rented accommodations but says the number is very low.
“They face challenges similar to what child-headed families face, but obviously they do not stay very far from school, and we make sure that we assign senior teachers to oversee them even when they are not in school. We still check on them,” Ndoro says.
Obert Masaraure, the national president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, says in places where the government has not established proper schools, parents must come up with private initiatives that enhance the chances of their children accessing a quality education. Failure to do so will only perpetuate inequalities.
“Learners who are unfortunate and fail to access right to education are condemned to perpetual poverty,” he says.
Despite the challenges Garimoto faces, he says he still enjoys the independence that comes with living alone.
It “gives me ample time to do my schoolwork without other pressures, because at home there will be a lot of work that needs to be done, and it eats in my time for studies,” he says.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe.