'If wishes were horses beggars would ride.'
This proverb often popped up in the writing of my Zimbabwean students. It was an all – purpose phrase that could be used in any context: to explain Hamlet’s tortured psychology, Hitler’s ambitions or as a personal reflection on life. The prince the dictator and the beggar have this in common: they are all dreamers.
My students at Rimuka High School came from one of the poorest townships in Zimbabwe. Rimuka’s population of 40,000 was squeezed into a few square kilometres of dusty streets lined with elephant back houses – one room adobe walled houses with curved corrugated iron roofs. But poverty was no barrier to lavish dreams. At Rimuka the sky was not high enough. My students had ambitions to be doctors, lawyers, politicians, nurses, teachers. At the very least education was a ticket out of the communal lands and into well paying office jobs where they would get to wear shirts ties or elegant dresses and sit behind large desks. Ideally, as one of my students cheekily expressed it, they would do very minimal work while telling other people what to do and getting paid handsomely for it. This was the promise of a high school education: Freedom, prosperity, power and status.
The government was trying to temper this expectation with its policy of ‘Education with Production’. The policy, in keeping with the Socialist ideology of the government, was designed to foster a spirit of contribution to the national wellbeing and keep students in touch with their rural roots. The problem was many students didn’t want to grow maize or rear chickens after school. Wasn’t this the life they had come to school to leave behind?
The education genie was out of the bottle. Under white rule in the old Rhodesia fewer than 20 percent of black children had progressed from primary school to high school. But in an independent Zimbabwe any family that could afford a uniform and a pair of black shoes could send their children to high school. Black shoes were a precious commodity. Some students walked to school in bare feet with their shoes draped over their heads so as not to wear them out, only putting them on when they got to the school gate. In some families the one or two pairs of shoes were shared. Because Rimuka had a morning and afternoon shift, siblings finishing at noon could hand over their shoes at the front gate to siblings arriving for the afternoon school. Never mind if the shoes were a size or two too big.
In 1982 Zimbabwe was fueled by optimism. Everything was possible. The country had won its independence after the thirteen year chimurenga, civil war. Maize was standing tall and was being exported to the rest of Africa. Mugabe had persuaded the multinationals and the white farmers to stay and invest in the new Zimbabwe, though the latter policy flew in the face of his election commitment to redistribute white farming land to black Zimbabweans. The elephant and the rhino populations were flourishing.
And for a time it was all going well. But then drought came and the maize began to wither in the fields. Doubt began to surface against a backdrop of killings in the south of the country as Mugabe sought to reel in the ‘dissident’ Ndebele’s in the only way he knew how. He sent in the Fifth Brigade, his North Korean trained band of thugs, to impose order and stability through the barrel of a gun. Twenty thousand dead. It came to be known as Gukurahundi ‘ the early rain that washes away the chafe’. Observers called it genocide.
The great socialist revolution was clearly faltering. I began to wonder what sort of future awaited my students. I had a sense that we were educating them for unemployment and disappointment. There were 1500 students at Rimuka with cosmic aspirations. And this was being replicated all around the country. Young people with dreams that were about to shrivel up and die in the African sun like the maize crops all around the country. There just weren’t enough jobs to go around. Through the 80s and 90s the scourge of AIDS would reduce life expectancy to 40 and hyperinflation combined with a brutal regime would make daily survival a struggle and send thousands seeking a future over the border in South Africa.
Nothing could have prepared my students for this future. This was not the world they had imagined. It was not what education had promised them.
Were they just unlucky? It is a universal truth that education empowers. I have heard it from young Andean girls in Peru, talking of how they loved school and hated holidays and weekends. School was a nurturing environment that contrasted so starkly with the alcohol abuse, domestic violence and dysfunction of home life. It was only at school that a bright future seemed possible.
And I have listened to Bangladeshi women talk of the importance of literacy classes. Women who were learning to read and write sitting on earthen floors in houses made of jute and mud, scratching letters onto slate to develop their writing skills. The classes were based on the Paulo Friere idea of empowerment through literacy and focused on topics that were of direct relevance to the women: nutrition, disease prevention, sanitation and hygiene, food production, the social impacts of dowry and women’s rights more broadly, how to save money and set up small business enterprises.
For many of these women the most important motivation for becoming literate was to be able to help their children do their homework. They wanted their children to have opportunities they had been denied by a society that didn’t value girl’s education. Educating a girl is like watering your neighbour’s field was a well known Bengali saying. These women had moved on from this thinking and were demonstrating a more powerful truth: educate a woman and you educate an entire family.
Still, the benefits for the women themselves were tangible, even if they weren’t measurable. Things like increased self esteem and confidence. I could hear the determination in their voices and see it in their willingness to make eye contact when they talked about their plans to start up small businesses raising chickens or cattle, growing vegetables or setting up a food stall. I heard it in the sheepish giggles of one group of women as they entered a bank for the first time to set up an account. When they shuffled tentatively through the door they were bursting through the traditional barriers of purdah that made banks off limits to women. Some signed with their thumbprints while others were able to sign with their names, forging new identities and new futures.
But if we are going to encourage children and adults to dream then we have a responsibility to help them acquire the attributes and skills, on the one hand to make the dream a reality, on the other to cope when things don’t work out as planned or the dream turns out to be nothing more than a mirage. We want them to be able to see reality how it is rather than how they would want it to be.
Schools have a role to play. Traditional schooling is geared towards academic achievement but research tells us that qualities such as determination, persistence, focus and the ability to get on with other people are more important contributors to success, however success is defined, regardless of the field of endeavour. Underpinning everything children need emotional intelligence: an understanding of themselves and others, effective communication skills, strategies for dealing with rejection, abuse and bullying. They need the qualities of empathy, compassion and courage, to learn to be kind to themselves and others, to trust their own truth and not be easily swayed by the arguments of others.
In times of rapid technological change, increasing global uncertainty and decreasing job security these skills and attributes are more important than ever. Perhaps too we need to help our children acquire the agility, confidence, willingness to fail and creativity of the entrepreneur.
One of my former students at Rimuka looked me up on Facebook recently. She was experiencing tough times. Her husband had passed away leaving her with two children and no income. She wanted money to see her through in the short term and was looking at starting up an online business selling Zimbabwean jewellery. I sent her some money and she texted me back: God bless you, may your days be numbered.
I wish somewhere in the syllabus there had been scope to help her learn about resilience, though I’m sure having survived the AIDS pandemic, the Mugabe regime and a bankrupt economy she has plenty of that. Perhaps something about running a small business, something about the skills and attributes it takes to make a dream a reality. How I wish.