I had an interesting Saturday recently. It began with a visit, in the company of Matobo Primary School Deputy Headmaster, Patson Mpofu, to our local Ward Councillor, Mr Elliot Gumbo, who lives on the ‘Morning Star’ ranch boundary. In Zimbabwe, Councillors are political figures who are elected to work alongside traditional Chiefs in local areas called Wards. ‘Morning Star’ falls within Ward 9 of the Matobo district and consists of three villages, an area of about 150 square miles. Councillors are on the lowest rung of the National political ladder, but are a vital cog in the political decision-making process as they represent ‘grassroots’ opinion.
I have known Councillor Gumbo since we purchased and moved onto ‘Morning Star’ ranch nearly 12 years ago. We have been out of touch over the last eight years, since we moved to Malawi following the ‘land invasions’. At that time he was not a political figure, but a neighbour and friend. My visit turned into an opportunity to share with him some aspects of our ‘Green Islands’ vision.* We spoke initially about the orphan feeding programme (initiated by the Church of the Apostles STS team, from Atlanta, who visited in July 2007), which he said had generated much goodwill within the local community.
I mentioned that it was my desire to invite folk, from the USA and Europe, to come and live on ‘Morning Star’ for a period of time and to use the ranch as a base from which they could reach out and enhance the lives of the local community in a variety of ways. I emphasised that we did not want to impose our pre-conceived ideas on people, but rather to find out, through dialogue at ‘grassroots’ level, where they felt we could be of most use. I also mentioned that I was wary of exposing ‘white faces’ in the community as a result of government antagonism. His words to me were (and I quote), ‘Mr Ferguson, those times have gone. Things are now changing and people would welcome these things you are talking about. There would be no problems. We need people to help us.’ I asked him where he suggested we start and his immediate response was, ‘in the schools’. He talked about the poor state of the classrooms and teacher accommodation and the lack of basic educational resources. He told me about the acute shortage of teachers resulting in overcrowded classes, and poor teacher salaries.
Coincidentally, also on Saturday, a friend DC, from Bulawayo brought his family out for the day. DC, a human rights lawyer, is a high profile figure on Zimbabwe’s political stage. Eight years ago, he was elected as the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Member of Parliament for Bulawayo South, subsequently as a Senator and, a few weeks ago, he was appointed Minister of Education in the new Unity Government.
During the course of his visit, I quizzed DC about the political environment. In short, he compared it to a massive oil tanker on an ocean voyage. He said, ‘the rudder has moved, but it will take some time before we see that the ship has changed course.’ I mentioned my earlier conversation with Councillor Gumbo and DC encouraged me to pursue my idea of assisting the local schools.
So, from grassroots level in the rural Matobo Hills to the highest corridors of power in the capital, Harare, we have agreement. After years of political malpractice and plunder of the country’s resources by a rogue regime, the education sector is in total disarray, as are most other sectors of the economy. The question for us is, ‘Where does one start?’
Give a Child a Chance
To try and begin to answer this, my wife Norma and I, decided to ask Councillor Gumbo to take us on a tour of some of the schools in Ward 9. What we saw was absolutely shocking:
- Schools with enrolments of over 200 pupils and only two or three teachers
- Massive shortages of everything from blackboard chalk to text & exercise books, pens & pencils
- Broken desks and chairs (where there were any at all)
- Classrooms with few, if any window panes or doors
- Blackboards painted on walls, which were no longer functional due to lack of blackboard paint over the last 20 years
- No sports equipment or playground equipment
- No piped water
- Toilets which had collapsed
- Malnourished children in ragged clothes and scant evidence of school uniforms
- Shocking teacher accommodation
- The walls of a semi-completed pre-school building, with no floor, windows or roof.
We saw little evidence of teaching – most pupils seemed to be occupied with digging out weeds or chasing each other around weed-infested grounds!
After our depressing tour, we posed some questions to Councillor Gumbo, ‘Where does one start? Does one try to refurbish and re-equip the schools one by one or should one start by purchasing basic things like blackboard paint, chalk and exercise books for all the schools and then build on from there?’ His immediate response was to go with the latter.
A recent visit from 3 new friends generated a gift of books, pencils, pens, erasers, library books and soccer balls to a couple of schools. What excitement when an impromptu soccer game developed between the ‘big’ visitors and 4 of the senior (and barefoot) pupils! It will live in our memories for a long time. Thanks ‘the Steve’s’ and Andrew!
Norma and I, along with our neighbours, Denis and Sandy Paul, would like to assist in resuscitating seven rural schools around ‘Morning Star’ ranch, but it is beyond our financial means. We do not want to start something and then disappoint the people by pulling out when our funds run dry. The purpose of this letter is to try and raise funds by appealing to you to support us in an initiative which we are calling ‘Give a Child a Chance’.
If you feel that you would like to support this cause, by a one-off donation or a small monthly payment, please write a reply to us and we will furnish you with more information.
If you are interested in our broader vision for using Morning Star ranch to empower local people in a number of other initiatives, please let us know and we will forward you a copy of the ‘Green Islands’ vision.
Chris and Norma Ferguson