SPECIAL REPORT

Students in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland Struggle to Pass Exams

 
 
Students walk home from school in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city and the primary urban center of the Matabeleland region. Students in the region have for years struggled to pass their national exams. Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe

Students in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland region have long posted the lowest rate of success on the nationalized exams in seventh grade. A lack of teachers and supplies doesn’t help, but the poor performance has its roots in the decades of neglect of the region by the central government.

BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE – Lindelwe Nkomo, 10, waits patiently at the dining-room table in her home for her father, Peter Nkomo, to help her with her homework. She’s a student at Coghlan Primary School, where she’ll take her grade-seven exams this year.

But, according to the region’s statistics, she’s not likely to pass them.

Schools in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe’s westernmost province, are notorious for how few of their students pass these exams. In 2017, only a quarter of the students in the province’s 590 schools passed their primary-school exams, says Beatrice Manjere, a deputy director in the province’s primary education office. In 29 of those schools, not a single student passed, she says.

The region has for years suffered from poor infrastructure, a dearth of teachers and a lack of supplies, says Obert Masaraure, president of the national Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe.

The government doesn’t support the region well, he says.

Low rates of success on these exams are a problem nationwide, but schools in Matabeleland North are notoriously poor performers.

A big part of the problem is that the national government doesn’t ensure that the teachers sent there speak Ndebele, a primary language in the province and one that shares a name with the Ndebele people, a minority group in Zimbabwe.

In 2017, only a quarter of the students in the province’s 590 schools passed their primary-school exams, says Beatrice Manjere, a deputy director in the province’s primary education office. In 29 of those schools, not a single student passed, she says.

The province’s relationship with the national government has been tense for decades. During Zimbabwe’s independence movement in the 1970s, the Ndebele largely supported Joshua Nkomo, who was both a fellow fighter with and a rival of former President Robert Mugabe, who was seen as a leader of the Shona people, who make up the majority of Zimbabweans. When Mugabe came to power in 1980, he brutally cracked down on the Ndebele, ostensibly in an effort to quash any opposition to his new government.

But even after that violence, which some estimate killed as many as 20,000 people, the government did little to ensure that the Matabeleland area received the same support for education as did other provinces. For years, most of the teachers sent to the province spoke only Shona.

The government declared in 1987 that schools could teach in Shona, Ndebele and English, depending on the primary language of the area, at least in the early grades. But even today, many teachers in the area don’t speak Ndebele.

Many of the province’s schools suffer in other ways, too. There are too few indoor classrooms, poor access to clean water and other problems.

Despite those problems, Peter Nkomo expects his daughter to do well in school, especially with his help. It’s true that there are problems, he says, but parents must do what they can to help their children.

“I think at times parents renege [on] their responsibility by blaming poor pass rates on [the] government and teachers,” he says.