Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I am still working on a series of blog posts to catch up on many happenings over the past two months including Mt. Kilimanjaro, rock climbing, my friend’s visit here to South Africa, and many other events of significance. However, after a conversation today I decided I needed to give broader voice to some issues. So here’s some food for thought while I continue to work on the leviathan of a post that is to come.

Supply and Demand

As the schools reopened, I found myself faced with a difficult choice. The high school had lost 3 teachers to transfers. We would be bringing in one teacher from Zimbabwe that had come over last year part time and make him a full teacher. That left us two short and most notably short of a maths teacher. I knew there was no one of the rest of the staff qualified to teach upper level maths and so I threw my hat in the ring. I’m now the grade 12 maths teacher, teaching a morning class every day and doing two afterschool review/boot camp maths sessions to try and get the kids up to scratch. It was a tough choice to make as I increasingly have less time before the end of my service and my other projects like the library are still going to require substantial work before I can trust them to hold up with my absence. On the other hand, not trying to teach would almost certainly leave 17 kids to failing their final exam and vastly decreasing their chances of further education or employment. So for now, I’m doing the best I can to be a teacher but I’m was hoping to find a more sustainable solution to the lack as I can’t teach here indefinitely. So I was thinking, Zimbabwe has LOTS of maths teachers available. Why couldn’t we bring one over? Today I had a chat with our new teacher from Zimbabwe and this is what I learned. (For his own privacy and also out of safety concerns for his family, he shall be referred to as Mr. Nomugabe.)

Let’s back up

Before I get into detail, here is a quick summary for those of you not up to date on the current events in Zimbabwe. So here’s a quick, politically incorrect, summary. Long ago, Zimbabwe was part of Rhodesia and run/oppressed by white people. These white people set up lots of farms in this bountiful land, making it the breadbasket of Africa. In the 1980’s a revolutionary force led by Robert Mugabe overthrew the government and brought Zimbabwe to independence. He was the pride of all of Africa and Zimbabwe was a haven for anti-Apartheid activists. He set up a titular democracy that conveniently always brought him back to power. He also set up a vast secret police force that has been highly effective in rooting out any coup attempts over the past three decades. Blaming all Zimbabwe’s troubles on the Imperialists, Mugabe seized all the land of the white farmers and effectively forced them out. A combination of a lack of skills transfer and a workforce ravaged by AIDS, led to tremendous drops in agricultural productivity. As things went down, the government freaked out and imposed all sorts of terrible economic policies leading to some of the most outrageous hyperinflation the world has ever seen. Economic collapse has ruined the internal market, making petrol, bread, and basic goods nearly impossible to get (only really possible on the black market, bought in foreign currency). Bakeries are forced to stay open by the government and waste electricity as light glares off their empty shelves. The breadbasket of Africa can no longer feed itself. The treasury said that there were not enough items on the shelves to get an appropriate index to measure inflation. That was several months ago. Inflation is estimated at over 10,000,000%. On the news, images of people picking through the garbage for food zoom in on 10 Million ZIm Dollar notes being passed over by people in search for a bite. Children fill cups of water from puddles. Not surprisingly, cholera has broken out in epidemic proportions. Millions of Zimbabweans have fled across the border to South Africa. Of them, hundreds have been killed and thousands intimidated in xenophobic violence. I could go on…and I will for a little while.

20,000,000,000,000 Problems

Given the trouble up north, South Africa seems like the land of milk and honey to many Zimbabweans even despite the threats of violence. Mr. Nomugabe, has come out deep to the Kalahari Desert to teach where few South African teachers would ever choose to be. I asked him if he knew of any maths teachers in need of work. Lots, he replied. Many with 15+ years of working experience. Why don’t they come over? Well, they don’t have passports and to get one right now in Zimbabwe costs about 670 USD. Once you have the passport, you need a visa to enter South Africa, which has just been raised from about 200 USD to 600 USD. Then, you need a work permit, which is another 600 USD. Add in the bribes and other expenses you might have to pay, that’s about 2,000 USD just to get into South Africa to work. A US Dollar is roughly 10 trillion Zim Dollars (several zeroes may be added to that each day from now). So that’s 20 quadrillion Zim Dollars. Teachers are being paid the equivalent of 30 US CENTS a month. Yes. In a year, they pull in about 3.60 USD. That’s a trained professional. It costs more to get to the bank than all the money they have in the bank is worth, so most teachers are now working as hawkers on the street. So while students around southern Africa sit without qualified maths teachers, if any maths teachers at all, some of the best trained and most competent teachers in the region are selling bananas.

Do Something World

Somethings gotta give. I know some at home that will sit comfortably in their armchairs will paw-paw that if Zimbabweans don’t like Mugabe, they should get rid of him. They’ve tried by ballot and been killed for it. They’ve tried by force and been killed for it. Mugabe holds the guns and his sycophantic circle is lustily guarding what they have from anyone that would try to topple them from within. It doesn’t take much to hold a cholera-ridden, half starved, dirt poor people down. In this era of global connectivity, we as a world need to take action. As Botswana’s brave president and Odinga of Kenya have suggested, perhaps we need to use force to tear Mugabe’s strangle hold over the nation. Unfortunately the power broker in the region is South Africa and it has yet to take a strong stance. The U.S. and Europe tried to bring out a targeted set of sanctions to restrict the Mugabe regime and isolate them, weakening their power. It was blocked in the UN Security Council by South Africa, but more importantly by China and Russia who exercised their veto power. I know the developed world has a lot on its plate right now with their economic crises and all but whatever plight we are in is not as dire as what Zimbabwe is facing right now. As long as the oppressive Mugabe regime is in power, other governments need to reduce rather than increase the barriers of entry for Zimbabwean professionals so their skills can be used effectively and they can use the money they earn to feed their families hungry mouths at home. That’s not charity, that’s just good economical sense. South Africa faces a huge shortage of medical and educational professionals. In my training village I met a Zimbabwean man. A former medical technician, he is now scratching out a living by making mops. What a waste.

Mugabe is old but simply waiting for him to die is an irresponsible position to take. Besides supporting governments to stand up against the Mugabe regime, what can we do? Find respectable aid agencies working to try and bring relief to the many suffering Zimbabweans and do what you can to help. Unfortunately, the number is not so big as Mugabe has tried to stifle their activities. I admit that besides this, there is not a lot we can do but I think’s it’s necessary every once in a while to remind people of the silent tragedies that get dropped from the news once it gets too boring. I’m mostly just frustrated that South Africa is shooting itself in the foot by not making it easier for Zimbabweans to help themselves out by filling long vacant slots in the professional workforce.