Zimbabwe: mellow days and heady nights

It was in 1989 that I started to experience a gradually increasing sense of alarm. Having landed a good first teaching position at a respectable Northamptonshire comprehensive my future, always somewhat nebulous till then, suddenly became a lot clearer and I could see myself doing much the same thing for the next forty years.

It was at this point that I responded to an advertisement in the TES for a maths teacher in Zimbabwe.  

Zimbabwe, the country, conjured up few visions for me as the extent of my foreign travel up to that point had been the day trip to Boulogne with Townsend Thoresen.

Arriving in Harare in January 1990, the climate reminded me of the best days an English summer had to offer. Even the torrential downpours were of no consequence as they only lasted a short time and were soon replaced by blue skies.

Harare seemed to me to be a clean, well-ordered city. The shops, if a little old fashioned, were well stocked with an adequate variety of local goods, although imported items were difficult to obtain.

The parks were well-tended and contained a profusion of tropical plants and flowers of intense colour. I preferred however to visit the wide tree-lined avenues away from the city centre where life was a bit quieter.

The Terreskane Hotel was situated here and, sitting outside on its large terrace with a busy brai smoking behind, it became a favoured place to enjoy a Castle (beer). The waiters rushed to serve you at first but quickly lost interest if you didn’t tip.

My posting was to Murewa High School about ninety kilometres east of Harare. The road there passed large, white-owned farms as well as rural African settlements identified by a collection of huts. What struck me was the greenery – nothing like the dusty, brown landscapes on television reports of Africa.

A German biology teacher was a keen gardener and enthused about how everything grew in Zimababwe during the rainy season. Each teacher’s house had its own plot of maize plants, which could grow a foot in one week, and a chicken coop to provide a daily supply of eggs.

Murewa High School was well-equipped and well built. It overlooked a huge dome-shaped granite mountain, which never ceased to inspire awe during the daily assemblies held outside.

The government of Robert Mugabe had made education a priority and devoted 25 per cent of the national budget to it. At the time I couldn’t help marvelling at this noble policy. The desire for education permeated all sections of society and the students showed a real passion for learning.

This is not to say that the school was without problems: class sizes could reach sixty and there was little alternative to the Cambridge O’ and A’ levels. Corporal punishment was commonplace and soon after arriving the deputy headteacher visited my class, bunsen burner rubber tubing in hand, to deal with those students who hadn’t completed their homework.

After that I attempted to introduce a system of detention but this had limited success since African children are quite used to standing around for long periods doing nothing. I received the distinct impression that the rather bemused students sitting in silence in my classroom during the afternoon didn’t realize that they were being punished.

This was teaching stripped down to its bare bones: no long curriculum meetings, cross-curricular links, brain-based learning or multiple intelligences. It is interesting to speculate how much the Zimbabwean students were affected by the absence of these. Being a teacher on the international circuit, I will not commit professional suicide by attempting to answer that question. What I will say, however, is that teachers were not as stressed as those I have observed in more developed schools despite the large numbers of students they were teaching.

At the time the government was held in high esteem internationally. Of course there was corruption and inefficiency, ample fodder for disaffected Africans to complain, or for the "Rhodies" to say "I told you so".

But that being said, the country seemed to work: it was more or less at peace and you never saw anyone without enough to eat. The last vestiges of white minority rule could still be glimpsed. It was the kind of society where, as a hitch hiker, a white driver would offer me dinner and a place to sleep. At the same time black workers would be sat in the back of a pick up during a heavy downpour, without it occurring to the driver to offer any kind of shelter.

I would often walk with my fellow teacher, Shingirai, to Murewa township after work. Our route took us first to Matamba bottle store, which technically being a shop was not supposed to host us. The lure of the cheapest, coldest beer in town however was irrestible and only occasionally did the police turn up to pour away our Castle and quiz the owner why he owned a bottle opener as we ran for cover.

It didn’t pay them however to be too zealous in their duty, especially if they wanted to drink there later. Shingirai told of raids in Harare where law enforcement officials beat inebriated patrons with batons.

The greatest commodity Africa seemed to possess was time. There was time to enjoy each other’s company and time to sit on the low concrete wall outside Matamba’s bottle store to gaze at the silhouettes of flat-topped, spindly trees set against the darkening sky. Later on we would make the short trip to Gapara night spot where there was music, dancing and women. A fight tended to break out there about once a week.

I remember one colleague, Mr Gutsa, who had been prohibited from drinking by a witchdoctor. When he visited Matamba’s evil spirits took possession of him with a force proportional to the amount of alcohol consumed. By the time he reached Gapara night spot he was out of control and hurling insults at everyone.

One Monday he didn’t show up at school. Last seen boarding a bus after drinking in his home area, there was speculation that members of the Central Intelligence Organisation had been fellow passengers and had taken exception to his comments. Shingirai would slowly drink his Castle and wistfully say: "Those people can make you disappear."

Many of my friends from those days are now dead. The farms aren’t as verdant as they once were but I don’t know whether Gapara night spot still hums to the music of James Chimombe.

I have heard Africa described as the continent of abundant life and speedy death. Like many around the world who love Zimbabwe I am waiting for a resurrection.