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Biology in the bush

Shepherd Mandhlazi

Shepherd Mandhlazi writes about the highs and lows of teaching in rural areas where there's more livestock than there are laboratories.

Batanai Secondary School was a very long way from home. But when, a few years back, I got a chance to go and teach there, I grabbed it. I was inspired by my late mother’s approach to life.

However hard it got, she kept positive in her thoughts and her actions—which is how the son of a trader who swapped fish and old clothes for maize got to go to teachers’ training college in the first place.

My new teaching post was in Mashonaland, western Zimbabwe, almost 900km from my home town, Mutare. To get there it took three bus changes and a lifetime on a speeding bus with rattling windows across mostly dust and gravel roads. The journey itself was almost too much for a ghetto boy.

I grew up 500m from my primary school. All our cooking was done on an electric stove and TV was a daily necessity. My brother and I had been to a rural area only once—when we were seven and nine respectively—to visit our grandmother and our rude shock at her lifestyle made us quite a nuisance to her.

Cotton is the cash crop for the people of Batanai. It’s a crop with potentially huge financial returns, but it’s also labour-intensive. Cotton will fail if you do not weed it often enough, do not spray it often enough and do not turn the soil often enough. So for my new neighbours, the cotton farmers, the day started well before dawn through the rainy season and they still found time to farm maize and groundnuts the rest of the year. The farmers also tamed the tasty guinea fowl and I enjoyed fried guinea fowl eggs and roasted the meat many a time, thanks to the hard-working people of Batanai.

The school learners were also up before dawn to work alongside their parents until it was time to take a bath and rush to school.

I found them a joy to teach, even though I taught O level English and many of them could barely understand it. I found this unacceptable at first, but their willingness to learn and their constant striving to get good grades—which they often did—gradually made me more tolerant. Science was a tough subject to tackle in a different way, with a handful of unusable apparatus at my disposal and no laboratory at all.

On weekends I tried my hand at fishing in the vast Sanyati River that separated Batanai from Gokwe, both tiny farming communities with just two or three grocery shops selling overpriced and often stale goods, which made catching my own supper a more attractive prospect. That river must be more than 2km wide. When I first saw the Sanyati it took my breath away. It was rather amusing the way I failed to catch anything while a 14-year-old boy a few metres away reeled in bream after bream. I realised later that while I love my fried bream, I was fishing for fun while the young boy was fishing for sustenance: I could afford to buy the bream from him when he came by my cottage at sunset.

The contrast was stark when I moved to my next teaching post at Dinyane High School in Tsholotsho at the end of the year. Tsholotsho was five bus changes away: Batanai to Karoi, Karoi to Chinhoyi, Chinhoyi to Chegutu, Chegutu to Bulawayo and finally Bulawayo to Tsholotsho—about 1 000km in all.

Tsholotsho is a dry place; agriculture without some form of irrigation system is a waste of time. They tried to farm maize without much success. Sorghum, millet and watermelons gave modest returns that seemed hardly worth the effort.

There were no rivers in Tsholotsho, just insignificant streams that dried up a few hours after an occasional downpour. The muddy dams lasted only a few weeks of the “rainy” season, which began in November and, with luck, ended in March. At the school where I taught, the rain—or lack of it—was often the chief topic of conversation. Locals coming to pump for water for their livestock at the school’s borehole well into the night was a familiar sight.

All in all, the wall of pessimism that greeted me there before I unpacked my bags was rather understandable. I could not accept the pessimism I encountered towards education. Most boys ran away from school, went to South Africa and came back as drivers with money in their pockets, so it was hard to convince learners that education was important. The teachers were even worse and I was told not to bother doing much work because the learners were bound to fail anyway.

I might be a pessimist in many aspects of my life, but believing that a whole community of people are mediocre is ridiculous. I dived into my work and before long this rubbed off on the learners, who put in more than average effort with no threat of being caned, as was the norm.

My biology class of 16-year-olds—mostly boys—achieved a 25% pass rate from a very bad zero. We had weekend lessons and extra homework, all this in a jolly mood. We visited the school garden where agriculture learners grew spinach and tomatoes to see which crop had a nitrogen, potassium or phosphorus deficiency. We discussed the state of their livestock—we didn’t have a fancy laboratory.

I took over the netball team and the drama club. The netball team did not lose a single match on their way to the district finals. The drama club waltzed its way to the national finals of a drama competition. We performed one of my own plays, The Chronicles of Dr Phiri, which attracted mutters of being “too political”. This was before political thought and life became the high-risk business it now is in Zimbabwe.

At times I felt overwhelmed. At times I thought I could not do much alone. The school head loved my efforts, but some of the more senior teachers hated me—good work makes shoddy work appear even shoddier.

I stayed in one of the school cottages and schoolgirls were always offering to do my washing up, cleaning and those sorts of things. I knew the dangers of accepting such offers; I was not looking for a wife. I managed to stay out of trouble for the three years I stayed at Dinyane High School. But I have realised this—if we want change, we need to change our own attitudes first.

Shepherd Mandhlazi is a playwright, filmmaker, poet and commentator based in Bulawayo

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