Where We Work
The library is situated in Gwanda town, the provincial capital of Matabeleland South province in Zimbabwe. Schools in the book box programme are located in the rural areas surrounding the town, in Gwanda South and Gwanda North.
Zimbabwe is a land-locked country, situated between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers, with Botswana and Mozambique to the west and east. It has a semi-tropical climate, with low land in the river valleys in the north and south which are very hot and dry. The central watershed is more moist and fertile.
Independence was won in 1980 after a bitter war against a white settler government. Considerable efforts at development were made in the 1980s. However, in the early 1980s the population of the Matabeleland provinces became victims of the ruling party’s (ZANU PF) attempt to eliminate political opposition. Thousands of civilians were massacred. Psychologically the people have not fully recovered from these events, which traumatised them even more than the liberation war of the 60’s and 70’s.
Attempts to redistribute land from white farmers to black Zimbabweans gathered pace in the 1990’s, and turned violent after 2000. Partly as a result this land grab the economy has imploded. Today Zimbabwe is a pale shadow of its former prosperity. Poverty is wide-spread, as is complete destitution. Perhaps as many as 20% of the population has emigrated to the developed world and to South Africa in the past twenty years.
Matabeleland South is one of the poorer provinces – situated in the dry south-west of the country. The area has long witnessed labour migration towards Botswana and South Africa. Reliable crops can be grown only with irrigation. The main commercial activities are cattle and game ranching and many small mining operations.
A typical elementary school in rural Gwanda, Zimbabwe
Gwanda district lies in the centre of the province. Gwanda town, situated on the main road to South Africa from Bulawayo, is the capital of the province. The 2012 census shows its population as 20,000, with another 115,000 in the district. Approximately 40% are under the age of 15, showing a high dependency ratio and a large proportion of school-age population.
The old divisions originally made along racial lines persist. The areas closest to the town, the road and the railway are privately owned commercial ranches. The drier, less accessible areas, remain as “communal lands” with land designated for use by traditional leaders – headmen and chiefs. Villages, which are actually family homesteads, are scattered throughout the communal lands.
The villagers are living hand-to-mouth from sporadic harvests of maize and small grains which depend on extremely unreliable rainfall. Their cattle and goats are important possessions. Water is obtained from seasonal streams, wells, and boreholes. Many of the able-bodied adults, particularly men (but also women) migrate to Zimbabwean towns or other countries in the region. They send small amounts of money home to support their families.
Before its complete collapse after 2000, Zimbabwe’s economy was composed of a healthy mix of agriculture, mining and manufacturing. Supporting services were developed pre-independence and continued afterwards. Matabeleland South’s main contribution has been ranching and mining, mainly of gold but also of diamonds.
Manufacturing is minimal, although a large cement factory still functions just south of Gwanda. Two medium-size gold mines are situated just to the west of the town. Artisanal gold mining, mainly in river beds, has attracted a floating population, which to a large extent operates outside the law. The majority of the people in the district live in the communal lands, eking out a subsistence and depending on remittances from family members.
The collapse of the national economy affects everyone. People suffered from hyperinflation reaching the millions of percentage points in 2008 and are currently, since 2015, experiencing a most debilitating shortage of cash. Services have deteriorated and national and family debt has skyrocketed.
A rural homestead in rural Gwanda, Zimbabwe
The spectacular growth of the provision of schools after independence made Zimbabwe one of the most educated nations in Africa. Schools were built in rural areas. In theory, every child could attend from Grade 1 to Form 4 (grade 12). Teachers were trained in the thousands so that by the late 1990’s virtually all teachers were qualified. The vast majority of children did attend schools.
Quality, however, did suffer. In many cases, rural schools, especially secondary schools, were too far for children to walk. Fees are paid by parents for both elementary and secondary school, even though attendance is officially compulsory. Many children in Gwanda district have been unable to attend when family income is insufficient to provide the small fee or buy the uniform.
As inflation spiraled out of control in the 2000s, grants from the central government to education became meaningless, leaving very little money for the schools to operate on. By 2008, there were virtually no textbooks for children to use, and many failed to learn to read during those years.
The situation improved for a while after 2009, but currently, resources for learning are very limited, declining and almost never adequate. When there are textbooks there are no supplementary materials for children to consolidate and extend their skills/knowledge from the bare minimum.
Families have no resources to buy books for children, and even if they did, culturally books would not be a priority. Nevertheless, Zimbabweans have always valued schooling, and many do now realise that they must make serious sacrifices if their children are to benefit.
Since government has not been able to maintain provision for education at an acceptable standard, other organisations are needed to encourage and supplement the efforts of communities. Few such organisations operate in Matabeleland South.
A street scene in Gwanda Town, where the ENMT Main Library is located.