This Grass Hut.

This is the Bush School that must bear the brunt of the hopes, frustrations and failures of an entire nation post-election. Image: Twitter @fannuelmabhugu

On one of my sporadic twitter recaps this morning I scrolled upon this from @FannuelMabhugu who by handle and profile is an educationist (sic). Sir, I salute you, I am also a teacher. My immediate thoughts turned to the numbers; all 10 of the teachers are qualified?!, the teacher to student ratio must be high (lucky kids, lucky teachers), that building is a bit small for 10 teachers, are there more buildings? and ah…. our beloved kumusha, that dusty rural idyll/hell every city child of indigenous heritage must come to love/hate.

This a village school in rural Zimbabwe, a country that has been independent of colonial and minority government rule for 38 years, yes, but Grice’s maxims dictate that we are to meant to cooperate and read more into the tweet than the numbers; I am afraid I was being too literal in my glance and go attitude. I scrolled down and read the comments and yes, this is a rural school in Zimbabwe and apparently after 38 years of independence children primary schools in rural areas should not look like this (mud huts). At this point I considered responding to some of the posts, even liked a few but realised that this tweet and subsequent comments required more than the cursory like and 140 characters. I question the underlying assumptions of this tweet and the subsequent replies which no matter which way I look at it reveal the deep scars of colonial and political legacies that remain in the language we use and which forms our prejudices and assumptions about progress and cultural identity.

Please note that my screenshots are not in the order that they appear under the tweet and I have left some out – deliberately so – this is an exercise in deconstruction in the loosely Socratic method.

keche primary tweets.png
Education and poverty becoming the punch bag of the frustrated electorate.

The sustainable classroom built by the community.

So, what do we know about this rural school in Mashonaland Central? Thanks to twitterati we know that this is Keche Primary School and that there are many like it in Zimbabwe and indeed across Africa. Some commentators approach the tweet from the active citizenry perspective and state that the villagers who live in the catchment area of this school could seek sponsorship from businesses to build a school of bricks and mortar. A genuine and bona fide method of community building aided by corporate social responsibility. Maybe more businesses should get the hint – especially if they want to build progressive alliances with the majority voters, customers and workers of the future… Another asks, can the villagers be empowered through knowledge and creativity to make their own bricks? Do they have the necessary materials? Or hang on a minute, were the villagers ahead of the game and did they use their initiative and pooled resources to build THIS school using the materials they had access to – poles and grass? These are all good questions. Without added contextual information we don’t know if this is a community project built by and for the community. I assume it is, I find it hard to believe the government would provide grass and poles for a small rural school. So for the sake of this argument, it is likely that the villagers around Keche Primary School built this little school themselves. This building is simple. Make no mistake, I am not saying that it is a high-tech classroom from the future or even from a City or from abroad, but it is a simple traditional building that all in the area will have expertise in the build and use of, it is sustainable, and it is made from local materials. It does not have an asbestos roof and will not require expensive or routine maintenance or upgrades. Please tell me what is wrong with that?

Zanu PF misrule leads to continued proliferation of traditional buildings.

However, the other commentators bring forth their arguments that this is unacceptable as a place of schooling. This mud, wood and grass hut, a traditional structure in Southern Africa, is evidence of the shambolic rule of Zanu PF.

Children learning outside and not sitting in neat rows behind desks like some sort of 1950’s English boarding school. photo credit: woodleywonderworks   photopin (license)

Western pedagogy has been making mandatory the use of outdoor activities and spaces integral to early years learning. Academies and councils spend thousands of cowries planning, tendering and building outdoor classrooms and forest schools. Teachers are encouraged to get children moving in classrooms – hold a seminar, go outside – didactic is a veritable swear word and at a government-funded school in the UK, didactic teaching in lesson observations will get you a series of formal warnings and your notice if substantial remedial change is not implemented. Yet here we are, Africans, living in the middle of the biggest outdoor classroom on the planet and we cannot see outside the colonisers’ box. You do not need bricks and mortar to teach children to read and write. You need books and pencils. Somewhere comfortable to sit would help wouldn’t it – a desk and a chair. What you categorically need are qualified, caring, dedicated and inspirational teachers to help young people stand tall and proud and make the most of what they do have and have inherited in this life, even if that is nothing more than rural poverty. How is this traditional building evidence of Zanu PF’s failures? Did Zanu PF promise at independence that no child will ever have to suffer the traditional discomfort of sitting in the shade of thatch on mud? Are all traditions and traditional aspects of our culture to be thrown away for the sake of progress and did we really fight and die for that right 38 years and more ago? As a teacher, I find this frustrating. A school is more than a building and some books and pens. The most valuable assets in the transactional process that is education are the teacher and the students. We can hold the ruling party accountable for many, many sins and transgressions but eradicating all traces of our heritage in the form of grass huts is not one. Technology needs circuit boards, fibre optic cables and plastic, not bricks and mortar.

Children and their parents, sitting on the floor in front of a teacher reading a book and not sitting in neat rows behind desks like some sort of 1950’s English boarding school.  photo credit: woodleywonderworks photopin (license)

But it is not enough that this simple building is the evidence of political neglect. Not only is this traditional building evidence of corruption and hopelessness faced by millions as a result of post-independence rule by one political party, it is an “academic eyesore”. Now as an academic, teacher and widely travelled shepherd of school children, I must put the record straight; I can categorically say that this building is not an academic eyesore. An academic eyesore is a 15-year-old child who sticks pictures in her book using honey and not a glue stick (true story). An academic eyesore is a D grade on an open book test or a page torn out of a textbook or staying up until 2am to mark a test so poorly written it could have been sat by someone who has never been in a classroom, ever. An academic eyesore is a child using spray paint to draw a phallic tag on the wall of the painted white exterior of a classroom. These traditional buildings made of earth, grass and wood and that have housed the births, marriages, deaths and all sundry small rituals of everyday life for thousands of years,

Serves you right for voting in your best interests poor people.

Not only do these great 263 twitterati think it is an eyesore, they have no sympathy for the children who take to this traditional building on a regular basis to improve their lives with education. People, ask yourselves, do the people of Keche Primary School want your sympathy? This is where it gets unnecessarily political. Why should people who live in the rural areas, who have no desire or prospect to leave and live a city life be forced to align themselves with people who do not have their best interests, or for that matter, any of their interests at heart? Why should the people of Mashonaland Central vote for the opposition (MDC) just because that would mean that you (the MDC supporter of means and presumably a city dweller) get to maintain a relatively paradisiacal existence (your children in schools of bricks perhaps?) when they have to worry about more, for instance, where their next meal comes from if the crops fail this year and not the cost of running their car or Radox liquid shower gel? Did you or the MDC go to their local community and reach out to them to explain the direct benefits to them if they voted for the opposition? They probably don’t care that you think they betrayed you – what does loyalty look like to you and when were you ever loyal to them? Wake up people of the opposition, city dwellers and all others with privilege. The rural uneducated and the rural children are poor but not stupid and they are not beholden to you. What have you done for them lately?

Decolonise your rhetoric. Do it for the kids.

I once privately floated the idea that Zimbabwe’s dysfunction is not chaotic or abnormal but a series of calculated and expertly implemented policies to establish a new normality. It was mooted, and I have not tried to engage any public facing ‘thinkers’ about it again, until today, when I throw this radical partial deconstruction out into the wind (directly at you) and  put myself in for a hostile dealing with on the 263 twitter or more likely, the silence of nobody caring and nobody reacting.

Here we are in the late stage Victorian/post-industrial capitalism witnessing the fracturing of the Western democratic status quo and people are panicking. Everywhere. Not least in Zimbabwe, where hopes – of a functional and non-rhetoric-based opposition riding on a white stallion into the heart of an election and liberating the oppressed people from tyrannical rule to carry them into the sunset – have been well a truly dashed. If you are unfamiliar with the ins and out of what has been happening, you should go here. As twitter tweets recriminatons in the open space that is the internet, what of the voice of the ordinary Zimbabwean who isn’t twitter literate and doesn’t care for machinations of high politics? Furthermore, what of the voices that call to say, ‘wait, can’t we do things differently?’ Zimbabweans need to tap into their resourcefulness, their traditions and their love of the country and come together to find solutions outside the political sphere. Politics is going nowhere and aside from the odd bin skip it isn’t building schools or hospitals while it is here.

School isn’t a brick and mortar building with new shiny equipment and air conditioning neither is education simply a game of fact memorisation. Educating citizens of the future should not be about voluntarily shunning the cultural heritage of your ancestors and selling it down the stream for transient comforts that mimic a dream sold to you by the colonial regime and continually perpetrated by all politicians. Why should we shun traditions or connections to traditions that serve to strengthen our cultural identities with pride and a good degree of reality?

This grass hut is not the enemy, the result of political failure or inadequacy, it is a symbol of our heritage and relationship with the environment. You do not have the right to denigrate it because you are upset that your political party did not win the election. This grass hut is not the enemy of progress and the thief of your liberation. Most importantly, what about the children of Keche Primary School and indeed, across the country, who look up to you – educators, parents, politicians and Twitterati, to show them the future and the way? All they see right now is self-righteous squabbling that sends them mixed messages about their identity and their future. Decolonise your mind.

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