Zimbabwe's ex-combatants test new models for education

Mementos of ``the struggle'' are everywhere at Mapfure College - on walls and doors, in voices and handshakes. For students here, ex-combatants of the civil war that transformed white-ruled Rhodesia into black-ruled Zimbabwe, they are reminders that the struggle to improve their lives goes on. And Mapfure, they hope, will play a key role in that struggle.

The ex-combatants - who, according to one of Mapfure's directors, may number as many as 350,000 - range in age from 25 to 30 years old. They are men and women who either actually fought during the war or fled to neighboring countries and lived in bush camps. Their formal education ended abruptly, and today they find themselves without the skills to move into university-level studies or to nail down a permanent job.

After the war ended, programs were established to provide funds for ex-combatants and to help them train for civilian life. But a number of these programs came to an end in 1984 for lack of funding and because of concerns they were not meeting the needs.

Recent debate in Parliament has focused on giving unemployed ex-combatants access to job-skills training and granting them life pensions. It has also focused on giving preferential treatment to those who are employed - recognizing their years in service as part of current employment pensions.

The college at Mapfure, which currently has 64 students, is a pilot project for ex-combatants who still want to work. Its methods, which combine academics with vocational and technical training, were devised by the Zimbabwe Foundation for Education with Production (Zimfep), an organization launched by the government at independence to research new strategies in education.

As in almost all sub-Saharan African nations, Zimbabwe's current education system remains based on models built during British colonial rule - models that largely fail to produce graduates that can meet the needs of the industrial and agricultural sectors.

``The [white] Rhodesian system was maintained such that their children could go to Oxford,'' says Mathius Mtobi, education officer for Zimfep. ``They wanted a European education - Shakespeare and such - but that has nothing to do with the lives of 90 percent of the population.''

When it was founded, Zimfep's mandate was twofold: to resettle thousands of young people who had been studying in camps in Botswana, Mozambique, and Zambia; and, through the establishment of eight primary and secondary pilot schools, to pioneer educational experiments that integrate academic subjects with practical training.

Today, Zimfep is focusing on the second mandate, working with the adult students at Mapfure and children of the original ex-combatants at the eight pilot schools. Eventually, the government hopes to integrate Zimfep's approaches into all its schools.

The curricula at Mapfure focus on basic academic subjects (English, math, and ``political economy'') and training in agriculture, technical services, and job creation. The latter is done by helping graduating students set up small, collective farms and businesses.

Students in Mapfure's building-trade classes, for example, learn drafting, architecture, and building design. They build model homes and structures on the campus which the school puts to use. The college is trying to market the services of students in nearby Chegutu.

But the school is feeling some growing pains. ``We are a young school, with problems to be worked out,'' says one member of its directorship.

A day spent at the college suggests that its problems are largely similar to those experienced by most new institutions: finding funds, qualified teachers, and equipment. But Mapfure's clientele creates special problems. Its students are beyond college age - both emotionally and practically speaking, Mr. Mtobi says.

``Most of them are married, they have families, but they have no source of income. So, when they are here they always think of their families at home. If there is a problem at home, work at school is disturbed,'' Mtobi says. Usually, the families live some distance away, and the school can provide no support services.

Additionally, pregnancy has forced a number of students to drop out. Despite posters plastered everywhere warning students of indiscriminate sex, Mtobi says it is very difficult to ``openly discuss these things with our women.''

These challenges may pale, however, in comparison with the broader aims of Mapfure to be part of pioneering reforms for the country's entire education system.

Practical training such as this requires extremely expensive tools, materials, and equipment. Mapfure, like all Zimfep schools, is given much more money per pupil than Zimbabwe allots for its other schools, says Eric Beining, a representative of a West European development agency that is helping to fund the college.

The Zimbabwean government is in no position - financially or politically - to put into place an education system based on the Zimfep models.

Setting up an education system that separates students into academic or vocational programs depending on their school performance is a sensitive issue. Under colonial rule, a ``streaming'' system stigmatized technical education as a second-rate option for the less intelligent.

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