Zimbabwe turns to 'practical' schools to keep youths on the farm

Pupils here at Chindunduma primary school helped build their classrooms. They also harvested enough food to feed themselves and earn thousands of dollars for their school.

Chindunduma is the most successful example of a new model for Zimbabwe's schools -- ''education with production.''

If it lives up to the promise of Chindunduma, the program could provide an answer to a problem that has plagued African countries since independence: how to make education fit the needs of developing countries.

The educational systems that African countries inherited from their colonial rulers emphasize academic subjects. They produce graduates trained for white-collar jobs rather than for farming.

School-leavers are reluctant to return to farming, after having imbibed the belief that physical work is degrading. They form a swelling group of urban unemployed, becoming a drain on the economy and a source of political instability.

To remedy this situation, African governments have emphasized practical education. But most have failed to change the conviction that success in academic subjects is the key to prosperity.

The seven-year guerrilla war against the white minority government that ruled this country as Rhodesia may have given Zimbabwe the impetus to break out of this colonial school trap.

The eight pilot schools for the program began in the Zimbabwe refugee camps in Botswana, Mozambique, and Zambia during the war. Some 10,000 students and teachers in the schools lived and worked together long before independence came two years ago. The teaching methods and educational philosophy they evolved are the basis for the program.

The schools, located in rural areas, combine farms and workshops with classrooms and dormitories. Students learn farming and building skills, the basic requirements for rural life, in addition to studying the normal academic subjects. Ultimately, if all goes according to plan, the schools will provide students with at least one other marketable skill.

Chindunduma has wood and metal-working shops and a domestic science room equipped with sewing machines.

Students wasted no time -- they began at once to build their schools and to grow crops. At Chindunduma, construction is complete, down to the metal window frames that the primary-school students welded.

It is too early to tell whether the program will be a success. None of the other seven pilot schools in the project is as advanced as Chindunduma. Most are still being built and funding is a major problem.

At the other schools, work has just started on permanent buildings. Students live in tents and thatched huts and have classes outdoors.

Money to build the schools has come from international aid organizations, mostly Scandinavian. Zimbabwe's government pays for teachers' salaries, textbooks, and food. Planners hope the schools will eventually grow all their own food, and that sales of surplus food and cash crops will earn a large part of their operating budgets.

The government has begun a drive for local support for the schools, seeking to raise $11 million.

According to Sister Janice McLaughlin, an American missionary who works in the schools, the new schools must prove themselves academically in order to gain public support.

''The only way to convince them is with exams,'' she says. ''We have to compete with the old, colonial-elite schools.''

Initial exam results last year were promising, with students at two refugee schools scoring high among the students in their regions, she said.

Government officials backing the project say education with production accords with its socialist goals. But the school curricula include no formal political indoctrination. At morning assemblies, students sing revolutionary songs and yell political slogans, a carry-over from the days in the refugee camps, Sister McLaughlin says.

As the former refugees graduate, the schools will become rural boarding schools, integrated with the local community. The government plans to use them to test new curricula and other innovations that it will eventually use to transform the nation's entire educational system.

Whether ''education with production'' will make students want to stay in the rural areas won't be known for several years. In interviews, students said they hoped to go to the university and become teachers.

Such ambitions show a continuing belief, prevalent in African countries, that a government job is the best career. But, as Sister McLaughlin points out, at least the students aren't planning to live in the cities.

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