By Rumbidzai Ngwenya
Most pupils at 18 in Zimbabwe are either in Form Four or doing A-Level. Some at this time are already moving to tertiary education. But would anyone imagine being 18 and in Grade Three? Although it may seem like an impossibility, it’s the reality that face the Doma pupils.
Eveness Saizi is one of them and is defying the odds and becoming her own “never-too-old-to-learn” legend.
She is 18 years old and in Grade Three at Mariga Government School in the Mbire district of Mashonaland Central province.
Since she was born she never went to school up until the recent founding of the school.
To her, being at school and able to write her name, read a few lines and calculate simple mathematics is a huge achievement and is determined to go further.
She is excited to be at school after she had spent most of her life at home and unable to access education.
The girl, like many of her peers in Mariga villages, could not access education and their parents also never did.
Factors included distance to the supposed nearest school, Chapoto Primary School, which is about nine kilometres away.
“I was unable to go to school because of the distance, it’s never safe because of the wild animals in the area,” said Saizi.
Besides the distance, Mwanzamutanda River that separates the villages and Chapoto Primary School, is often flooded for about six months of the year. With no means to cross the river and avoiding the risks of crocodile attacks most children stay at home.
For centuries, the Doma people in northern-most part of Zimbabwe hunted and gathered along the mighty Zambezi and Mwanzamutanda Mountains, east of Chapoto communal lands in Kanyemba on the border with Zambia.
Many continue to lead the nomadic life in the Mwanzamutanda Mountains but with the surrounding communal areas continuing to expand, their world is slowly caving in.
Getting an education is one route for them to integrate with the rest of the country.
And despite her age, Saizi is determined to pursue an education and probably have a career. Like any child she also has a vision.
“For me going to school is an opportunity that I must fully utilise, most of girls in this area don’t go to school and some are marrying early and the cycle of poverty continues,” she said.
“I want to be different. I want to be educated that one day I will move to the city and get a job.”
Saizi does everything with determination and hopes to change the fortunes of her poor family.
“When I am educated and I have a job I want to take my family out of poverty,” she said.
However, being 18 years old and in Grade Three is nothing new in Mariga, it’s the norm.
There are a lot of pupils like Saizi. Mariga Government School has 23 girls and 20 boys who are 18 years old and in grade three, the last grade at the school.
Some are even 16 years old and in ECD. To them it’s not about the age but a life time opportunity to learn that has come just in time.
Although the school may hold the oldest grade three pupils in the country, they are embracing the golden chance to education.
Some of the pupils don’t even know their age but maybe old enough to be in form four. With most of them being born at home without documentation, keeping track of their age becomes difficult. But that doesn’t discourage them.
For the past years, education to the Doma people, especially the ones in Mariga has been a mirage.
Despite the distances, poverty has been another hindrance to accessing education.
Families survive on hunting and farming. They sell most of their vegetables in Zambia, just across the Zambezi River but earn little and not enough to pay fees. And if it wasn’t for the free education they are being offered Saizi and her peers would still be out of school.
Most of the children spent their days at home with boys either hunting or farming and girls helping with the chores. Many have married early and most girls have unplanned pregnancies as early as 16 years old.
But when Mariga Government School was opened in 2013, it ignited better hopes for education for the Doma children.
Despite age, everybody was given a chance to enrol at the school. Today the school holds a capacity of about 251 pupils and a lot more are expected to enrol.
Although the school has only three voluntary teachers who juggle between ECD and grade three pupils, they are trying their best to make it work.
Makuwere Nyamakawa, the headmaster at school said their work as voluntary teachers came about in a bid to help the Doma children acquire an education.
“These people have been marginalised for a long time, but when the Government opened a school here we could not wait for qualified teachers,” Nyamakawa said.
“Child marriages has been rampant in this area and giving these children an education maybe a better way to solve the problem.”
Although he doesn’t hold even an O-Level certificate himself, he hopes to build a better future for the children.
As much as the children are determined, poverty still holds them back. Lack of stationery and adequate food hinders them to reach their maximum potential.
For the past few months they have been living on donations made by the First Lady during her visit, but more is needed.
Many organisations such as the Education Coalition of Zimbabwe (Ecozi) and two other partners are helping the children at Mariga Government School with stationery and shoes. They have also moved to mobilise resources to better the welfare of the Doma children.
Even though the grade three class of Mariga may be the oldest in Zimbabwe, it is one of the liveliest classes one could ever meet and so eager to learn.
There is no better feeling than that of the fulfilment of an education, no matter the age for the Doma children.
With enough help from individuals and organisations, they could also exercise their right to education just like any grade three pupils on land. And who knows, with their hunger for knowledge could open a whole new world for them.