A huge green administration building with the inscription “Management” stands imposingly high facing visitors and students alike at Dzingire Primary School, Copa area, Chimanimani.
One of the schools which lost students, administration and teaching staff, the school on Tuesday opened its doors to learners for the first time since the devastating Cyclone Idai.
Zimbabwe experienced torrential rainfall caused by Cyclone Idai between March 15 and 17 this year. The tropical stormi caused high winds and heavy rains in Chimanimani, Chipinge, Buhera, Nyanga, Makoni, Mutare Rural, Bikita, Masvingo and Gutu districts causing riverine and flash flooding and subsequent deaths, and destruction of livelihoods and property.
An estimated 50 000 households/250 000 people, including 120 000 children, were affected by the flooding and landslides after local rivers and their tributaries burst their banks.
In terms of loss of life, Dzingire Primary School was hardest hit. It lost its headmaster, bursar, two teachers and 50 pupils to the cyclone leaving a huge gap and a trail of psychosocial issues.
Returning for the first day of the new term is not easy for the almost 700 pupils who turned out for school. Being away for six weeks, the pupils at Dzingire eagerly want to see their classmates.
As the attendance registers are being marked, some realise that their classmates are never going to come to school again, so is their headmaster, two teachers and the bursar.
The all so familiar “akayeredzwa or akaenda nemvura” by those who knew the fate that befell their classmates can be heard over and over again.
On the first day of school, a lot of work is being carried out to counsel both students and teaching staff.
Under a large tree, students, teaching staff and expert teachers sent by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education sing gospel songs.
The students narrate their fears, while others outdo each other to name natural disasters they know.
Disasters like cyclones Idai and Kenneth, earthquakes, volcanoes, droughts, heatwaves, find themselves on the list.
The pupils speak of ways to protect themselves from the natural disasters, one of the issues being that they should not build houses on river banks and in mountainous places.
They also speak of their fears.
One small boy stands up. He says he fears ghosts of the people who were swept away. He believes the tormented souls of those who were swept by the floods lurk in their midst at night. He is also afraid to walk alone to school.
Another boy raises his hand. He says he fears God.
Another fears the night, as it brought with it bad memories of Cyclone Idai which killed his loved ones.
More and more pupils start to feel comfortable and participate. A small barefoot girl confidently speaks. She fears owls. A soft voice from the back shouts “I fear Satan.”
One boy is afraid of mermaids. He believes they can turn one into a traditional healer. Moreover, he believes the cyclone was caused by mermaids and he has his own theory.
He tells his schoolmates that word in the community is that a mermaid from Zimbabwe went to Mozambique, where it met a mermaid from that country. Following the meeting, the two mermaids returned to Zimbabwe and there was some misunderstanding over unresolved gossip. The gossip resulted in a fight between the two mermaids resulting in Cyclone Idai. The other students agree. This is what they have been hearing in their communities and are taking it as fact.
Another pupil has a fear of witches. She believes they hurt people and also caused Cyclone Idai.
The list of fears goes on. Snakes, hyenas, baboons, lions, mice, etc.
These are issues that teachers at Dzingire Primary and other educationists in Manicaland have to deal with on the first day of the second school term. They have a mammoth job of assuring students that all will be well and offer counselling to dire cases. They also have the tough job of separating myth from reality so that the pupils move on with their lives and concentrate on school.
This exercise, according to remedial tutor Mr Charles Mavhunze is extremely important as it helps them identify children with issues that need urgent attention including psychosocial support.
“As the children speak of their fears, we can see from their responses which cases need the most attention and immediately work on those,” he says.
Senior teacher at Dzingire Primary School Mr Elisha Manyuchi says the turnout on the first day was good.
He, however, says they have already identified 27 pupils who survived the cyclone and may need more support. More cases are likely to emerge as the pupils settle during the first week.
He explains that the loss of teaching staff and students greatly affected them adding they were receiving psychosocial support.
A Grade 4 pupil says she misses her headmaster and two teachers who died. She also wishes the pupils who lost their lives would return and join them in class and also play games in the soccer pitch.
“I loved our headmaster, he was a good man. He never sent me home whenever my parents delayed in paying school fees. I will miss him,” she says.
As some students sit under a tree with their teachers, others queue to receive laundry soap to wash their uniforms. They each receive four small pieces of laundry soap which is quickly stashed in bags for fear of losing it.
At Kwirire Primary School also in Chimanimani, 900 students out of the 1 111 have turned up for the first day at school.
The school did not lose pupils or staff in the cyclone. It only suffered infrastructural damage.
The ECD classroom block at the school had its roof blown off, windows shattered and floors damaged by the cyclone.
As a result, ECD A pupils are learning from an unfamiliar structure pitched just in front of the ruins of their classroom.
The big white tent stands out like a sore thumb and is a major attraction at the school. The ECD B class has also fallen in love with the tent and refuses to leave and use their classroom which suffered minimum damage. Teachers have no choice but combine both ECD A and B classes.
Provided by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) the tent serves as a temporary relief to classroom shortages at the school. Its occupants love it, so do other enthusiastic pupils in other grades who come during breaktime to enter and leave then come out shouting “ndamupinda” (I got in).
Eighty-seven other temporary learning spaces like the big white tent to ensure boys and girls have access to safe learning spaces where classrooms have been damaged or destroyed have been made available to some affected schools. Reconstruction of damaged classrooms is also taking place.
Through the Education Development Fund, Unicef has been supporting the Zimbabwean Government through the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education to provide access to quality education to children.
“Even in times of emergency, education, as every child’s right, must remain a top priority. UNICEF — in coordination with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, and with funding from the German government and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) –is supporting the reopening of schools in cyclone-affected areas with 123 classroom tents; over 100 000 textbooks, and ‘School-in-a-Box’, early childhood development and recreational kits,” said Laylee Moshiri, Unicef representative in Zimbabwe.
“UNICEF is working tirelessly to create learning spaces for children that keep them safe from harm, and providing teachers and students with vital psychosocial support to strengthen their resilience to overcome the trauma and stress of the disaster.
“In addition, UNICEF and partners are rehabilitating sanitation facilities in schools, and restoring community water systems which also serve these schools.”
In the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, school supplies like exercise books, textbooks, ECD kits, recreational kits, buckets, rulers, staplers, punchers, etc, which were swept away have been made available on the day of schools opening.
At Kwirire Primary School, their consignment of books arrived the previous week and was ready for distribution.
The school’s headmaster, Mr Twoboy Sithole, says the turnout on the first day was good.
“During the school holiday, we sent out messages to parents. When parents came to collect food here, we asked them to motivate their children to come to school. The turnout today proves this worked,” he says.
The school has 1 111 students. Of these 543 are boys while 568 are girls. There are 23 teachers of whom 10 are female and 13 males. One of the teachers is a para professional, he explains.
Before schools opened, the teaching staff also went through psychosocial support. Most important was how teachers were taught to motivate leaners affected by the cyclone.
“We were taught on how to handle students with care and that life does not end there. It is the future that matters now, not the past,” he adds.
Kwirire Primary School Development Committee chairperson Mr Thomas Muzondi said most of their classrooms developed cracks as a result of Cyclone Idai.
A total of 139 schools were affected by Cyclone Idai while all previously inaccessible schools except one are now accessible.
Unicef is supporting 62 of the schools. Of the 62 schools, 58 are in Chimanimani and Chipinge. Three are in Beitbridge and one in Mutasa.
The number of affected school children stands at 94 000. Of these, Unicef is supporting 60 000.
The School Improvement Grant totalling USD$174 000 has also been allocated for 58 of the 62 schools that Unicef is assisting and each school will receive a grant of US$3 000.
The money can be used on infrastructure repairs.
Furthermore, with Unicef support, partners including Childline Zimbabwe and REPSSI have been on the ground in most affected areas of Chimanimani providing psychosocial support, bereavement support, and trauma counselling to children. Through the Department of Social Welfare, social workers were deployed to affected areas to provide critical protection services for affected children.
As the first day of the second school term ends at Dzingire and Kwirire primary schools, most students go back home hoping to return and see their friends and teachers the following day. They say at night they will pray that an event like Cyclone Idai will never affect them again.