THE worst floods in 40 years that swamped Masvingo did not just wash away homes and destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people near Tokwe-Murkosi dam, but also swept away the hopes of hundreds of school children who are due to write their Grade 7 primary school examinations later this year.
By Gamuchirai Masiyiwa
The schools were razed to the ground by weeks of relentless rain and this has left many children stranded, their plans floating or, as the more pessimistic believe, drowned.
A Grade Seven pupil at Chehuku primary, one of the schools affected by the floods which engulfed southern parts of Masvingo province, Esther Maravanyi, said she last attended school on February 7 and doubts she will be able to sit, let alone pass, her crucial end-of-year examinations.
Instead of being in school preparing for the exams, the young girl is now literally a refugee, trapped in a camp that has become “home” after the Tokwe-Murkosi community was rescued from the floods.
It is a difficult, traumatic new existence beset by misery and despair.
Esther now spends the better part of the day cooking and washing dishes, away from her books, teachers and fellow pupils.
“I want to go to school and learn. I do not like being here and I miss our home. It is boring to spend the whole day here cooking and washing dishes for my parents,” she said resignedly.
A visit to the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society transit camp at Nuanetsi Ranch in Chigwizi, Masvingo, showed the vulnerable among women and children were bearing the brunt of the floods.
As I arrived at the ranch, some 210 km from Masvingo town, I could not take my eyes off children who were loitering and frolicking around the tents, some looking miserable and hopeless.
Moving around the identical tents provided by humanitarian organisations, I realised that many children had lost their carefreeness, assuming the duties of parents in the most crucial times of their lives when others are at school.
Many of the children at the camps spend most of their day fetching rationed fresh water at the nearest water tanks and preparing meals. Fear, glum and anxiety reflect on the pale faces of the children who could be seen loitering while their counterparts are at school.
The visit to the camps showed the catastrophic side of floods which have destroyed the lives and livelihoods of many villagers, casting the hopes of many children into desolation.
Another child whose future hangs in the balance, Gertrude Hari — a Grade Six pupil at Chehuku Primary School — says she has been out of school for weeks and spends most of her time playing at the Red Cross play centre.
“Our school was destroyed by floods and I am unhappy that other pupils in some areas are in school when I am not. I now spend the day playing netball at the play centre,” she said.
Despite being forced out of school because of floods, Gertrude believes with adequate provision of educational material and a place to learn from, her vision of being a teacher will not be shattered.
A secondary school teacher in Bikita, whose rural home in Chivi was affected by the floods, said it is a depressing situation for schoolchildren who are increasingly falling behind their syllabus as a result of disruptions by floods.
“These children have lost the better part of the first term,” said the teacher who spoke anonymously as he is not allowed to speak to the press. “They might or might not catch up with their syllabus. It is depressing that these children will still be expected to write the same exam with other students countrywide and pass.
“Even if lessons resume, the children will not quickly catch up with their studies. The resources are limited and will not be sufficient to carry out proper lessons. In any case there is also a shortage of teachers as most are not willing to work in areas where accommodation is a nightmare and facilities lag behind.”
Masvingo provincial education director Fadzai Ruvarashe Jirivengwa refused to comment on the state of education at the ranch, saying she was not allowed to do so by her superiors.
“I am not allowed to give information on Chingwizi to journalists by my minister,” she said.
According to a United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) report dated for February 18 2014, a response plan put in place to focus on addressing the immediate humanitarian needs was budgeted at around US$3,5 million. Funding required to deal with the floods disruptions in the education sector was pegged at US$501 900; US$5 000 had been acquired, leaving a gap of US$496 900.
Figures show it is going to be a long shot to establish a functional makeshift education system at the camp. Raviro Hari, a parent, said the situation that has affected many children has severely impacted on their welfare and growth. They would be psychologically affected by the effects of the floods which have rendered them homeless.
“The tents which were supplied to us by the humanitarian organisations are so small we only use them for sleeping. The better part of the day is spent out in the scorching sun,” Hari said.
However, in response to the dire circumstances that many of the children are living in, Red Cross and Childline are offering psycho-social support to the children traumatised by the impacts of the floods.
Fungai Maregedze, Masvingo Red Cross Provincial manager, said they established a play centre to help children cope with the loss of homes, schools and livelihoods.
“We have noticed a serious change in the behaviour of children,” said Maregedze. “They used to helplessly wander around the tents and bushes, a sign that reflected boredom and stress. But since the establishment of the centre, we have observed they are now happier as they have activities to occupy their time.
Maregedze however said it will take time for some of the kids, especially those airlifted from their homes by helicopters, to forget their ordeal.
“It’s not easy for a child who grew up in Chivi and maybe had never boarded a bus to forget the frightening experiences of being airlifted by a helicopter. They should be given room to narrate their encounters; the more they talk about them the less it becomes a terrifying experience to them,” she said.
Emmerson Gono, a psychologist, said natural disasters like floods may cause children to experience trauma and behavioural change due to abrupt change of environment after relocation.
“Depending on the loss experienced the trauma can be chronic and can take years for recovery if psychological help is not sought,” said Gono. “If they get psychological help, it can be mild or acute trauma that can end after a short time.
“Children may also develop behavioural problems due to an abrupt change of environment. They may start playing truancy, experience nightmares and younger children may regress after the trauma.”
Gono said if children are to stay for a long time at the camp, temporary education sessions must be conducted even with para-professional facilitators so that the idea of learning remains in their heads. Unless this is done, the educational prospects of the children and their future look bleak.