ON arrival at De Rus farm — once a great business just three kilometres out of Chegutu which boasts prime agricultural land and was a few years ago quite a spectacle with thriving crops and irrigation equipment running all day long — one is struck by the poorly maintained grass-thatched mud huts at the compound and signs of dereliction.
Before the land reform programme the farm workers at De Rus which was owned by an LJ Cremer could afford to send their children to schools around Chegutu.
Today, most of the children have dropped out of school as their parents lost employment when the farm, which employed more than 300 workers, was seized in 2002 for the resettlement of local blacks.
And this, according to the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (Gapuz), mirrors a countrywide education crisis on farms now mostly occupied by indigenous farmers.
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“Children in a big way bore the brunt of the wanton destruction of infrastructure that came with farm invasions that started in 2000,” said Austin Muswere, a Gapuz official.
Those who chose to remain on farms like De Rus are mainly foreign nationals or their descendants from Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia who had nowhere to go as Zimbabwe had become their home.
“Before the invasions, the employer would provide us with almost all our needs. Now that there was destruction of infrastructure, many children do not go to school and most of them are engaged in forced labour, gold panning or sell fruits on the main highways,” said Muswere.
The 716-hectare De Rus farm was acquired for resettlement in 2002 and Cremer was left with just 60ha, but now government has ordered him to vacate that piece of land as well.
He is currently in the process of packing his belongings to leave, paving way for a new indigenous farmer.
While the workers are bidding a fond farewell to Cremer not all hope is lost as another door is opening for their children.
A pastor with Christ for Salvation Ministries, Erasmus Nyemba (61) has put up a makeshift school at the farm with the help of well-wishers.
He is using three tents and a disused farmhouse to teach Grades 1 to 5. Nyemba also has an early childhood development class.
“I was operating an office in Chegutu for orphans and under-privileged children when I realised many children were coming for help. I then decided to find out where these children were coming from,” said Nyemba.
As a result he visited De Rus farm where he discovered there were 50 children who were not going to school.
He then decided to start a school with the help of church members, some of whom became volunteer teachers at the school named Donhodzo, meaning comforter.
To date Donhodzo has 314 children; 130 of them orphans. Some of the children walk a distance of four kilometres to and from school daily.
“The biggest challenge is that the school is not registered and there aren’t enough resources like books and infrastructure,” Nyemba said.
Five volunteer teachers aged between 23 and 25, who have no formal training, are the glimmer of hope for the children.
“I feel I have an obligation as part of God’s work to help these children whose future is at stake, although I do not have a training background,” Nyemba said.
“We get teaching ideas from other trained teachers,” said Nomatter Phiri, a volunteer with the ECD class.
But without trained teachers and registration the school cannot take the children far.
“It’s a noble thing that these people are helping these desperate children voluntarily,” said Professor Fred Zindi, an education expert.
“But they should also think of getting trained teachers and registration so that at the end of the day they teach children the right material from reliable sources.”
While President Robert Mugabe’s government boasts of black empowerment through its controversial land redistribution programme, the grim reality of the land seizures on farm workers’ children has been largely ignored.
The tragedy is that while land reform was necessary the chaotic and violent farm invasions disrupted and left hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren stranded, their future irrevocably ruined.
Currently, there are about 50 000 people employed in the agriculture sector in comparison to over 200 000 before the land reform programme.
About 2 900 white-owned commercial farms were earmarked for redistribution in the fast-track land reform programme in 2002.
Owners of listed farms were notified to stop farming within 45 days and given an additional 45 days to move out of the farms.
Many of these farms had schools, mainly providing primary education and sometimes secondary education, while farmworkers farms without schools could afford to send their children to neighbouring or government ones.
“Our government at present does not have money to pay teachers even in its own institutions. So it is a catch-22 situation as government turns a blind eye to these unregistered institutions,” said Zindi.
Most of the children at Donhodzo like Clayton Kachinji (13) and Takudzwa Kondohwe (14), who are orphans in grades 3 and 5 respectively, started school late.
A Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (2014) reveals that Mashonaland West province, where Donhodzo School is based, has the lowest percentage of children of primary school entering grade 1, which is at 66,4%, the lowest for any of the country’s provinces.
A recent United Nations report, World Fit for Children, says that the primary responsibility for the protection, upbringing and development of children rests with the family.
But for Clayton and Takudzwa, such a level of care does not exist at home.
“Clayton’s parents died as result of the HIV/Aids; he can’t even remember when they died for he was young,” said Clayton’s 68-year-old grandmother, Gladys Tembo, who started living on the farm in 1972.
The Zimbabwe Education Act [Chapter 25:04] states that all children have the right to education.
But for many children on resettled farms, this right exists only on paper.