“Honestly, I don’t know how to operate a computer. I’m a WhatsApp exam-refiner,” said Maxwell Chimedza. The 27-year-old prepares students who are on the threshold of sitting for Zimbabwe’s ultra-competitive high school exams, the A-Levels. The tool of his trade? A cellphone with a modest 32GB of storage.
In 2021, Chimedza captured attention locally after his class of 64 WhatsApp students between them snagged 41 A-grade marks, ostensibly placing them in the same league with students from Zimbabwe’s expensive elite boarding schools. Up to 50 000 students across the southern African country sat for the A-Level examination in 2020.
Popularly known as “Dr Maxx,” Chimedza operates from Mbare, which is the oldest township in the capital Harare, and one of the country’s poorest. “I’ll be clear,” he said, “I’m an unqualified teacher.”
Chimedza himself scooped 14 A-Level examination distinctions in 2012, but his family didn’t have the money to send him to university.
Joining the 136 000 formal teachers in Zimbabwe requires a three-year degree.
Facing the hard slog of unemployment in a country whose economy has been in the doldrums for over a decade now, Chimedza began his WhatsApp “student-polishing” endeavours in 2019.
He created WhatsApp class timetables and added audiovisual material for students in WhatsApp classrooms where he runs mock tests and grades their assignments.
Unlike traditional school teachers who get paid around US$260 monthly, Chimedza’s skills are reserved for the “last-mile” preparation of students. “Three months before exams, I can polish a student to get A-mark distinctions,” he said.
Chimedza started earning a living from his efforts as a gratuity. In 2019, Zimbabwean diaspora parents in South Africa began to wire him $10 per subject each month because he needed roughly 25GB of monthly data (which costs US$40) to host a WhatsApp classroom.
But when the Covid-19 outbreak grounded Zimbabwe’s schoolteachers, it also increased the demand for Chimedza’s WhatsApp classrooms. In March 2020, Zimbabwe shut down schools and curtailed public transport in an attempt to beat back a rising number of Covid-19 infections. Because of the low availability of high-speed Wi-Fi in Zimbabwean households, in June 2020, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, supported by Unicef, began to broadcast school lessons over local radio to keep students engaged.
Traditional radio was chosen because internet-enabled education — which has richer educational resources, videos, apps, databases, and fact-checking interfaces — is still considered out of reach for many lower-income families in Zimbabwe.
Indeed, Zimbabwe’s mobile internet is quite expensive compared with many sub-Saharan African countries, but WhatsApp-specific bundles are fairly affordable. Weekly, limitless data bundles are priced in ranges of US50 cents to US$1. WhatsApp is effectively the internet in Zimbabwe, as it accounts for nearly half of all internet traffic.
This perhaps explains why Zimbabweans have developed an informal WhatsApp-led ecosystem. For instance, as early as 2014, Zimbabwean startups like 263Chat were experimenting with innovative toolkits to deliver news and advertising to subscribers in WhatsApp messaging groups. This month, Zimbabwe’s first WhatsApp-exclusive interactive television drama series went live, with viewers serenaded by emojis, stickers, audio, video, and GIFs. Even the country’s typically conservative banks now deliver artificial intelligence-enabled financial services via WhatsApp bots and human responders.
So, when Zimbabwean schools briefly opened for examinations in September, Chimedza trimmed his WhatsApp class from 200. “I was left with 64 students. Those are the ones who finally wrote the exam under my care, making tongues wag because I got a 100% pass rate from them,” he said.
Chimedza said he’d like Zimbabwe’s government to incorporate WhatsApp school curriculums to broaden the legacy education framework. “Consider registering these cheap WhatsApp schools,” he said. “WhatsApp schools mean no expensive uniforms or desks.”
WhatsApp can be a fast and nimble tool to aid student enrollment, management, and course dissemination from primary to college, said O’bren Nhachi, an independent social scientist. “WhatsApp has over five or six million users in Zimbabwe,” he said. “Some classrooms can be brought to students sitting in the kitchen via cellphones.”
But Josiphat Gwezhira, research secretary for the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, disagrees.“Even in Zimbabwe’s cities, zones exist where WhatsApp signals are very difficult,” said Gwezhira, who said that to speak to Rest of World, he had to first drive back to his school where Wi-Fi exists. “In rural districts, we have 150 square km zones that have no WhatsApp or dial-up call signals; you have to climb a hill to ring a call.”
As a unionist, Gwezhira encounters teachers who can’t afford WhatsApp data bundles, and believes WhatsApp lessons can only make sense if internet reach is extended. “I teach 80 A-level students in the city,” he said. “Half of them don’t have cellular phones. Those that have mobile phones are not regularly online unless they have a benefactor.”— Rest of the World