Perspective Stephen Mpofu
“WORK in the periphery is not a curse after all, as some fat-headed people in the centre might otherwise think.” The above is the probable belief of rural teachers as they celebrate with a smile the restoration by government of a hardship allowance scrapped in 2009 during the adoption of a multi-currency regime that replaced the Zimbabwe dollar, which had virtually been rendered valueless by run-away inflation, with a uniform $100 allowance being given to all civil servants.
Since the cancellation of the hardship allowance, civil servants have reportedly been reluctant to work in rural areas, or the periphery, preferring instead to ply their trade in the urban set up, the so-called centre of knowledge and wisdom where banking, postal and better shopping facilities abound.
In contrast, poor conditions of work in rural schools have resulted in the flight of trained teachers to neighbouring countries or to towns and cities within Zimbabwe where life is more bearable.
For instance, sanitation is poor, water is scarce or untreated where it is available, infrastructure is poor or non-existent, not to mention a lack of electric power such that teachers have to do with candle light or paraffin lamps to prepare for their next lesson or when marking their pupils work at night.
In addition, growth points originally set up as development zones in rural areas have in most if not in all cases remained stunted in their growth such that teachers and other civil servants in those areas have to travel to nearby towns for shopping and banking facilities which are non-existent in their localities.
Inadequate employment opportunities at these development zones also result in a drift by young educated men and women to the centre in search of jobs and a better future, resulting in more people pounding the streets in urban centres due to lack of jobs compounded in the many years since the introduction of illegal sanctions on Zimbabwe by company closures resulting in joblessness and poverty for many families.
Poor working conditions in rural schools have had telling effects in the failure rates recorded in many schools as only those teachers with the patience and perseverance of God, the love of their communities and a rare indomitability have defied the odds to continue to practise their profession under those difficult circumstances.
Skeptics might say the re-introduced hardship allowance calculated at five percent of gross pay is a mere drop in the ocean of trials and tribulations and in which teachers must perform acrobatics to stay afloat.
On the contrary, and in light of scarce resources as the country goes through an economic trough due mainly to the foreign economic embargo intended to cause regime change and reverse land reform, the hardship allowance should be seen as a step in the right direction as it incentivises workers dogged by difficult conditions under which they serve.
It is to be hoped that as the economy improves, especially with the implementation of the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation, greater attention will be given to public servants in the periphery as a way of equalising opportunities of all government employees so that disparities in conditions of service are reduced and eventually eliminated altogether to put government employees in the sticks and those in the bright lights at par.
New members of the junior parliament should be seriously taken as the eyes and voices of government on one side, and the people on the other, so that when these parliamentarians articulate social and economic challenges affecting schools in the constituencies, for instance, particular attention and prompt action will be taken by the powers that be to address the needs of the people.
News that the government plans to set up information centres in rural areas with postmodern communication facilities should go a long way in transforming the periphery from an attractive backyard of the centre to a place where Zimbabweans are informed of developments and events taking place around them and elsewhere in the global village.
The information centres, as recently announced by the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services, Cde George Charamba, are important empowerment tools for the citizens of this country, enabling them to make informed decisions and choices.
Consequently, rural teachers will be re-equipped with knowledge to give their charges a broader perspective of education than that only encoded in textbooks.
Zimbabwe is rated the country with the highest literacy rate in Africa, and that rating compels all Zimbabweans to enjoy parity in their level of education.
But that equality in rural educational opportunities can only be maintained if people only able to read and write for purposes of functional literacy-relating what they read to practical work — are graduated to higher levels of education.
Zimbabwe therefore must still work harder to retain its high grading on the continent.