Chinese as a compulsory language in Zimbabwe schools is "rank madness"

The government proposal to make Chinese, Kiswahili, French and Portuguese compulsory in Zimbabwe’s state-run schools is “rank madness”, says Rejoice Ngwenya, the head of Comaliso, a Harare-based public policy think tank.

A primary school in Murambinda, in Manicaland, Zimbabwe
A primary school in Murambinda, in Manicaland, Zimbabwe Marina Burgeon/RFI

“I would say for a country that is struggling to pay existing civil servants, this is rank madness,” says Ngwenya.

State-controlled The Herald reported earlier this week on the proposal, adding that the draft curriculum must be approved by the cabinet.

Zimbabwean government will need to implement these new requirements with the resources it has available. Earlier this year, Lazarus Dokora, the Primary and Secondary Education minister and the person behind the reforms, said that Zimbabwe has 9,000 unqualified teachers that need to be retrained in order to be at a level where they can teach.

Zimbabwe has lost a large number of its qualified teachers to neighbouring South Africa, where some have moved to pursue better and more lucrative teaching opportunities.

Teachers, particularly rural teachers, already have a lot to deal with, says Obert Masaraure, the president of the Rural Teachers of Zimbabwe who spoke to RFI from his classroom in Wedza, in Mashonaland East.

“We are looking at teacher welfare where some [rural-based] teachers still have to walk five, 10 kilometres to access their workplace. But with this new curriculum being implemented, at the end of the day it won’t bring results if the economic situation is not answered as well,” he says.

Comaliso think tank head Ngwenya agrees. He says there’s also the issue of investing in teachers   many of whom have moved to South Africa for a regular salary and better working conditions. He questions if the idea was completely thought out.

“It was already that the government was talking about cutting down on employment costs and to imagine that at one particular government school you will have a French, a Chinese, a Kiswahili teacher. I mean, it’s totally unthinkable,” he says.

Students should be able to choose the language they want to study, says Earnest Mudzengi, director of the Zimbabwe Media Centre and a part-time teacher at Zimbabwe Open University. He says those languages will not benefit everyone.

“Traditionally, people have been learning English, yes, Portuguese, yes, there have been some private institutions that speak Portuguese. And I know that Chinese has also been introduced at the university level. But to make it compulsory, I think it’s unfair. Let people learn those languages out of their own volition,” he says.

The government is heaping more requirements on students at the risk of eliminating their own national heritage, says Ngwenya. English, Shona and Ndebele are the official languages of Zimbabwe, with an additional 13 local languages used throughout the country.

“We already have a problem of quality of teaching of Ndebele in Mashonaland area. So, it’s something I insist is a noble idea but it needs to be introduced cautiously so the overall investment, the human capital that is going to be involved is massive. I don’t know what kind of introductory time cycle Dr Lazarus Dokora had in mind,” he says.

There is a positive aspect to the new curriculum. Students will now learn the history of Zimbabwe, which wasn’t truly present before, says Masaraure, the president of the Rural Teachers of Zimbabwe.

“At the end of the day, we have people who know a lot about the history of China, the history of England, the history of America, but there is very little knowledge of the history of their own country. We believe that our curriculum as a country should be able to shape the people of Zimbabwe.”

So while the Primary and Secondary Education Ministry takes away an emphasis on languages like Ndebele, it is giving students back the rich history of Zimbabwe.

Rank madness or a better way for Zimbabwe students? RFI wanted to ask that question to Peter Muzawazi, Zimbabwe’s director of policy planning, research and development in the Ministry of Education but could not reach him for comment.

It is now up to the cabinet to decide the fate of Zimbabwe’s primary and secondary students.

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