KWEKWE – Zimbabwean teachers are bearing the brunt of politically motivated violence as the education sector has become a key battleground for politicians’ vying for the hearts and minds of the country.
The rural areas have particularly become a dangerous place for teachers as they face various acts of intimidation and violence. One such teacher is 39 year old Kennedy Mhuri who feels lucky to be alive to tell his story after two close calls.
As I talk to him about things that are of interest such as football the good sense of humour is evident and the jokes comes easily. We talk about soccer and typically he dismisses his beloved Liverpool’s poor form with a shrug pointing out that they do well against the big teams. It is only when the conversation shifts and I ask him to relate his experiences in the country’s explosive political environment that the laughs and the jollity evaporate.
There is a sudden intensity that comes upon his face and inescapable heaviness envelopes us, the shift in the atmosphere hard to miss. I hesitate before I proceed with the interview because it is clear we are entering deep waters. The story is as chilling as it is fascinating.
Genuine tension coupled with apprehension grips his face as he relives his experiences. Mhuri did his training at Mkoba Teacher’s College in the central city of Gweru. It was at his first posting to Mudzi district in the politically charged Mashonaland region that his problems started.
He believes that he was singled out for his activities as the district chairman of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ).
“There was suspicion that we were working with the Movement for Democratic Change and I had visits from state security agents who I think later verified I was involved in genuine labour activities because their interest in me began to wane. However I do not think this diminished attention was shared by the local militia and party structures who continued to take a keen interest in my activities,” he explained.
He says he received anonymous phone calls advising him to leave quickly as his life was in danger, tips he suspects to have been from state security agents and which he promptly followed. He hastily packed his belongings and left Mudzi.
Immediately after his departure his house was turned into a base for the local militia who went on to camp there for more than two months spreading terror and mayhem in the area.
This is just one of many cases of schools that were turned into bases where militia and local youths camped, according to the PTUZ. Even now after the terror of the June 2008 election has somewhat dissipated some graduates from the infamous Border Gezi National Youth Service who acted as local commanders still occupy teachers’ houses as a present reminder to keep educators in line.
Interestingly it is not only the teachers who face such victimisation but it is extended to their families as well. A woman from Chirumhanzu district also in the Midlands area who has two of her children working as teachers said she has had to endure threats from ZANU PF youths.
“They say my children are working for the opposition”, she said.
PTUZ says they know why teachers have become deliberate targets in the political battlefield in the country.
“The task of preparing the young for their future role in society makes teachers the most important socialising influence in the life of a citizen. The education system and by implication, teachers who drive this system has a profound influence upon the wider society and the nation”, the labour body explained in a report titled Political Violence and Intimidation against Teachers in Zimbabwe.
After fleeing Mudzi, Mhuri tried to look for a new school at the same time wanting to remain as incognito as possible.
“I was literally in hiding”, he says. He later found a school just outside Kwekwe, a city with a population just under 100 000 located about 70 kilometres from Gweru where he initially trained.
Not long after that however, trouble resurfaced.
In the area he was now working there was also a network of state agents and party activists who were just as determined to spread fear amongst the teaching community.
It was at a rally at township known as Malamlela that his past caught up with him as he believes information was passed on from his ill-fated stay in Mudzi. One of the local women stood up at the rally and informed the meeting with the local Member of Parliament present that there was a new teacher at the school who was denigrating the President.
Mhuri was identified by name and he was quoted as allegedly telling his pupils that “Mugabe is President by default”, in apparent reference to the June 2008 poll.
He strongly denies these allegations saying all he wanted to do now was to maintain as low a profile as possible and concentrate on his work as he did not want a repeat of his previous experience.
Word got to him quickly enough about what had transpired and in an attempt to nip the matter in the bud he together with the headmaster approached the local party leadership who, not grasping the seriousness of the matter, were dismissive saying there was no action that was being taken against the teacher.
With his past experiences still fresh in his mind they decided to approach the party leadership in Kwekwe some of whom were known to the school headmaster just to make sure things would not boil over and give assurances that he was not involved in political activities.
As fate would have it, the headmaster got to the Kwekwe offices to find party officials from the school area who had been asked to accompany soldiers to the school to “identify the alleged teacher and his house”.
The officials however could not do this as they said they did not know the teacher in question and neither did they know his house. The headmaster took advantage of the lapse created to inform Mhuri that things were escalating.
He panicked and immediately fled covering a distance of 20 kilometres on foot leaving all his belongings behind. His unwanted guests later arrived after he was gone. He only got reunited with his property through some of his colleagues who took the trouble to transport it to Kwekwe as their own.
PTUZ put him into contact with their lawyers and they prepared themselves for any eventuality and he again went into hiding. Mhuri says he is now at another school concentrating on educating the next generation.
He says the worst part about his life right now is the uncertainty caused by a suspicion that he might still be under surveillance. It is this constant state of vigilance that he finds most stressful.
PTUZ secretary General Raymond Majongwe confirmed Mhuri’s account and said the story was not an isolated one.
“We still fear for his safety. Our members and activists have been made to suffer for their convictions and it is quite clear from the time of our formation that teachers from our labour movement have endured systematic victimisation. It is therefore not out of place that people like Kenny were identified”.
Majongwe said that it is unfortunate that members of his movement have been and continue to be labelled as pro-MDC after the party has publicly disowned the PTUZ.
“In fact, after the formation of the Government of National Unity the MDC-T went as far as labelling us pro-ZANU PF. We have consistently denied allegiance to any political party. As far as we are concerned we are independent in outlook as well as in action”.
The PTUZ secretary general says the future for teachers in Zimbabwe continues to be unclear.
“No one is safe in this country. When people’s political turf is threatened people know for a fact that ZANU PF reacts. A lot of these guys are still being monitored. There are people who are interested in what they are doing.
“With all this talk about elections we know that as the political temperature goes up ultimately the education sector will be targeted”.
PTUZ said teaching has increasingly become a dangerous profession in Zimbabwe.
“Significantly more teachers from the Mashonaland Provinces were unwilling to disclose their political party preferences, were forced to vote in virtually all elections since 2000, and reported being a victim of political violence during the 2000 Parliamentary, the 2002 Presidential election, and 2008 Presidential Run-off.
“Total violations were significantly more frequent for teachers from the Mashonaland Provinces, with assault, indecent assault, sexual violence, threats, disappearances, and extortion the most significant violations,” PTUZ said in its report.
In the study by the Research and Advocacy Unit it is recommended that education be made part of the national healing process.
“The process of national healing, if it is ever going to take off meaningfully, should have a thematic area dealing with the education sector in order to restore the social bond between teachers and communities which has been weakened by recurrent election violence and politicisation of the public service”.
Mhuri looks forward to the future with hope but his experiences will haunt him for life. Nehanda Radio