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Making a difference

I have a German friend who doesn’t like Switzerland much; she doesn’t like their neutrality: ‘The world is not a nice place and no one can afford to be neutral,’ she has said often enough with frenzied passion. During both World War One and World War Two, Switzerland managed to keep a stance of armed neutrality, and was not involved militarily. However, because Switzerland was centrally located, neutral, and generally undamaged, the war allowed the growth of the Swiss banking industry. At the moment the Swiss banking system is considered a safe place for illgotten and illegal money. A lot of African dictators hide money they loot from their countries in Swiss bank accounts: so much for neutrality!

I do not believe in neutrality either and have sometimes been radical, to the detriment of my wellbeing and security. The same German friend of mine, in apparent contradiction of herself has often asked me, ‘Do you have to be so radical?’ I have had moments to ponder this, and while examining the ‘it begins with you’ theory have actually realized that small good acts and efforts will add up to something. Starting at the grassroots is actually a viable option.

I remember when I was teacher in Tsholotsho (a district in Matebeland North 98 kilometres northwest of Bulawayo – the second city of Zimbabwe – as the bird flies). Tsholotsho is a dry place; agriculture without some form of irrigation system is a waste of time. They try to farm maize without much success. Sorghum, millet and watermelons give modest returns that seem hardly worth the effort.

There are no rivers in Tsholotsho, or at least in the part of Tsholotsho I am familiar with, just insignificant streams that dry up a few hours after an occasional downpour. The muddy dams last only a few weeks of the ‘rainy’ season, which begin in November and, with luck, end in March. At the school where I taught, the rain – or lack of it – was often the chief topic of conversation. Locals coming to pump for water for their livestock at the school’s borehole well into the night is a familiar sight.

All in all, the wall of pessimism that greeted me there before I unpacked my bags was understandable. But I could not accept the pessimism I encountered towards education. Most boys ran away from school, went to South Africa and came back as drivers with money in their pockets, so it was hard to convince learners that education was important. The teachers were even worse, and I was told not to bother doing much work because the learners were bound to fail anyway.

I might be a pessimist in many aspects of my life, but believing that a whole community of people is mediocre is ridiculous. I dived into my work and before long this rubbed off on the learners, who put in more than average effort, with no threat of being caned, as was the norm.

My biology class of 16-18 year-olds – mostly boys – achieved a 25 per cent pass rate, up from a very bad zero. We had weekend lessons and extra homework, all this in a jolly mood. We visited the school garden where agriculture learners grew spinach and tomatoes to see which crop had a nitrogen, potassium or phosphorus deficiency. We discussed the state of their livestock – we didn’t have a fancy laboratory.

School in CAR

School time. Photo by Pierre Holtz | OCHA | www.hdptcar.net under a CC Licence.

I took over the netball team from a bunch of female teachers who sat in the shade during practice and let the girls coach themselves. I was different: I ran with the girls and never sat down during training sessions. I also took over the drama club. The netball team did not lose a single match on their way to the district finals. The drama club waltzed its way to the national finals of a drama competition. We performed one of my own plays, The Chronicles of Dr Phiri, which attracted mutters of being ‘too political’. This was before political thought and life became the high-risk business it now is in Zimbabwe.
At times I felt overwhelmed. At times I thought I could not do much alone. The school head loved my efforts, but some of the more senior teachers hated me – good work makes shoddy work appear even shoddier.

As writer Martin Porter explains: ‘Perpetrators, collaborators, bystanders, victims: we can be clear about three of these categories. The bystander, however, is the fulcrum. If there are enough notable exceptions, then protest reaches a critical mass. We don’t usually think of history as being shaped by silence, but, as English philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing”.’

I have heard a lot of people say they are not political, because in very repressive countries like Zimbabwe, taking a stance often leads to imprisonment or torture. But it doesn’t always have to be a direct stand against politicians. For example, I find it very hard to put rubbish anywhere but the bin...

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