issue 188 - October 1988
Chasing an illusion
Much has changed in Zimbabwe, but the school uniform
is alive and well. Margaret St Clare counts the cost.
I think the most unsettling thing about living in Zimbabwe is the way it keeps throwing bits of my British 'heritage' back in my face. Spectres I thought I had laid to rest in another time, another place, I find here alive and kicking - surprised, perhaps, to be in Africa.
School life is full of these frightening déjà vus: corporal punishment; rote learning; the absolute, arbitrary authority of the Headmaster. A friendlier, more public ghost - obvious even to the most casual visitor - is the good old school uniform. The case for school uniforms in Zimbabwe rests, as it does in my home town to this day, on two legs: uniforms are smart; and everyone is equal.
Zimbabweans are very strong on smartness and cleanliness. They are often shocked by the cursory washing habits of Western teachers! Over the past four years I have travelled on hundreds of crowded buses, with maybe 20 or 30 babies on board - and never have I been offended by body odour. Here, the body is thoroughly washed every day and expensive clothes, including uniforms, soon disintegrate under the scrubbings they receive.
The other argument is familiar to me from childhood. When we used to protest against our uniforms, my parents would reply that they were egalitarian - if we didn't have them, rich kids at school would be able to show off all their clothes, humiliating the rest and causing competition.
It is not only the arguments which are the same. As I stood in assembly here, looking at the students lined up class by class and hearing the headmaster reading the Bible and making announcements in Shona and English, I would marvel that so much of the atmosphere of my own schooldays had been transposed, almost intact, to this glorious mountain scene. Only when the students were called on to speak, could you see a real difference: for these young people were confident, dignified and free of self-consciousness in a way that only very privileged young people would be in the West.
Yet these students could be made to feel inadequate at a word from the headmaster. Every now and then teachers would be called on to check their classes for 'proper uniform'. This would provoke a hasty tucking in and buttoning up, and an embarrassed shuffling of bare feet all round. As I walked half-heartedly down the lines, I would remember how, once out of the house, I used to roll my skirtwaist over four or five times (it was in the late 1960s), hide my official shoes and don more trendy, uncomfortable one for the walk to school.
Sometimes, after these inspections, a 'model' boy or girl would be called out front to show the rest how it should be done: maroon checked dresses for girls; light blue shirt and grey short trousers for boys. In response to demand, the bigger boys were allowed to wear long trousers, but only by express permission from the headmaster to individuals. The complete uniform would cost over $50 at town prices.
This is where the 'income-generating' side of things comes in. School uniform-making is considered by rural women to be one of the most reliable cash earners, once they have sewing machines. It doesn't fall under the 'appropriate technology' umbrella and, understandably enough, fails to gladden the hearts of young Western development workers. But as long as people keep sending their children to school, there will indeed be an 'inelastic demand' for uniforms.
Unfortunately material for the dress type of uniform is so expensive that it's impossible, given retail prices in town, to make a realistic profit - I worked this out in detail with one group. But it takes more than a balance sheet to persuade people that something they've been doing for two or three years, which is popular locally and for which they've received outside support, is not worthwhile.
So why do women who are normally cautious and sensible allow themselves to be ripped off in this way? As with schooling itself, I believe the answer lies in a mixture of real and imagined advantages (and a lack of viable alternatives). Here, as in the West, formal education definitely benefits a few. But the promise of wages and escape from rural toil is allowed to go far beyond the limits of what can actually be delivered. Like the serious, barefoot students at assembly, the women in these uniform-making co-ops hope that the conspicuous wealth of the thrusting, educated business sector will eventually rub off on them.
Meanwhile the Cambridge Examination Board and a lot of petty officials are still patting themselves on the back and laughing all the way to the bank.
Margaret St.Clare has just finished four years of work in rural Zimbabwe as a teacher and development worker.