Which country has the highest literacy rate in Africa? South Africa? Nigeria? Egypt? Well, actually none of these. According to some sources the answer is, perhaps surprisingly, Zimbabwe. Yes, Zimbabwe has a literacy rate of 92 % (or 87% according to UNESCO), which compares favourably with the USA, where more than 1 in 7 people cannot read!
In the UK, there is an image of Zimbabwe of a country in trouble. What outsiders often remember about the country, beyond the longevity of its leader Robert Mugabe – now an astonishing 93 years-old – is that it is something of an economic basket case.
An image looms large in the standard outsiders’ view of the country of the terrible time in 2008 when the economy nosedived, and Zimbabwe was sucked into the worst period of hyperinflation of any country – ever. At this time, prices in shops were changing several times a day. A simple loaf of bread cost tens of thousands of dollars and notes became so devalued that people resorted to taking huge wads of cash to market in wheelbarrows. In November 2008 inflation peaked at 79.6 billion per cent!
But to focus on the troubles of the economy – now at least partly receded – is to entirely miss the achievements of Zimbabwe’s education drive, and just what is possible. When the country became independent back in 1980, the new government was determined that education should be at the heart of their country’s goals. Mugabe’s new constitution identified education to secondary level as free and compulsory for all.
Factoid: Zimbabwe spends 8.5% of its GDP on education – that compares with 5.7% in the UK and just 4.9% in the USA (World Bank)
In the first 20 years of independence, reading rates accelerated from well under 80% under white rule to well over 90% – a remarkable achievement in any country, especially in comparison to other African nations.
Sadly, though, the education drive has faltered the wake of the economic crisis, and the dream is in danger of fading. Many schools are in physically poor condition. There are too few textbooks, and there is a severe shortage of teachers because poor pay has driven them to leave the profession.
Thanks to the drive for education, there is a yearning to learn among the young, but the school system is now letting many of them down. Many children are denied places at schools, and it may not be until well after 2030 that education becomes universal. Girls in particular have been excluded, and less than half receive secondary education.
When western commentators and development agencies look at the developing world, they tend to focus on economic resources. But education may actually the best gift for the future that the children of Zimbabwe and other developing countries can be given. Education helps give them the power to build their own futures.
As the extraordinary young Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai said, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” I, for one hope, that Zimbabwe can get that educational dream back on track and give every Zimbabwean child that chance.
Written by John Farndon, Author
Edited by Hannah O’Riordan, ZET Operations Manager
John Farndon will be speaking at our event next weekend, to celebrate Zimbabwe and 30 years of ZET. You can buy tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/zet-30th-anniversary-discover-zimbabwe-tickets-36953536021#/
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