Reflections on My Life
Mulima Kufekisa Akapelwa, Zambia
June 4, 2005
I wish to share with you some reflections on my life in Zambia as a woman in an influential position. When I reflect and look back on my life, I see sadly that many girls growing up today do not have the same quality of life.
I am in my mid thirties. I had a good education to post-graduate level and, at one point in time, I even had to choose from various job offers what suited me best. Unfortunately, this is not a possibility for many in Zambia today. My parents were educated in the colonial period. When Zambia gained independence from British rule in 1964, both my parents were already employed in their areas of specialty—dad as a veterinary officer and mum as a community development worker. They took us to good schools (I have six other siblings) and put us through college and university education.
Early school years
I remember at primary school in the seventies, there was a feeding programme—children at mid morning break would be given half a pint of milk. This was done not because we were malnourished and underfed—as is the case with many children now—but because the government was committed to developing healthy and intelligent children. The school had all the material needed for teaching—text books, teachers’ books, other teaching aids such as charts, posters, maps and other things like crayons colour pencils and so on. There was no such thing as shortage of materials or shortage of teachers. Overcrowding in class was not even thought of—the limit of pupils per class was 35. But now in a government school, the class size is about 50-60.
That aside, teaching materials are not available because the government is unable to meet the cost; and consequently, five to six pupils usually share a textbook. Classroom posters, library books, sports equipment and other requisites for the necessary stimulation of a child and his/her development are just not there. Donor governments have brought about the little improvements that have been achieved in the education sector without this support, the country would be completely finished.
Talking of sport, I remember in Grade Four or thereabouts, I was changed from 'House Red' to 'House Blue'. Red used to win nearly every year in all sports competitions. All my brothers and sisters were in Red. When I was told of the transfer to Blue, I just would not stop crying. I refused to eat my food at home. Finally, dad had to go to the school to ask the Headmistress (a Catholic nun) to put me back in Red. This was done, and Red won again that year. Today, when I think of this, I say, what a luxury.
Children today do not have such opportunities in school. First and foremost, sports is not an issue. The question is whether or not they will have teachers in class for the whole year. Given the poor salaries and other conditions of work for government teachers, they are always on strike demanding better pay. Given the Zambian government's debt situation and its agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), there is no possibility of increasing salaries as this would go beyond the share of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) allocated for it. In fact, at the moment, Zambia does not have a Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) with the IMF because it overspent trying to increase salaries, among other things. So currently, there is no money coming in from creditors and donors.
When I was growing up, work stoppage/strike/labour unrest by public workers was unheard of—but today, it is the order of the day. Last year, I gave a lift to James, a fifteen-year-old boy who was going for games organised by his church. We got talking in the car. I asked him what grade he was in. He told me that he was in Grade nine, junior secondary, and would be writing exams.
However, at his school, teachers had only taught for about a month and a half in the first term. In the second and third terms, no teaching was done as the strike had continued. He said some parents then paid some money for teachers to give private tuition, but his parents could not afford to. James's strategy was to borrow books from friends who were in upper grades and read the notes they had written a few years ago when they were also in grade nine. He told me that one teacher had offered to teach although, unfortunately, he got sick. It seems the teacher had an AIDS-related illness, so he could not fulfill his promise, as he was bedridden.
The education system has felt the brunt of the debt crisis and of the poor economy in general. Recently, I employed two girls to help with child care and house chores. Both girls were bright enough but had to leave school due to inability of parents to pay fees. In the case of one, Miriam, her father had been working in the Copper mines. When the mining company was privatised in line with demands of adjustment policy, her father lost his job but was not paid a good redundancy package. Her family moved from the Copperbelt Province to Lusaka hoping that the father would get another job.
This did not happen so after a year in Lusaka Miriam had to stop secondary school. She looked for a job as a domestic worker, but even that she did not do for long as she had to travel back to the Copperbelt to help nurse her ailing elder sister.
Looking back on my life, I could see that by the time I was in secondary school in the eighties, things were changing. There were demands for small payments from schools. Fortunately for me, I went to a Catholic Mission school so things were not as bad there as in other purely government-run schools. Schools began to charge boarding fees to meet the cost of feeding pupils since government funding was inadequate. The fees got progressively higher, and this then began to create some social inequity, as poorer parents could not afford to send their children to secondary school.
It just got to a stage that most boarding schools ceased to offer this facility and became day schools. Given the inadequate number of secondary schools in the country, it meant that pupils from rural provinces were at a disadvantage. Statistics show that only a quarter of primary school pupils proceed to secondary school. The rest have to make it in life in a very
harsh economic setting without any support system.
When I was in second year at university, a tuition fee was demanded by government. The policy was applied at all tertiary level institutions. I remember a number of girls from my school that had very good results could not come to University but opted to go to teaching college or nursing schools because it was cheaper. Now the situation is even worse. The population has increased of course—ten million people compared to three million at independence. However, government has not been able to match this with necessary learning institutions. The only thing government has done is to encourage the private sector to provide education at different levels.
By the time I was completing university education, I had three offers for employment—to work with a company that was leading market research and advertising, to work on a government project on adaptive research in agriculture, or a project at the city council working in former squatter settlements. I opted for the third.
Lack of employment
One time, when I was out in a rural diocese, I met a young woman who had finished her university studies two years earlier but could not get a job. The most she got was to be a research assistant for one piece of research; it only lasted a few months. As if that was not bad enough, she had spent six years at university instead of four. This was due to university closures brought about by striking lecturers and student demonstrations over low government grants.
Another young woman trained as a teacher. She graduated in 2001 hoping that the government would offer her a job since there is such a shortage of teachers across the country. To this day, the government is hesitant to employ more teachers because it cannot afford to put them on the payroll. This would mean going against benchmarks agreed with creditors aimed at achieving macroeconomic stability. Because of being a poor country in debt, we cannot have teachers in class and children do not have the right education. I have often heard people in the private sector complain that the quality of school leavers leaves much to be desired. Some of them can hardly read.
Lack of education
As a parent now, I have to make the expensive choice of sending all my children to private schools, not because of any elitist tendency but because I know that in government schools, they will not receive the quality education I received. I can afford to do this, but what about the many millions of parents without jobs, without any hope for a better tomorrow? When I was growing up, there was a saying that "education is a key to the future". Now, that key is no longer there for the majority. As in the rest of Africa, when there is a problem, it is the women that suffer most.
My heart bleeds for my country. Where will we be in five to ten years from today? Let me tell you where. We will have a more uneducated and ignorant populace, and we will still have a huge debt burden despite a myriad of adjustment policies and huge repayments made over the years. The sad part is that ignorance kills. Nearly all preventable diseases we face in this part of the world can be controlled by the simple education of mothers. So five to ten years from today, we will have more children dying because of poorly educated or ignorant mothers. Is there any justice in this world?
From AfricaFiles, June 4, 2005.
Mulima Kufeki Akapelwa is the coordinator for the Economic Justice program, Zambia.