13 June 2004

Zimbabwe: Students Scrounge As the UZ Crumbles

IT'S around 6 PM on a Monday at the University of Zimbabwe's Harare campus where several women selling tomatoes, onions and other vegetables stand in a row close to the entrance waiting for their customers.

Shortly, a young man who could be in his early twenties, arrives at the 'market' and buys a bundle of vegetables and a single tomato and then strolls across the yard to the hostels. He opens his door with the ease of one getting into his own house. In less than a minute he emerges with an empty 5-litre container, walks straight to the tap and fetches water.

He is ready to prepare his meal for the day and says that is much cheaper than buying from the canteens scattered around the institution.

This is what has become of the University of Zimbabwe, an establishment that was once touted as the centre of academic excellence, but which is increasingly beginning to look like a home for the destitute.

At the Manfred Hodson Hall for male students, the smell of boiled vegetables fills the corridors.

Female students at the Swinton Hall also do their own cooking, but the aroma here is somewhat different as the girls Ñ far more enterprising than their male counterparts Ñ can afford 'luxuries' like cooking oil.

Dirty water spilling from blocked drains and bathroom sinks flows along the corridors into the passages, causing a serious health hazard for the students. Most of them, embarrassed to be seen carrying or washing cooking pots, just fling leftovers out through the windows.

There are signs everywhere that the University of Zimbabwe, once revered as one of the best universities in Africa, is at an advanced stage of decay with most of its infrastructure in a run down state. The majority of the students at the institution now have to cook and prepare their own meals on single plate electric or primus stoves in their tiny rooms posing not only a health hazard but also a fire risk.

Only the few 'rich' students from well-to-do families can afford to go out and eat at restaurants or buy food from 'takeaway' stores in the city centre.

The Standard visited one of the university canteens at around 6PM last week and and found only four students having the their meals in the vast hall.

Most of the students no longer patronise the canteen facilities which they say offer poor food at exorbitant prices.

Sadza served with beans costs as much $3 000, which seems cheap but is a princely sum for a university student struggling to survive on a stipend.

When served with beef or chicken, a plate of sadza costs $4 000. 'The food in the canteens is sub-standard and too expensive. With the little money we last received in February, we cannot afford to get into the canteens everyday,' said a second year student in the Faculty of Arts.

Charles Mahuda, a bachelor of arts part two student, said this semester was 'one of the longest ever', and the students were struggling to survive on their meagre payouts.

'Food from the canteens is not just expensive but badly prepared and the time we waste cooking for ourselves could be better utilised for studies or something productive,' said Mahuda, who says he survives on a single meal a day that he prepares in his room.

Some of the students who spoke to The Standard said the government should increase the amounts of their payouts.

'At the beginning of this semester we were promised $1,5 million each but we have only got $500 000.

'We cannot afford to buy food from the canteens throughout the semester with that money, which we also need for other projects and assignments,' said Gerald Ndlovu, a final year student of sociology.

He urged university authorities to subsidise food at the canteens as happened in the past. The government used to subsidise food at the college and the students were issued with meal cards.

University of Zimbabwe Vice Chancellor, Levy Nyagura, said they were working towards re-introducing catering services so that students can once again be well fed so that they can concentrate on their studies.

'I cannot say I am not aware of the cooking that is going on in the hostels but as you know the price of a single plate of sadza has gone up and there will be some students looking for alternatives,' said Nyagura.

'By the beginning of August we are going to be changing the whole system and we will be re-introducing the subsidised catering services so that the students can concentrate on their studies rather than cooking,' Nyagura told The Standard.

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