Zimbabwe: Rejuvenating Schools Through Old Students' Associations

14 February 2020

Most of us have vivid memories of our school days.

A few terrible ones possibly, but many remember them with nostalgia because these were the days when our minds were not fettered with the weighty burdens that inevitably landed on our shoulders when we entered the world of adulthood.

Then one day you revisit your old school and find that the receptacle for those wonderful memories has not stayed the same.

It has deteriorated and you feel personally violated and betrayed by these people who lack proper reverence for this place that moulded you into the person that you are today.

On top of that, there is the usual observation that our education standards have deteriorated.

We might still be defending our high literacy rates, but the quality of education is no longer something to brag about.

Naturally, a lot of the blame is attributed and attributable to the school administration. It is under their watch that the magnificent edifice of education crumbled into a pile of ruins.

But all of us that went through the education system in the country could be part of the solution.

Most of us have something that we can offer the institutions that made us into the people we are today. Conversely, almost every school has alumni that have something out of themselves in life.

Old students can make a difference to the education system in Zimbabwe.

Kutama College Old Boys Association (KOBA) is perhaps the best example of how former students can make a difference.

KOBA got down to business after some old St Francis Xavier's Kutama College boys realised that the school's reputation of academic excellence was actually a double-edged sword:

"Unfortunately Kutama College is one of the schools that everyone simply overlooks and assumes is well provided for, based on past reputation and the obvious presence of prominent business and politically connected parents.

"Anyone who has been to Kutama recently will testify to the image of unfinished buildings, broken desks and the sorry state of a once flourishing library."

That was more than 10 years ago.

KOBA went on to embark on various upgrading drives including procurement of textbooks.

The association assisted learners in need. KOBA fund raised and built a beautiful hostel at their old school.

Today, St Francis Xavier's Kutama College is one of the best schools in the country not just for outstanding academic results, but in terms of learning and teaching resources as well as infrastructure.

Of course this is an extreme example and one can argue that at the time KOBA had an edge in being able to claim the incumbent president as one of their own.

Former president Robert Mugabe's influence cannot be underplayed.

Even the then Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Dr Gideon Gono dedicated himself to fund-raising for the venture despite not being a Kutama College alumnus himself.

But you cannot take away the fact that old students identified a need, then effectively channelled their energies towards being part of the solution, thus creating the school that they wanted to be identified with.

Preserving schools' intangible heritage

There is a culture and identity that is associated with each school.

Some are centres of academic excellence, others are known for the superb manners of the learners, yet others are known to be the grooming grounds for athletes.

There are schools that are the beacon of hope for communities because the successful sons and daughters of that community learnt at that school.

It is that intangible heritage that builds up the stature of the school. It helps in shaping the kind of adult that the learners at the institution will grow up to be.

Unfortunately, as school heads and teachers come and go, some of those characteristics are lost because they find no value in some of the school's traditions.

For example, one school head at a centrally located Harare Government school once kept her personal chickens in the school swimming pool.

Sounds like a social media joke, right? But it did happen.

The tragedy is that the school once used to field strong swimming teams, with some athletes making it to the national teams.

The inter-house galas were the real deal and worth of that name. But clearly the current administration does not care.

Much as the school administration is doing a sterling job in producing good academic results, they are clearly shutting out opportunities for learners with interest in swimming and potential to be the next Kirsty Coventry.

An effective old students' association at that school would have pushed to have a functioning swimming pool because this is an important tradition of the school that is relevant for present and future generations of learners.

And they certainly would not have let that school head get away with such negligence and abuse of school facilities.

There are many other activities like arts clubs, drama clubs, writing clubs, Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, choral groups and different athletic disciplines that once thrived in some schools and have become extinct today simply because the current school administrators have their own focus.

Staunching the brain drain

Brain drain is real, not just for Zimbabwe, but almost every other country in the global south and even better off nations facing economic challenges.

Young people are leaving to find opportunities in other lands.

Figures of Zimbabweans living in the diaspora are contested with some estimates running to several millions.

What is indisputable is the number of locally educated Zimbabweans holding key posts in diverse fields the world over, which clearly illustrates the brain drain.

The innovation and leadership that the country is bleeding is needed back home. And it can easily be harnessed to rejuvenate the education system in particular and the whole country in general through directed association through former school networks.

On social media platforms, there are many brilliant ideas floated around on how local schools can be self-funded through establishment of sustainable business ventures.

Resource mobilisation and capacity building

Many of us are familiar with crowd sourcing to raise funds. Locally and abroad, a number crowd sourcing initiatives have been effective.

We can use this avenue to upgrade our education systems.

Old students' associations are potentially powerful resource mobilising forces. Their contribution can make a formidable change agent in the education delivery process.

But this is not the only way that Zimbabwe can leverage on the capacity of its local and foreign-based people.

We can and we should crowd source for ideas and practical actions to improve our education systems.

We have amazing human resource capacity within and without the country. We have people who can offer skills that will make a difference.

With social media groups being the order of the day, we can have a real 360-degree approach to solving problems.

Old students' networks can make a continuous vibrant impact on how the education sector runs.

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