Monday, November 17, 2008

Reverberation Felt Around the World

Spending the last four years as a student at a university that promotes social justice, and thus turning an eye of scrutiny upon the American government’s agenda in other nations, has primed me for encountering negative responses from other countries regarding America’s example in the world. So when I read an editorial about Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president of the U.S. written by Hilton Mendelsohn, a writer who helped to found the organization WeZimbabwe, I experienced an odd sense of pride.

Meldelsohn writes:

“So now the questions have shifted to us; Will we continue down the path that soes the seeds of fear and prejudice that suggests that some people are more deserving than others because of their skin colour or ethnicity?”

He describes America as having struggled more than Zimbabwe in terms of division and oppression. Acknowledging the election of Barack Obama may not have personal significance to the majority of Zimbabweans, Meldelsohn stresses the symbolic significance of the event.

America as a symbol for a country under so much economic and political turmoil? As a symbol for a people going through a crisis with which few Americans could readily relate? America, for the first time in my life, is cast in a new light. Years ago, perhaps, the phrase “American Dream” didn’t elicit a weary sigh. And even though the dream still exists for some people within and without U.S. boarders, most people I know take the phrase as nothing more than a fond relic from our grandparents’ youth.

Traveling to India in August slightly shifted my cynical perspective on America, but it also raised other critical questions. Now, however, hearing people from abroad speak about the U.S. with such admiration rocks my worldview—and U.S. citizens’ place—to the core. That’s not to say, of course, criticism should abruptly cease. But it’s refreshing replace some of the negativity with optimism.

Mendelsohn writes:

“In a country where the black majority was once oppressed by a white minority, where a black minority group oppressed and slain by another black majority, where a white minority found itself being oppressed in a role reversal and eventually where an entire nation has found itself on it’s knees and scattered around the world surely this story of overcoming the odds and making a way where no way seemed possible should hold some special resonance.”

It seems this election has brought history to the forefront, fostering connections across boarders, which only a few months ago seems to be thick with barriers and cut with experiential divides. Looking for connections between nations—perceiving an international story through a lens of locality—has never been easier or more blatant. People the world over are doing so not because they are forced to, but because of a personal desire.

Poster by Scott Hansen, found via OMG Posters

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Education and Economics

Paul Mataruse grew up in Zimbabwe. He attended Zimbabwean schools until high school when he decided to trade the Savannah-like climate for Canada’s chiller one. Mataruse knew that Zimbabwe’s higher education wasn’t for him, a choice based upon a personal desire to see the world and interact with students from other countries. Now, however, such choices (if one is lucky enough to consider going abroad) may be made based upon a completely different motivation. 

The University of Zimbabwe, the National University of Science and Technology (Nust), Midlands State University (MSU) and Chinhoyi University of Technology (CUT) have shut their doors for the final semester in this academic year.

Some reports cite the horrible conditions of the schools themselves: no water, no electricity and no funds, said a report for University World News. But these conditions are products of the economic crisis that continues to wrack Zimbabwe. A report from The Zimbabwe Independent adds that there isn’t enough staff to keep the schools running. Teachers are so hideously underpaid that they have gone on strike to combat the inevitable poverty that such pay cuts bring.

It’s not just higher education that is suffering. Elementary schools are vacant as well.


Children in green uniforms, others in red and white, blue and brown can be seen strolling down the road as they walk towards their respective schools.

It is now 8am, but most of them do not seem to be bothered by time although under normal circumstances they should be in class by 7.30am.

They let time pass, after all there is nothing to hurry for.

The school bell that used to ring signaling commencement of lessons ceased tolling a long time ago.

On arrival at their schools, the pupils do not head to the classrooms, but for the playgrounds where they engage in various games until somebody remembers that there are children at school.

The teacher arrives at 9am (she is early today) and the pupils are called into the classroom.

Not much time is wasted in the classroom and the pupils are given loads of work to do in English, Mathematics, and Shona before the teacher leaves to do personal errands.

The pupils are left to figure out for themselves how to tackle their schoolwork. The moment the teacher leaves the classroom, the pupils shove their books into their satchels and rush back to the playground.

They do not seem to be bothered by the absence of their teacher. They are happy that they are left to play, unaware of the consequences it has for them in the long run.”


 This excerpt from an article in The Zimbabwe Independent illustrates the reality of education in a country whose future depends upon just that: the education of future leaders. With no universities and no elementary schools, how will Zimbabweans play a role in shaping the future of their country—especially at a time when such fresh direction is dearly needed?

Just as disturbing are the conditions of the teachers themselves. A United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization survey from 2002 predicts that by 2010 Zimbabwe will loose 55,000 teachers to HIV and Aids. A more grim interpretation predicts the loss will total 60,000, reports The Zimbabwe Independent.

Teachers are standing their ground. The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) is a militant labour union that stands up for teachers’ treatment and working conditions.  “Our demand to the new government is simply that a ‘Teachers Treatment Action Campaign’ must be formed as a matter of urgency to address the serious HIV and Aids-related challenges teachers are facing,” the union said, as reported by The Zimbabwe Independent.


Without committed and healthy teachers, schools are useless. If an individual is dedicated to education, however, the word “school” could become more open ended in location.  Perhaps the first step in strengthening the education system in Zimbabwe begins with the empowerment of the people themselves. 

Images from Sokwanele's Flickr

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On Limitations

There are too many places to begin. The deep economic crisis, political uncertainty concerning Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, universities closing their doors to the impending academic year due to water and food shortages... the list is seemingly endless. Though, in sifting through the information grouped around the standard tales of disaster, political frustration and general misfortune, I came upon something uplifting. An alternative lens through which to view human aggravation; one that is older than humans, older than war and hunger and currency: the land itself.

Not to ignore or downplay the importance of other issues at hand, I wish to begin with the larger picture. “The Limits of What We Know” is a film fifteen years in the making, by documentary filmmaker Amy Bodman. Her in-depth portrait of Zimbabwe is broken up into chapters like “The Great Zimbabwe Monument “,“The Composition of Drought”, “The Language of Trees”, “Rain”, “Clay,” etc. On the film’s website, Bodman describes her endeavor as “part travel log, part environmental study and part meditation on life itself.”

Though perhaps unrelated on the surface, “The Limits of What We Know” promises to address the very issues that dominate today’s media—issues that concern not only Africa, but also the world as a whole. The effects of human control over the earth are felt in ways ranging from increased environmental crises to the political and economic issues mentioned above. Yet the two realms are rarely seen as directly related; in fact, news from the ecological front barley makes it past the political deliberations. “(The film) culminates as a heart-felt picture of our changing world as it struggles to compensate for the ever-increasing dominance of the human race,” writes Bodman. “... The film explores a worldwide phenomenon: the separation of humanity both spiritually and concretely from the ecosystems that support it, and this separation’s potentially devastating effects.”

Though the Zimbabwe of 2008 is much changed from the Zimbabwe of 1993—when Bodman and her team explored the people and land through 16 mm film—many cultural and historical aspects of the film are still relevant. As are the personal stories of numerous individual Zimbabweans, for which the documentary provides a “living record.” Ultimately, though, the film is meant to stand as a question targeting those who are willing to consider new perspectives, and perhaps even more so to those who aren’t. “The audience is asked to weigh these couplings in order to broaden the picture at hand; in order to ask them to consider the limits of what they know.”

Images from film website. Clip via Treehugger.