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Zimbabwe, a large, fertile land in the southern plains of sub-Sahran Africa, has had a long history of ups and downs, oscillating between peace and conflict, prosperity and poverty. Today, still enjoying the benefits of a recent upswing in its fortunes, Zimbabwe is one of only three African countries whose per-capita GDP is higher than the global average. It also has one of Africa’s highest literacy rates, at 90%.
Formerly a British colony, Zimbabwe gained independence in 1961, but the constitution retained vestiges of the old colonial system by ensuring that the minority whites remained in power. This was a continuation of old racist policies that would leave lasting legacy of ethnic tension within Zimbabwe. Political conflict in the 1980s brought Robert Mugabe, a black Zimbabwean guerrilla, to power. Early on, Mugabe pursued a strategy of reconciliation and racial parity, and the 1990s was a time of stability, prosperity, and hope for Zimbabwe. In the year 2000, however, a sudden economic downturn in combination with flares of violence and a series of land reforms that many saw as an unjust punishment of white landowners led to a widespread crisis. Ill-advised involvement in a war in the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo further drained the government of resources, and the nation as a whole suffered as a result. The peaceful existence that Zimbabwe had enjoyed for over a decade was shattered.
Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, this crisis has had a severe adverse effects on education in Zimbabwe. In the early years of Mugabe's rule, the government had considerable success in improving educational standards throughout the country, while at the same time keeping costs down. Since then, however, increasingly cash-strapped government has been steadily raising school fees, and impoverished children have been forced off the rolls as a result. In addition, huge numbers of rural schools (as much as 90% according to some estimates) have been closed or simply abandoned due to a shortage of funding and rampant absenteeism. In the last 10 years, the enrollment rate for school-age children has plummeted from more than 80% to just over 20%.
There is, however, some good news to be found in Zimbabwe. Since 2008, the economy has begun to make a turnaround, and improvements to infrastructure are beginning to take place around the country. The agriculture sector that has always been at the center of the Zimbabwean economy (Zimbabwe is known as the “breadbasket of Africa”) is making a comeback, and violent conflict is beginning to recede once more. The stage appears to be set for Zimbabwe to emerge from yet another period of conflict and destruction and into a brighter future – one in which educational standards improve once more and the people of Zimbabwe can go back to their lives.