In a shanty in north Harare, a 12-year-old girl with thin, malnourished arms uses a hoe far too heavy for her to scrabble in the dried sewage, refuse and rock. Her name is Grace and, beneath the surface of this filthy townscape, she is looking for broken bones. She and her father will collect all they can find, and sell them for pennies to the local sugar refinery. Grace is not dodging school; she is trying to get there. Like 80 per cent of Zimbabwe's 4.5 million children, Grace and her 10-year-old sister have left school, turned away because they can't afford the $5 (£3.25) fee. In a country that once boasted the best education in Africa, it has come to this.
Grace's father, Joseph, tells her: "With the money from the bones, we'll pay the school fees for the whole year." But not this week, they won't. After days of back-breaking work, the family has collected several sackfuls, only to find that the lorry which collects them has broken down, so they are unable to sell them. For want of the price of a pint of beer in Britain, Grace will have to continue scouring the dirt for a chance to go to school. On Friday night, by way of contrast, on the other side of Zimbabwe's capital, in a setting so palatial it might as well be another planet, President Robert Mugabe celebrated his 86th birthday with an all-night party expected to cost well in excess of $100,000.
Grace is just one of "Zimbabwe's forgotten children" who are the subject of a revealing documentary produced by the Bafta-award winning South African film-maker Xoliswa Sithole, which will be screened at 9pm tomorrow night on BBC4. The film examines the lives of some of the country's poorest children, growing up without an education, grappling with poverty and starvation, and either orphaned by Aids or caring for parents who are sick with the disease.
"When economies fall apart, women and children suffer," said Ms Sithole, who grew up in Zimbabwe and was given permission by the government to make a documentary about her childhood there. "With Zimbabwe, the focus has been on Mugabe. I don't think there has ever been a contextualisation of where Zimbabwe is at."
Today's children and teenagers are likely to prove instrumental in shaping the country's future: a massive 46 per cent of its 13 million population is under 18. It is more than a year since Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and Mr Mugabe formed a power-sharing deal. Since then the country has shown signs of improvement. The last harvest of maize, the country's staple food, doubled from the record low of 2008. And the introduction of the rand and dollar has helped to stabilise an economy whose hyperinflation went beyond an astronomical 1 billion per cent at its peak in late 2008. However, the Red Cross estimates that 22,000 people have no access at all to foreign currency and are thus unable to pay the compulsory school fees introduced in 1991.
In a country that once had a literacy rate of around 80 per cent, its children now face a very different prospect. The number of children attending school in Zimbabwe dropped from 85 per cent in 2007 to below 20 per cent in 2009, a decline mostly attributed to unaffordable school fees and a shortage of teachers.
It is the first day of term, and 1,115 children line up in front of the half-finished brick building that passes for a school in rural Zimbabwe. Only 100 of the children have paid their school fees, which have already been reduced from $10 to $2 a term in order to help struggling parents. Even this is too much for most people; the average wage in Zimbabwe is estimated to be $1 a day, while more than 80 per cent of Zimbabweans are unemployed. Those who haven't paid are granted five days to find the money, but to no avail. A week later, the school accountant sends 889 children home for non-payment of fees.
Obert is one of those children. A 13-year-old Aids orphan who has been looked after by his elderly grandmother since his parents died in 2005, he has spent the past few weeks illegally panning for gold in an attempt to find money for the fees. Just one gold "point" – the smallest amount he can sell – would earn him the $2 he needs.
"While others play, I pan for gold," he says. When he is not panning, he and his friends spend hours trying to catch small birds which they can use to supplement their diet. "We only eat once a day – we have a beans and maize meal." Such a spartan diet is not unusual in Zimbabwe, with half of all parents depending on food aid to feed their children.
Obert's family used to be comfortably-off; his grandmother was a foreman on a farm owned by a white Zimbabwean, before the farmer was forced off his land as part of Mr Mugabe's land reform programme, which redistributed farms to black Zimbabweans. In the past 10 years 4,000 of the country's 4,500 white farmers have been similarly ejected. Just this month new regulations introduced by Mr Mugabe's share of the government have forced white executives of companies worth £320,000 to hand over 51 per cent of their shares to black Zimbabweans or face five years in prison.
Obert's grandmother goes to the school to plead with his young teacher, Chenzira, to let him attend school. "If my child doesn't finish high school because of school fees, my heart will break. I will die trying to find the money," she begs. Chenzira offers to reduce the fees to as little as 50 cents, but that is still too much for her and she breaks down crying. Obert is equally despondent. "My future is dark if I don't go to school: you grow up not knowing anything."
The extreme shortage of teachers means that, even with many of the children sent home, Chenzira still has a class of 63. Teachers were among those targeted by Zanu PF during the bloody run-up to the 2008 elections, because they were perceived as either supporters of the MDC or members of the Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe. This persecution led to the closure of many schools and a mass exodus of teachers: the PTUZ estimated that as many as 25,000 teachers left Zimbabwe in 2007 for countries such as Namibia and South Africa. Many of them have never returned.
Nine-year-old Esther has not been to school for more than a year. A beautiful girl in a dusty floral dress, she has to care for her mother, who is dying of Aids, and her 18-month-old baby sister, Tino. Like one in seven Zimbabweans, she, too, is HIV positive. The country has more children with Aids per capita than any other country in the world. In a matter-of-fact tone, Esther turns to the camera and tells of her daily routine: changing the baby's nappy, washing her mother when she defecates on herself, cooking for the family and cleaning their clothes.
"It is heartbreaking to see a child this age working so hard," says her gaunt mother, who lies on the floor of their tin shack swathed in blankets despite the bright sunlight. "If only God would bless me with better health, then I can look after you like you look after me." Life expectancy in Zimbabwe is among the lowest in the world, at just 45 for men and 44 for women.
The burden of looking after her family weighs so heavily on Esther's small shoulders that when her mother dies midway through the making of the film, she simply says: "It is much easier to look after Tino now, because I don't have to look after Mummy as well."
The children are taken in by their uncle, who shows little interest in them, locking them out of the house during the day. Lynn Walker, Zimbabwe country director of Save the Children, says: "That one story is replicated across the country; there are 100,000 child-headed households in Zimbabwe."
Like many of the country's 1.6 million orphans, Esther's 17-year-old sister, Yvette, has left the family and taken to the streets.
Readers who wish to donate to Zimbabwe's forgotten children can do so via the film's website at: zimbabweschildren.orgReuse content