Southern winters and lunar eclipses

On tour with the Minister

Contrary to popular belief, Africa can get really cold at night! I’m currently spending my first winter proper in the Southern Hemisphere, with dry sunny days and crisp nights under the Southern Cross - and temperatures plummeting to zero in Harare.

When I told people I was joining the Zimbabwean Minister of Education, Sports, Arts & Culture: Senator David Coltart for a day touring schools in Gweru, they all warned me to wrap up as Gweru in the Midlands is reputedly the coldest part of Zimbabwe. They were right. We spent the evening at Antelope Park huddled around a brazier, while young lions - the park runs a release-back-to-nature programme: ALERT  - roared all night, perhaps  due to the freezing temperature!

Patient pupils

The next morning we proceeded to Muwinga Primary School. After a brief tour, there followed a large open-air meeting in front of all of the students, who sat patiently in bright blue knitwear, oblivious to the dignitaries' speeches on progress, reform, sector plans and prevailing macro-economic constraints.  After performances by the children, the Minister bravely fielded questions from the school staff - the subject of overdue salary increases  often being raised.

We continued to Chaplin Secondary, the oldest school in the town, that lived up to its motto: 'Pro Honore' ('Do it with honour'), with an excellent performance in the historic school hall by the students' choir. However, the head mistress was articulate in describing the problems she faced to the Minister. Hard times made it a real struggle to maintain the large, ageing school estate in the face of widespread defaults on fees/levies by nearly three-quarters of the parents. Almost all the school revenues from the minority of parents who are able to pay goes into a semi-formal system of teacher incentives that top up salaries. In rural areas, parents can’t afford such payments, so teachers end up with much lower rates of take-home pay - not surprisingly leading to absenteeism and low morale.

Q&A session

Again, the Minister didn’t try to duck questions on this difficult situation and was articulate in reminding us all of the progress made in the last 24 months. Schools have re-opened, textbooks  in both primary and now secondary schools are being delivered, and a plan to continue the recovery is being devised - one that hopefully a number of donors such as DFID and the European Commission will be able to support.

Orange-tinged lunar eclipse

I share the Minister’s optimism that after another two years we will hopefully see a lot more progress in restoring Zimbabwe’s historically excellent education system. Travelling back home that evening, the African skies revealed another surprise, a full ‘central’ lunar eclipse, the first since 2000, with the next not due until 2018. The moon was slowly 'eaten away', leaving a shady brown-orange disk that I just managed to photograph freehand, without too much camera-shake.

In the space of the past, present and future lunar eclipses over Africa, my own children will have passed from infancy to adulthood. Hopefully the 2018 night sky will look down upon a fully recovered Zimbabwe!

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