Photo of Zanele
Zanele and her grandfather smile because now she has the supplies she needs to excel in her class.

Under the shade of a towering tree in a dusty school yard in rural Zimbabwe, twelve year old Zanele sits next to her grandfather with a smile on her face. She is smiling because she loves school and now it is easier to learn each day when she attends classes.

Zanele, like many children in Zimbabwe, lives with her grandparents. Her father died when she was much younger and her mother works in the city buying and selling whatever she can. She visits home as much as possible, usually once every two months, and brings some of her earnings to share with the rest of the family, as is common in the country. Zanele's grandparents sustain a household of 14, including five granddaughters in primary school, so there is never enough to go around.

Wanting the best for his family, her grandfather's eyes are sad when he recounts that it was difficult to manage with so many children, and they didn't have enough money to buy the books and stationery his grandchildren needed to get the best out of their education. According to Zanele, "I wasn't happy when I had to come to school but didn't have books or stationery. It was difficult to learn. We would sometimes only have one [text] book to share with the whole class." Although the teacher or friends would try to help her on days that she didn't have the things that she needed like paper and pencils, learning was a challenge on days when no one had anything to spare.

The education system in Zimbabwe is chronically under-funded, a situation that challenges the quality of education provided to children. In addition to low salaries for teachers, which encourages absenteeism and strikes, schools do not have adequate supplies like text books, chalk, notebooks or furniture. Although primary education is technically provided free to all students, the school system has responded to low government funding by enforcing "levies." These levies are in the form of fees that must be paid by all students if they wish to attend classes, and are used to subsidize costs that are not otherwise adequately covered.

The Zimbabwean Legislation Act says that no child is to be turned away from school for non payment of fees, but in reality children's access to education is reduced when their families do not have the resources to pay additional charges. Head masters are saying that they are not chasing the students away from class, but are sending them home to remind their parents.

Umzingwane AIDS Network (UAN) is a local Zimbabwean NGO working in rural areas in southern Zimbabwe. With funding from Children First, they have been able to provide education block grants to 34 primary schools in Umzingwane District, directly benefiting 8,535 orphans or vulnerable children, who would otherwise not be able to pay the levies imposed on them by the schools. An education block grant is a formal agreement between UAN and the school that states that UAN will provide certain resources—largely text books, notebooks, and pens–for all students in the school, and in return the school will waive all fees for the children who have been identified as vulnerable. In Zanele's school, 330 out of 440 students have been identified as vulnerable, which shows how prevalent poverty is in the area. Unfortunately, poverty is a trend that runs throughout UAN's operating area: two thirds of all children in UAN partner schools are direct beneficiaries.

School Head Mrs. Victor Mhlanga says, "previously we had shortages of materials, but the block grant means that pupils are in class and have the resources they need to learn."

Zanele says that since her school received the block grant, going to school is much better. "Now it is easier to learn and do well. We now share two [students] per [text] book. Even the teachers have chalk to write on the board, unlike the time when they had none and they couldn't even put anything on the board for us to copy."

Since benefiting from the block grant, Zanele looks forward to coming to class every day, and is at the top of her class. Thanks to Children First and UAN, instead of spending each day worrying about whether she will have the tools she needs to learn, she can focus on her classes and making her grandfather proud.