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Zimbabwe is still struggling to right its economy seven years after a catastrophic collapse. The education system has suffered in a country that boasted high literacy rates in independence in 1980. Now poverty is keeping children out of school, as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been finding out in and around the capital Harare.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Girls and women from the Kundishora household take turns blowing out their cheeks like bellows to light up the firewood beneath a pail of water and a blackened pot of black eyed peas in the modest homestead in Charakupa village, 40 miles south of Zimbabwe's capital. None of the women has a job. Grandmother Miriam Kundishora, a widow, has 7 children and 13 grandchildren, a daughter, a neighbor. And one of Kundishoraâs granddaughters, Fadzai, who is 14, sit on blankets on the floor, chatting. Tinotenda, a 15-year-old grandson, strides in from school, hungry. He's wearing uniform, but his cousin, Fadzai, is not. Why, I ask the grandmother? Isn't she in school?
MIRIAM KUNDISHORA: (Through interpreter) You look at these school children. You send them to school, but then they are chased away from school. But you don't have the money. So it's really hard.
QUIST-ARCTON: I turn to Fadzai, who is battling to hold back the tears, as she responds in a tiny, timid voice.
FADZAI: (Foreign language spoken).
QUIST-ARCTON: "Yes, I was a good student and I love learning," Fadzai tells me. She wants to be a nurse and says it hurts to see other children going off to class while she's doing house chores. But Fadzai's father is out of work, and there's no extra money for the family to pay her school fees as well as her cousin's - a dilemma for many Zimbabweans who can't afford to send children to school. In 2007-2008, the economy crashed. Ninety percent of teachers were on strike. Eight thousand schools were closed. And there were virtually no lessons for an entire year.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What we have done as the people of Zimbabwe is to register our displeasure with the introduction of grade seven examination fees and the implement of ordinal examination fees. And we have come out in our numbers to show our displeasure.
QUIST-ARCTON: School children were among protesters demonstrating against the introduction of new exam fees in downtown Harare on Thursday. Among the marchers, bright-eyed 13-year-old orphan Elmah Mapuranga.
ELMAH MAPURANGA: Yes, I'm worried because I was learning hard for my education for my tomorrow's future. But now they are seeing you don't go to school if he doesn't have money.
QUIST-ARCTON: Fees range between 40 and 90 U.S. dollars a term in government schools. In poorer areas on the outskirts of the capital, like densely populated Chitungwiza, that's where Elmah lives with her grandmother. The teen is not attending school right now.
E. MAPURANGA: I'm good at school, but they are turning me away. But I'm also a prefect, but they are saying it doesn't matter if you're a prefect. But if he doesn't have money for school fees, you will be sent away.
QUIST-ARCTON: Stellah Mapuranga doesn't have a job.
STELLAH MAPURANGA: Yes, I don't have any money to pay fees because I am not working. So we need Zimbabwe to look after our children, to care for our children.
QUIST-ARCTON: Elmah dreams of becoming an astronaut and is determined to go back to school and finish her studies. Both grandmother and granddaughter say Zimbabwe needs free education so that children can fulfill such dreams. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Harare.
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