Zimbabwe pushes for open education despite oppression

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Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) is a landlocked country located in Southern Africa. For many years, it was regarded as the breadbasket of Africa. But since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, Robert Mugabe has been the leader, and the fate of the country has largely been tied to him and his policies.

Starting in the mid-1990s, Mugabe began to usher a land redistribution policy where white-owned farms were seized to benefit landless black Zimbabweans, and the economy soon plummeted. Hyperinflation and massive unemployment, food and fuel shortages ensued. Millions were left destitute. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were suppressed. Thousands emigrated. Some of my Zimbabwean friends and former neighbors in the United Kingdom and New York City described harrowing tales of government-led oppression and violence where they were lucky to escape with their lives and the clothing on their backs. These were nurses, teachers, administration personnel, academics, and accountants—not farmers.

Today, organizations such as the Computer Society for Zimbabwe and Practical Action in Harare, and projects, like the Ubuntu Zimbabwe Team, are helping to create a fledgling open source movement in Zimbabwe despite state-sponsored oppression, economic collapse, and a crackdown on the dissemination of news.

With a population of 12.5 million, the country has the highest literacy level (85-90%) in Africa. Unsurprisingly, however, printed newspaper readership has been declining for years. This is partly due to the cost of buying a newspaper and partly due to many dominant newspapers—as well as radio and television stations—being state-controlled and misreporting the accurate state of the country.

Human rights and democracy groups have declared the need for a more open society through an independent media, but Zimbabweans are increasingly turning to the Internet and mobile phone usage as alternative sources for information and communication, as they are relatively free of government restrictions. As a result, Zimbabweans are turning to the Internet to use:

  • open source materials, such as Ubuntu, as a means to organize and disseminate news and knowledge
  • open content as a means to organize and marshal support for human rights and democracy. 

The organization, Women (and men) of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) is one example of a civic movement using the Internet to inform others about their political activities and human rights.

Other organizations, like the Zimbabwe Advertising Research Foundation (ZARF) and Zimbabwe All Media Products and Services Survey (ZAMPS), conduct studies on Internet usage every quarter. Between 2005 and 2008, Internet usage increased over 165% with the country having one of the highest rates of usage in Africa. During the last quarter of 2011, Internet usage grew 3%, from 31% to 34%. It is clear that Internet access is expanding tremendously in Zimbabwe, but there is still a vast digital divide between urban and rural areas.

Most people use the Internet at cybercafes or at work in the capital of Harare or in the city of Bulawayo where electricity is still rationed but where an electrical and telephone infrastructure exists because a dial-up connection rather than broadband is the norm. In rural, isolated areas or in poor townships where most Zimbabweans live, few, if any, residents can afford Internet access or have the infrastructure to access it. With unemployment at 94%, Internet usage is restricted to those with a job. And because most Zimbabweans who are employed make around $250 USD per month, few can afford the monthly Internet service plan of $50 USD per month, the modem, computer, or other fees.

Few also can afford the $25 USD monthly fee for a 3G mobile phone connection. Only the wealthy or people with access to money (i.e. expatriates often financially support family members who remain in Zimbabwe) can afford to own their home computer, modem, and pay the monthly Internet service plans. And yet, Internet access was close to 17% in 2011, up from 0.3% in 2000.

Interestingly, artists and musicians are posting messages on Ubuntu to attract a following and have their messages heard; they're pushing the open source movement and open content in Zimbabwe. However, Zimbabwe's open source movement has been severly hampered by a lack of government interest, funding, and provisions (such as electrical rationing, even in urban areas). Additionally, the digital divide has been further worsened from a lack of skilled persons and professionals—due to immigration and forced migration to place like South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other countries as the result of the political and economic crisis.

In 2008 and 2009, Zimbabwe was ranked the third worst country in the world for its national information communication technology (ICT) status by the WorldEconomic Forum. Yet, before the country's political and economic turmoil, hyperinflation, and record unemployment, Zimbabwe's education system was one of the best in Africa.

Despite these obstacles, some Zimbabweans are working to increase open access in higher, secondary, and primary education. As the United Nations states, "despite an appreciation of the Open Access (OA) concept by most Zimbabwean institutions of higher learning, there is a paucity of OA repositories in Zimbabwe on the web."

At the university level, open access, such as at the University of Zimbabwe and 13 other higher institutions, means free links to peer-reviewed literature and allowing users to read, download, copy, print, or search them. The aim is to increase knowledge and information through open access. At the secondary and primary levels, organizations, such as World Links Zimbabwe, have been distributing computers and working to promote access to open source software in schools with the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, OSISA.

This year, for instance, Bindura University of Science Education Library will be promoting open access from October 22nd through the 28th.  A national eLearning programme is being considered for the 8,000 primary and secondary schools in Zimbabwe in an effort to overhaul the state of education (98% of schools were closed in 2009). Until recently, UNICEF has been paying the school fees for over 400,000 students (primary school only). In 2010, school attendance bounced back, but many still lack the money to pay for school. 

Some Zimbabweans participating in the country's open source movement recognize that the way to overhaul possibly the world's worst education system and advance the arts and sciences is through promoting open source practices and principles in the schools, and minds of the children. And these open source supporters have been networking online.

Children truly are the future for Zimbabwe. Organizations such as the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) are working to improve access to alternative education for out-of-school children and youth in Zimbabwe. And school grant programmes, like the Basic Assistance Module (BEAM), allow disadvantaged children to stay in school or return to school when their education is at risk due to a family's reluctance to spend limited resources on their daughter, for instance. Parents in this situation often chose to send a son to school rather than a daughter.

In Zimbabwe, a poor child needs $525 USD to pay for school fees (for primary school: grades 1st through 7th). Many families simply cannot afford this cost; civil servants barely earn $100 USD per month, and the majority of the populace is unemployed.

Teachers, especially in rural areas, witness first hand the lack of educational opportunity afforded to so many children, and yet their own physical security while trying to promote open source practices needs to be considered and addressed as well. These teachers are often fearful of encouraging free thinking and of political intimidation and violence against them—especially during elections, which are expected in 2012 or 2013. 

The protection of teachers is critical to democracy and also to national development in Zimbabwe. As one Zimbabwean stated:

A major goal of any education system must be the encouragement of the learner to think and explore.

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