John Tallach Secondary School is a boarding school with nearly 600 pupils of which 100 live locally. It is located in a rural community 40km outside Bulawayo. Its academic record speaks for itself: last year it had the highest ‘O’ level pass rate in Bulawayo and Matabeleland North and the 9 th highest in Zimbabwe. The school’s headmaster is Mr B Ncube whose father is an elder in the Mbuma congregation. Mr Ncube is assisted by his deputy Miss Norma Maclean, 27 government teachers, and two expatriate missionary teachers. Currently education only goes as far as Form 4 so pupils continuing to sixth form have to do their final two years of secondary education elsewhere. Expanding the school to include ‘A’ level is a possibility some time in the future.
Pupils come from a wide variety of religious and economic backgrounds. Some come from Free Presbyterian Church homes while others are Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal or Roman Catholic, for example. Many have a mixture of Christianity and the witchcraft and ancestor worship which is prevalent in rural areas. This means there is a continual stream of questions from pupils which demand scriptural answers: When did God change the fourth commandment saying we should keep the first day of the week as Sabbath? Why do you not speak in tongues when Paul said “forbid not to speak in tongues”? What about miracles? Sadly and more seriously most churches teach that Jesus died for everyone: a doctrine which turns the Saviour into “another Jesus” and is part of “another gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4).
The School Day
The school day starts with breakfast at 6 at the dining hall. This is immediately followed by worship. Classrooms are then swept before assembly at 06:45 in summer and 07:20 in winter. Assembly starts with the singing of two verses from a psalm, led by a prefect, followed by the Lord’s Prayer and any announcements for the day. There are eight 40 minute lessons before lunch with a 30 minute interval after period four. After lunch pupils do some manual work, typically raking paths or cutting grass or lifting litter. Unlike Europe these jobs are done by pupils rather than grounds men. Afternoon studies start at 15:00 and lasts for two hours. Some practical subjects are arranged in the afternoon due to timetabling constraints. Day pupils go home after this study session. After dinner boarding pupils return to school for and hour and a half of evening studies which finish at 20:00. By 21:00 lights are out in the dormitories. On Friday evening pupils have an evening off from studies and do a variety of activities. Friday afternoon and Saturdays are free with nothing timetabled.
The Lord's Day
At 09:00 on the Lord’s Day pupils gather for Sabbath school which usually lasts an hour. It starts with family worship, after which the school splits into four groups with over 100 in each class. Pupils learn the Westminster shorter catechism and a verse from a psalm or a passage of scripture. The “first service” starts at 11:30. Because most people in the local congregation travel on foot, the “second service” starts after an hour’s break. There is a third service at 18:00 which is only attended by school pupils.
Religious education is an important part of the timetable. The Zimbabwean Religious studies ‘O’ level course is excellent. It is probably the best course of its type in the world because it sticks very closely to the text of the bible. In forms 3 and 4 the pupils study Luke and Acts in detail, normally covering one chapter a week. During form 1 and 2 pupils study Genesis, the first part of Exodus and Mark.
To keep school fees as affordable as possible food and boarding accommodation is basic by western standards. Isitshwala is the staple food which is a porridge made from maize. It is eaten soft, with sugar, for breakfast and harder with milk, vegetables or meat for other meals. The school has its own herd of cattle which provide a large percentage of the meat consumed at the dining hall. It is important to realise that many of the things that are taken for granted in Europe are considered optional extras or even luxuries in Zimbabwe. For example, there are large numbers of children in some dormitories, pupils have to hand wash their own clothes and clean classrooms.
Being in the southern hemisphere winter is in the middle of the year. There is very little if any rain between May and October, but during the rest of the year there are frequent thundry downpours. Here it promises rather than threatens rain! At 1300 metres above sea level temperatures don’t go too high and peak at 36 degrees in October, before the summer rains bring the temperatures down.
Clicks, Corrugations and Inflation
It doesn’t take long for things which appear strange and usual to a visitor to become normal everyday things. Once of the most striking features of the local Ndebele language is clicks. A click is a sound made by putting your tongue onto the top of your mouth and releasing it in such a way that it makes a click. The letters c, q and x are different clicks, made by putting your tongue on different parts of your palette. Another thing is that only main roads are tarred, the rest are dust roads which quickly become corrugated. If you imagine driving on corrugated iron, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of what driving on these roads is like. Zimbabwe is facing severe economic difficulties: Basic foodstuffs like bread, sugar, flour, oil and flour are sometimes unavailable; the phones at school broke down in 2006 and cannot be repaired; electricity is in short supply so there are regular power cuts known as “load shedding”; fuel has been in extremely short supply for the past few years and for several months in 2006 there was massive water rationing in Bulawayo. Inflation is another major problem. For the past while it has been well over 1000% so prices are more than ten times what they were a year ago. School fees are a good example. Fees for the third term in 2005 were $3.5 million while in third term of 2006 they were the equivalent of $40 million. At the beginning of August 2006 the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe introduced a new currency. In practice this means that there were brand new notes and the last three zeros have been removed from prices so $40 000 000 became $40 000.
Outwardly Zimbabwe is a very Christian country. I recently attended a meeting for computing teachers from different schools. Like most such meetings it started and finished with prayer. Europe and indeed most of west, is far more heathen than Zimbabwe. Sadly most of the Christianity falls far short of the bible’s standard. One of the church's Zimbabwean ministers recently said that church has two needs: the work of the Holy Spirit and ministers of the gospel. What is true of the church is even truer of Zimbabwe, Africa and indeed the whole world.
A group of prefects with B Ncube
A view of Ingwenya
Teacher's Cottages at dusk
Sunset outside the mission