In Tandem with Africa and Asia

A teacher's journey over three continents on a tandem bicycle

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Rebuilding an Economy through Education and Sport - Hope for Zimbabwe?

‘Sport helps to unify a country and, certainly for players, it is colourblind’ Heath Streak, one of Zimbabwe’s most famous cricketers reflects from the office at his academy in the country’s second city of Bulawayo. ‘Working with local schools, we aim to give the next generation some hope and a chance to rebuild our country’. Zimbabwe historically has punched above its weight in both sport and education, although both have struggled recently with the economic and political crises. We set off on our bikes from Bulawayo to try and find out more about the roles education & sport play in economic development…


Sport is colourblind for Heath Streak 


Our first stop was Heath’s old School, the famous Falcon College. Set in the bush atop an old goldmine 50km south of Bulawayo, it is a surreal oasis that has maintained first class education despite the economic chaos of the last 15 years.

‘The hyperinflation years were certainly tough’, mused headteacher Reg Querl. ‘One parent paid his school fees using wheat – it held its value better than the (zim) dollar and we baked the bread on site!’ Jailed by the government for raising school fees without permission (what else can you do when prices are doubling every day?!), his pragmatic approach has helped guide the school through the stormy economic conditions. As Claire mentioned in her latest blog, we were certainly impressed by the curiosity of the student body as we responded to a plethora of excellent questions following our lecture that evening. Whilst Falcon boasts a long list of impressive Zimbabwean sport stars, we coincidently interviewed its most famous academic alumnus, philosopher AC Grayling in London, before we set off for Africa.


AC Grayling – educated in Zimbabwe


Unsurprisngly, Grayling’s views on education are liberal: ‘What we do too much of really is to prepare people to be foot soldiers in the economic battle.... so the thing that really makes a difference to the world at large, but is distorting how education is provided is that we want people to make a contribution to GDP… And, if that's the one thing that over rides all other things then you're missing a trick because people are also lots of other things too... And you want them to be educated for everything.’

In times of desperate economic situations such as today in Zimbabwe, such romantic views on education may seem detached from reality but in the long term are key to a prosperous and functioning democracy.

‘Good teachers’, he continued, ‘are amongst the most important people on the planet. The things that good teachers do is that they inspire…” Grayling signed off our talk with an avuncular snippet of motivation.

Claire talking

Claire inspiring, not teaching (hopefully)


Whilst our talk at Falcon hopefully helped to enlighten the students’ view of the world we live in, we were only too aware that we were talking to the privileged few in Zimbabwe. As we pedaled south, signs of the deterioration of the public system were apparent but hope still remained and it was clear parents were prepared to sacrifice a lot for the education of their children:

We picked up an elderly man Glen, heading out of town to visit a potential school for his grandson. He was prepared to walk nearly 20km to the (government) boarding school, run originally as a mission school. Earlier in the trip, one of our guides Aaron on the upper Zambezi spent more that 50% of his salary to send his daughter to the local boarding school: ‘At home, she would be expected to do chores and work in the field. I want better for her!’

Glen at bus stop

Glen on his way to visit a school


The problem in Zimbabwe is that many of its best teachers (and workers in general) have understandably emigrated to seek a better life elsewhere. Many have crossed the border into South Africa.

As we waited patiently with lots of such migrants at Beit Bridge – Africa’s busiest border post - I spoke  to the British Ambassador, Catriona Laing, on the phone. She was one of the few people I spoke to who was positive on Zimbabwe’s future and cited Zimbabwe’s excellent investment in education as the reason: ‘There is a very well educated diaspora… who, unlike in many African countries, genuinely want to return to Zimbabwe’, she suggested before my airtime ran out!

B Bridge

The queue was long to get from Zimbabwe into South Africa


Lets hope she is right. We’ve come across many Zimbabweans working in South Africa, often over-qualified for the jobs they are doing. ‘Want to find a good worker here, find yourself a Zimbabwean’ (half) joked a local businessman in Johannesburg.  Meanwhile, leading academic and head of the University of the Free State Professor Jonathan Jansen mentions Zimbabwe as a model to improve the schooling system in South Africa. Most of his best South African students, he told a group of educationalists in a recent lecture that Reg attended, were mostly inspired by Zimbabwean teachers.

Education is critical to the long-term economic growth of any country. As South Africa lurches from one crisis to the next (two finance ministers have already been sacked since we’ve arrived), people we’ve met are worried about the short- term outlook. But as Professor Jansen told listeners back in 20111,  ‘Corruption is not going to kill this country; crime is not going to kill this country; a poor schooling system is going to kill this country.’

Sport’s role is less obvious in the direct economy. Much has been published on the economic legacy of the London 2012 Olympics and other mega sporting events. Data, as always, is problematic, as Stefanie Flanders reminded us back in 2013 when analysing it for the BBC2. Perhaps the most useful conclusion, borrowed from Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymaski in their book Soccernomics, is that ‘hosting doesn’t make you rich, but it does make you happy’. More interestingly, what about the role of sport in personal development which manifests itself in the wider economy in a similar way to education, namely through boosting human capital.

The UN3 suggest that ‘Sport provides a forum to learn skills such as discipline, confidence and leadership and it teaches core principles such as tolerance, co-operation and respect…when these positive aspects of sport are emphasized, sport becomes a powerful vehicle through which the United Nations can work towards achieving its goals’.

Pierre de C

The Founder of the modern Olympics was a French Educator

Interestingly, it was a version of these values, first observed at Thomas Arnold’s Rugby School in the late 19th Century that prompted Pierre de Coubertin, a French educator and historian, to found the modern Olympic games.

In Zimbabwe’s case, the investment in education and sport over the years could mean that the British Ambassador is right. If the diaspora can return to Zimbabwe as Heath has done, the future is certainly brighter. Lets hope that Mugabe (a former teacher himself!), departs soon and the brain drain experienced over the last decade can be reversed.



1. An interview with Professor Jansen:

2. For comment on the economic legacy of the London 2012 Olympics, see BBC news, inclulding Stephanie Flanders' analysis &Telegraph articles.

3. see: UN: Sport as a Tool for Development and Peace: Towards Achieving the United Nations MillenniumDevelopment Goals

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