Mmopane Primary School is awash with maroon and grey uniformed children. Regardless of the Covid-19 masks, some of which rest on their chins, the school is a medley of chirpy children’s voices. Up and down the corridors they run.
There is a fall here, and an inconsequential scratch there. “You were told not to run, were you not?” The school’s Safety and Health Officer’s rhetoric question drowns the din of the pupils chit-chatter and joyful screams. They take one look at her, giggle shyly and walk away at an accelerated pace. They are a box of birds. School has just ended for the day.
EASY ACCESS TO EDUCATION
“To go to my old school, I used to wake up at 4am, but ever since I transferred to this school, I wake up at 5am.” Upstairs, 11-year-old Katlego Tshuma, Head Girl of the Mmopane village China-aided school which opened its doors to its first batch of students in January, 2021 shares. Tshuma lives in Mogoditshane. Be- fore transferring to her current school, her parents enlisted the services of a school bus to drop her off at Mophane Primary School.
“It picked me up at 5am. But now my school bus to this new school picks me up at 6am,” she explained. Transferring from a school in the city to a school in the village has also been beneficial for 12-year-old Rafiwa Gopolang, Head Boy of Mmopane Primary School, who also lives in Mogoditshane.
“I now wake up at 0430, instead of 4am,” Gopolang says happily. To get to his former school Masa Primary, meant braving the early morning traffic congestion with his mother and driving further into the city than Tshuma. What compels many children to wake up in the wee hours of the morn- ing to travel to school is what the Head- mistress of Mmopane Primary School, Gagoitsiwe Marata pronounced as the lack of schools in the Lentsweletau- Mmopane constituency.
“Working in Mmopane made me realise that there is a shortage of schools in the Kweneng District,” she says. Kweneng district boasts of 101 primary schools, nine (9) of which are privately owned as per the 2017 Primary School Statistics Brief, by Statistics Botswana. The shortage therefore emanates from the fact that villages like Mmopane, in close proximity to Gaborone, are some of the fastest grow- ing villages in the country.
Between 2001 and 2011, data by Statistics Botswana suggests that Mmo- pane village experienced a population increase from 3,512 to 15, 450. The sixth national population and housing census, the pilot of which commenced on October 22, 2021, is expected to reveal yet another staggering increase. An increase that Botswana’s 821 primary schools are already failing to cater for.
“With only one school, the area could not cope. Hence the construction and opening of the China-aided school in Mmopane has been a welcome development,” says Marata. However, she suggested that at least four more schools be built in order to cater for the exploding population.
“Since we opened, we have parents coming in every week asking us to enrol their children. This shows that this community was suffering as most of them are low to medium income earners who had to hire school buses for P1500-2500 per month to transport their children,” she expounds.
Though the community is elated by the opening of the China-aided school, the demand, Marata says, has not been fully met. “We currently don’t have completing streams as we only began operating this year. But right now, we have 643 pupils. Each of the 22 classes we have was designed to take an average of 30 students, but some classes have more students already. At this rate we will end up having 900 students in a school meant to cater for at least 660 students,” she explains.
The situation might seem dire for children in the Kweneng District, but educators in the northern parts of Botswana posit that the plight of village children in their areas is worse as some have to walk at least five (5) to 10km to and from school every day.
At Kubung Primary—a China-aided school located in the tourism capital of Botswana which has been operating since 2011—over 15 students from cattle posts near Maun undertake such journeys to access education. Nevertheless, the children are said not to mind as they enjoy the school’s atmosphere.
REGULAR RESOURCE PROVISION
Twelve-year-old Ipeleng Masheko has been a pupil of Kubung Primary School since 2013. As she prepares to enrol for junior school next year, she swears she has never had any desire to transfer from her China-aided primary school as the teachers are friendly and her school is beautiful.
“I have a friend who walks at least seven kilometres to school, but she has never wanted to leave either,” says Masheko. What makes China-aided schools in Botswana more attractive than other aided primary schools is the fact that China-aided schools are well resourced and have unique buildings.
Between the three China-aided schools functioning in the country, computer labs, science labs, disability friendly facilities such as toilets, sick bays, libraries, dining halls, football, and basketball and netball fields are common. Speaking of her primary school, Marata says the school has state-of-the- art facilities, and it is paved. “Compared to the schools they came from, our students feel as if they are in university,” she quips. The Headmistress of Kubung Primary School, Esther Maokisa, is of the view that their children are treated better than those in junior and secondary schools.
“An IT officer taught them computer skills such as typing. Their classrooms have aircons, especially that it often gets too hot in summer,” she elucidates. In 2010, a year before the opening of Kubung, and recently in 2019 the Chinese Embassy took Maokisa to China for benchmarking. “I ensure that our school is clean because of what I saw in China. Our children also speak English within the compound. We are trying to operate like an English medium school, although we don’t always manage,” she shares.
To further enhance the standard of their school, they proceeded to plant fruit trees such as mango, pawpaw, and morula, among others, that their students now enjoy eating from. Other than fruits they have a carrot, beetroot and lettuce garden.
The standard of China’s education system, Maokisa says is very high.
“The primary schools there have everything you can think of that can benefit a child. They even have television sets in their classrooms. Most of the things they have are mostly found in our tertiary schools here,”she explains. She adds that parents in China are very much involved in their children’s education as well.Given the demand in their area, Kubung Primary could benefit from the construction of extra classes, as it currently has 43 pupils in its standard 1 class which was designed to take 25 children, a scenario which has made social distancing, as per the Covid-19 guidelines, difficult.
“The classes are supposed to take 175 children, but we have since exceeded capacity. We have 313 pupils as I speak,” says Maokisa. If the embassy had not built the school, she fears some students would not have been able to attend school at all as they live too far.
Efforts to avail transport have been futile, mainly due pandemic disruptions. The same is true for the China-aided school in Serowe, an urban village in the Central District which is also said to be suffering from a shortage of schools. The school has been battling to meet the demand, but it could do with eight (8) extra classes.
As is, each of its current 8 classes carries 30 students, although they were designed for 20. “Over the past ten years of its existence, our China-aided school reduced the walking distance for children from surrounding farms such as Masama,” explains Boikhutso Mokomane, Head- mistress of the China-aided school in Serowe.
MOTIVATED TEACHERS AND STUDENTS
The constant support in the form of regular school maintenance, cameras, furniture, traditional dance and sporting kits for students and laptops and cellphones for teachers, to cite a few benefits they have received from the embassy to date, Maokisa believes has helped the school to excel tremendously in academic and co-curricular activities.
“We represented the northwest region in the national competition because of what the Chinese Embassy had done. Academic wise the school has been producing competent students who have continued to do well in higher schools,” she says. Her school has two former students who got position one countrywide in junior certificate examinations, and another who performed exceptionally nationwide in form five examinations.
Overall, Kubung Primary is among the most excelling schools in the country, since 2012. In 2018 for example, the school scored 97.3 percent in the national Primary School Living Examination (PSLE). The year that followed it scored 75 percent, while 2020 saw a rise to 83.3 percent.
“All of this was with quality A, B results of 61.1 percent,” notes Maokisa. Keloreng Makata, a Senior Teacher Guidance and Counselling at Kubung Primary, says it is because of this that many parents want their children enrolled in their school. The results, she says, show that the teachers are very motivated. “We don’t lack much, the Chinese provide all we need, and hence we get motivated to an extent that we want to prove ourselves by making sure we produce students who are so excellent,” she adds.
The China-aided school in Serowe village has also been performing well in its PSLE. The Headmistress, Boikhutso Mokomane attributes this feat to the support by the Chinese government. “Last year our school ranked the best among the 31 schools of the Serowe Sub-region,” she shares, but strongly asserts that teachers and students could do with more incentives, inclusive of accommodation for teachers.
CHINA GOES BEYOND ITS PROMISE
The existence of China-aided schools in Botswana is a fulfilment of a promise made by the former Chinese Ambassador, Liu Huaxing, in 2009. At the time, the Ambassador pledged that China would build three primary schools for Botswana. However, given the acute shortage of schools in the country, the embassy is in the process of completing the construction of a fourth primary school in Kazungula, a village in the Chobe District.
In doing this, the embassy can safely be said to be reiterating its commitment to Botswana’s educational development. The Chinese Embassy is aware of the role it has since played in Botswana’s educational sector to date.
“The three elementary schools aided by China have effectively improved educational conditions for children and have strongly supported the development of Botswana’s basic education,” Chinese Ambassador, Wang Xuefeng says.
With this year’s China-Africa Cooperation Forum scheduled for Senegal, Wang stressed their willingness to use the opportunity to connect China’s second centenary goal and the African Union’s 2063 Agenda to further deepen practical cooperation with African countries, including Botswana, thereby pushing bilateral relations to a higher level.
*This story was produced with the support of the Wits Africa-China Re- porting Project