ALMOST half of the total enrolment at Hartzell High School abandoned lessons this week following a student unrest, which started on Sunday, with the outgoing headmaster, Mr Johnson Mabvumbe, standing accused of inciting the students to revolt against the school authorities, the United Methodist Church.
Students said they are fed up of poor diet. The students complained of a monotonous diet of mackerel fish, tripe (maguru), beans and cabbages, which they say was just dipped in boiling water without any cooking oil or tomato paste added to it.
Although education officials said the situation had returned to normal following Monday's meeting involving all the stakeholders, a check at the school on Wednesday revealed that most Form One to Four classes were virtually empty.
It was business as usual for A-Level students, who allegedly started the strike on Sunday by boycotting a church service.
Mr Mabvumbe was not readily available for a comment on Wednesday as the person who answered the school's landline number said he had gone to Mutare. She also said Mr Mabvumbe had left behind his mobile phone in his office.
It was not clear when lessons would resume, but sources at the school said they were expecting the students to be back at the weekend as Saturday was reserved as a parents' visitation day.
The Mutasa District Education Officer, Mr Zachariah Chikwangani, on Wednesday visited the school and said the situation was calm.
"About 600 out of the 944 students enrolled at the school are attending lessons. The remainder went home, but authorities at the school said some of them were now trickling back. We expect everything to be back to normal by weekend. Most of those who went home are junior students and we are still investigating who instigated them to abandon their lessons because we received varying statements on that.
"We also heard allegations that the headmaster instigated the strike, but what we have gathered so far is that Upper Six students are the hand behind the strike. The headmaster was trying his level best to persuade the students to go back to their classes with little success," he said.
When the strike started, the students who were led by Upper Six students, were vowing not to return to their classes until they were guaranteed that Mr Mabvumbe would not be transferred from the school as well as that he be given autonomy to administer the school's funds.
Investigations revealed that the students recently approached Mr Mabvumbe about the deteriorating meals as well as their general welfare where they were told that he (Mr Mabvumbe) was no longer responsible for the handling of the school funds, with the church now being the responsible authority.
The situation came to a boil on Sunday with Upper Six male students boycotting church. They later boycotted that evening study session and ganged up to proceed to female hostels where they allegedly forced them to join them in protesting against the school authorities.
The Manica Post visited the school around 8.30pm following numerous phone calls and text messages from parents concerned about the welfare of their children.
Some of the messages read: "Go to Hartzell High now and save our children from an ongoing strike by boys. Isu tine vanasikana vangarepwe. (We have male students and can be abused.) and I did not know that people would stoop so low to use innocent pupils to fight their wars. Shame to whoever is involved. Last time an innocent pupil was killed at the same school under the authority of someone said to act in loco-parentis. Whoever instigated the strike should be dealt with severely."
When the news crew arrived at the school, the students were gathered in the Beit Hall where they were signing songs calling for Mr Mabvumbe's continuous stay at the school as well as denouncing the responsible authority and the United Methodist Church.
Police officers from Penhalonga Police Station had a nightmare in addressing the restive students as they were subjected to jeers and hackling throughout their address.
"We want our headmaster to stay here because the pass-rate has improved tremendously. The church has taken over the running of the school and our diet is now poor because the headmaster is not being given money to buy enough food. The station chairman, Rev San'anza is now in charge of everything," chorused the students, vowing not to retire to bed until Rev San'anza addressed them.
The students later agreed to retire to bed at around 11pm, but vowed not to continue with lessons until their grievances were addressed.
A meeting was later convened at the school the following day, which was attended by Mr Chikwangwani and Mr Duma also from the Ministry of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture, the school authorities represented by UMC education secretary, Mr Timire, Rev San'anza, the school board chairperson, Ms Rebecca Mutyambizi, Mr Mabvumbe and law enforcement agents.
The students reiterated their backing of Mr Mabvumbe and that he should be given authority over the school funds.
Addressing the students, Rev San'anza said: "It is a blue lie for someone to claim that the church is controlling the school's money. We only monitor how the money is spent. It is the headmaster who generates vouchers of things to be bought for the school."
The students would not budge despite assurances from Mr Chikwangwani that their headmaster was not going anywhere.
"I am here representing the Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture and as far as we are concerned Mr Johnson Mabvumbe is the headmaster of Hartzell High School. He will be given all the powers to deal with financial matters of this school. I urge you to go back to your classes as we find a long lasting solution to this impasse. We will come back to you with the feedback of our deliberations, but I do not have any timeframe for that," he said, as the students walked out saying they wanted feedback that very day.
The students retreated back to their halls of residence as the school and education authorities were locked in another meeting.
However, half of the students left the school by Tuesday morning and said would return on Sunday, hoping to find an improvement in their welfare.
"We were surprised to learn that half of the students left on Tuesday under the instruction of someone and we will get to the bottom of this. We cannot allow people to have their little Banana Republics. As for the welfare of students, we will definitely address it. The welfare has been our top priority, yet some people are now using this as a tool to attack the board. We have pointing these things to the headmaster, but he always brushed us aside.
"There is a huge difference between the primary and high school. It seems everything is moving in the right direction at the primary school than the high school, which is suffering from years of neglect. Some of the dormitories resemble pig stirs," fumed a board member who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mr Chikwangwani on Wednesday reiterated that Mr Mabvumbe would remain at the school.
"Although the church gave Mr Mabvumbe up to April 30 to leave Hartzell, we are still looking for another school to place him. However, it should be noted that the church is not pressing any charges on him and this becomes a very tricky situation. In circumstances like this it is the headmaster who is expected to make a formal transfer request.
"Mr Mabvumbe was also barred by the church from handling the school funds and we have minutes to that effect," he said. MANICA POST