By Moses Mugugunyeki
For many years, school children in Mangwe district in Matabeleland South province have had to bear anguish, risking drowning as they crossed flooded rivers, battling wildlife menace and learning in decrepit structures.
Matabeleland South province, Mangwe district in particular, is a heterogeneous area with potentially destructive natural and socio-natural hazards being the order of the day.
Hailstorms, strong winds, droughts, lightning, and floods are recurring causing a lot of damage to people and property in this district, whose large chunk borders Botswana and South Africa.
Hazards can cause destruction, economic loss, severe injury or death, which might leave children to cope with the devastating aftermath.
According to the World Bank, from 1998 through 2018, 91% of storm-related fatalities were in low- and middle-income countries, even though these countries experienced just 32% of storms.
Since 1980, more than two million people and over $3 trillion have been lost to disasters caused by natural hazards, with total damages increasing by more than 600% from $23 billion a year in the 1980s to $150 billion a year in the last decade, the World Bank reports.
It is against this background that the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society [ZRCS] with the support of the Finnish Red Cross, Belgium Red Cross and the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office embarked on a programme meant to enhance disaster risk management capacities and community resilience in Mangwe district.
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The project, which is in its second phase and running under the title, Resilience through Disaster Response Management: Comprehensive School Safety is being implemented in 15 schools.
A recent visit to Mangwe district by this publication showed that the communities have embraced projects meant to enhance disaster risk management capacities and community resilience.
Villagers and teachers at Vaka Primary School in Mangwe Rural District ward 2 said the project has changed the face of the school, which over the years had been overlooked.
“Red Cross has done a lot in reaching out to communities in as far as disaster reduction management is concerned,” said Benjamin Ndlovu, the councillor for the area.
“We have learnt about the importance of avoiding hazards through training and we have taken the knowledge to the communities.”
Ndlovu, who leads the school’s School Disaster Response committee, said as a community they have managed to identify some of the hazards prevalent in the school and villages.
“We have identified the hazards and we are now working on finding ways on how best we can reduce them,” he said.
Vaka Primary School head Abigail Chateuka expressed gratitude over the disaster risk reduction training the school staff, pupils and community are getting under the programme.
“We are grateful for the knowledge that we are getting under this programme as it really opens our minds with regards to disaster risk reduction,” Chateuka said.
“It never comes into our minds that minor things like broken window panes, broken asbestos, pot holes on the floor and other small things could be hazardous.
“I like the idea of involving pupils to identify on their own the risks and hazards that affect them in and outside the school.
‘This really opens up their minds and raises awareness on reducing risks and hazards.”
Chateuka lamented the lack of classroom blocks at the school.
“Our biggest challenge is the shortage of classrooms blocks.
“When it rains or we have bad weather, it’s difficult to conduct lessons outside. It’s another risk,” she said.
While Vaka Primary School is among the five schools that were added for the second phase, Kwite Primary School, which is among the pioneers of the project, has had a lot of transformation since the beginning of the programme.
“The appearance of the school is not what it was a few years back before the start of the Red Cross programme,” said Mendo Sibanda, village head for Kwite.
“This school was derelict, that classroom block had its roof blown off for two years and children learned in the open, but it all changed when Red Cross brought the training and eventually facilitated the roofing of the block with zinc sheets, replacing the asbestos that was there.
“Because of the training and the knowledge that we got from Red Cross, we mobilised resources as a community and reroofed that other block taking into cognisance, the disaster reduction training we got.”
The school’s development committee chairperson Charles Ndlovu said apart from knowledge and reroofing of the block, ZRCS also facilitated the rehabilitation of the school block and the construction of a child-friendly toilet.
“The school looks almost new, thanks to this training and the eventual roofing of the block on top of the rehabilitation of the structure,” said Charles.
“The other thing is that the Red Cross facilitated the construction of a girl-friendly toilet which offers safety and security, including children with disabilities.”
Kwite school deputy head Tshuma said the disaster reduction programme had transformed the school and a lot of steps forward are being evidenced in as far as children’s safety is concerned.
“We were among schools that pioneered this project and we are now witnessing the positive results that it has brought to this school and community at large,” Tshuma said.
“However, its work in progress and we are hopefully we will get there in as far as children’s safety is concerned.”
Mangwe Rural District Council CEO Bongani Ngwenya said the ZRCS project had thrown a lifeline to most schools in the district.
“We want to thank Red Cross for the job well done under this disaster risk management programme,” Ngwenya said.
“They have done a lot to improve children’s safety in the schools they are implementing their programme.
“They have built a foot bridge at Kahlu; they have rehabilitated classrooms, reroofed classrooms and built girl-child toilets, among other projects.
Ngwenya said he would be happy if the programme was to be extended to other schools in the district.
ZRCS secretary-general Elias Hwenga said they were looking forward at taking the project to other districts across the country.
“The comprehensive school safety project has been piloted in Mangwe district since the inception of the phase one in 2018,” said Hwenga.
“The project has a national outlook were the ZRCS is working closely working with key government stakeholders to advocate for the increased adoption and embracement of the disaster risk reduction in schools.”
Hwenga said the success of the first phase saw them adding five more schools for the second phase.
“The project is in phase two which has seen the incorporation of five more school under this project making the total target of 15 schools in phase two,” he said.
“The schools were selected through a consultative process with the district civil protection committee comprised among other key stakeholder like the district development coordinator’s office, Mangwe Rural District Council and the district schools inspector’s office.”
He paid tribute to the Finnish Red Cross, Belgium Red Cross and the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office for supporting the programme.