Education is an important tool for the development of a nation. A quality education system will in turn produce an educated population which can contribute towards building a better society
This has been the thinking of leaders such as President Robert Mugabe and the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, as reflected in their policies. One such policy was the Cuba Teacher Training Programme which facilitated for the training of 2 300 Zimbabwean teachers in its lifetime.
The relationship between Cuba and Zimbabwe stemmed from the colonial period where Cuba supported the liberation efforts of the freedom fighters. This relationship was further strengthened once Zimbabwe gained independence as Cuba took not only to training Zimbabwean teachers but also doctors to assist the education and health services in the country.
Mr Fananidzo Pesanai, President of the Zimbabwe Cuba Friendship Association, was the chief education officer coordinating the Cuba Teacher Training Programme when it began in the 1980s.
“President Mugabe then asked Cde Castro if he could send some of his people to address the shortage of teachers in Zimbabwe, particularly in the Science and Mathematics subjects at secondary level,” he said.“The programme started when President Mugabe visited Cuba in 1985. He toured the country and was taken to the ‘island of youth’.
There he visited schools belonging to many nationalities, including Mozambique, Ghana and Angola where they were receiving training in primary and secondary education. Mr Pesanai said Zimbabwe was rebuilding the education system in the post-independence period and this was an opportunity for Zimbabweans to receive quality training abroad.
“Zimbabwe had teachers for primary education but there was a shortage in the Science, Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics subjects especially at secondary level.
“Cde Castro agreed and in 1986 together with Elijah Chanakira who was the permanent secretary for education at the time we were sent to Cuba to study the education system there and get an idea of how it was structured as we intended to introduce a teacher training programme,” he added.
In September 1986 a memorandum of understanding was signed following a joint commission in Havana and that month, 400 young men and women together with eight lecturers were flown to Cuba on a chartered Air Zimbabwe flight and the programme started.
“The programme was a five-year education degree and the students learnt Science, Mathematics, Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Geography. They were also taught the theory and the pedagogy of education.
“Of the eight Zimbabwean lecturers that were sent, three were to teach English, because Cuba is a Spanish speaking country but the language of instruction in Zimbabwe would be English.
“Two of the lecturers were for cultural studies, so that the students wouldn’t get homesick while they were there and still kept in touch with the Zimbabwean culture.
“The other three lecturers taught theory of education so that they were accustomed to how the Zimbabwean education system operated in order for them to fit in,” Mr Pesanai explained.
He added that every year following from 1986 to 1988 400 students a year were taken to Cuba where they excelled at their studies.
“I remember one year at the University of Enrique Jose Varona, where the students were being educated, Zimbabwean students got 12 out of 15 prizes. Best in Biology, Physics, Chemistry and other subjects. The only subjects they did not get prizes in I think were computers and Marxist education.
“Those who graduated in Cuba have also gone on to do exceptionally well in life. Right now, some 40 of them that I am aware of, have PhDs and are teaching at universities here in Zimbabwe, in the UK, in the US, South Africa and Australia,” he said.
A total of 2 300 Zimbabwean students graduated in Cuba before the programme ended in 1999. It was then relocated to Zimbabwe and became the genesis of the Bindura University of Science Education.
“The programme we now have at Bindura University began with a few lecturers who came from Cuba as well as some local lecturers. Up to now there are still Cuban lecturers at the university,” Mr Pesanai explained.
On Cde Fidel Castro, Mr Pesanai said, the world has lost a revolutionary and progressive individual.
“He was a person committed to helping other nationalities, someone I can describe as selfless. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, between 1989 and 1992, Cuba went through a difficult economic period. It was known as the “special period”, and if you ask me it was much worse than what we experienced here,” said Mr Pesanai.
“Castro however, made sure that all foreign students continued to receive free education, free health care, transport, entertainment and on top of that an 80 Cuban peso allowance. To put it into perspective the average lecturer was getting 300 pesos.
“I remember at the time he assured 35 000 foreign students, with the words, ‘we are not rich, we do not have much but the little we have, we will share with you’. These are the words of a man who was committed to the cause of others,” he said.
Mr Pesanai further stated that what Castro did transformed many lives in Zimbabwe, some of which he might not have known.
“What he did for the education sector in Zimbabwe is immense. Many people have benefited from the programme either directly as participants or as students of those who received training.”
Mr Misheck Mhishi, a lecturer at Bindura University of Science Education was a recipient of the Cuba Teacher Training Programme in the 1980s and reminisced on his time in Cuba.
“I went to Cuba in 1987 when things with the Soviet Union were still fine. During this time, we received our education and everything was very normal.
“Soon after, however, in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, things turned for the worse in Cuba. There were a lot of shortages in Cuba during this time,” said Mr Mhishi.
“Despite this though, the Cuban government did the best to accommodate us. We were given clothing, food and accommodation.
“You could tell that although things weren’t the way that they should be, the Cubans were trying and they made a lot of sacrifices for us to receive an education so that we could in turn educate our own people,” he said.
Speaking on the education they received while in Cuba, Mr Mhishi said it was of exceptional quality and made it possible for them to create a quality education system in Zimbabwe.
“The resources that we had in Cuba were state of the art and this gave us an advantage in terms of learning and also teaching when we came back. Our laboratories in Cuba were always fully stocked and there was ample study material to reference,” he said.
“When we returned to Zimbabwe this was an advantage and provided a solid foundation for how we were to teach and interact with our students,” he said.
Mr Mhishi had praises for Cde Castro and was disappointed to see the negative comments that people have been posting about him.
“People think when a leader stays long in power he is automatically a dictator, but if you see the way that Cde Fidel Castro lived there is no way you could say that he is a dictator.
“Cde Castro is one politician whom I respected because he was humble and principled. He would sometimes go out into the streets and buy from vendors. He interacted with ordinary people regularly and was not aloof.
“I remember how he used to come on TV and explain to people if something was not going well. For example, if there were to be a fuel crisis, he would come on TV and let the people know so that they would be psychologically prepared.
“They knew that their president was with them and cared enough to explain the situation to them. This, I thought, was good because it did not leave room for rumours because people were informed. Even things that some people might consider state secrets he was open about,” he said.
Cuban Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mr Elio Savon Oliva said relations between Cuba and Zimbabwe had always been excellent and that the education programme was an example of how strong they were.
“Before independence, Cuba supported Zimbabwe during the liberation struggle and once Zimbabwe got its independence, we continued to support in the development of the country.
“Through our efforts, Cuba trained 2 300 teachers on scholarship to strengthen the education system in Zimbabwe. Following the programme in Cuba, we continued to support efforts here in Bindura,” he said.
Ambassador Oliva explained that even though Cuba had the burden of the ‘special period’ where their economy went into a serious depression, president Castro was committed to see through the teacher training programme.
“Despite the economic problems that Cuba faced during the ‘special period’, for president Fidel Castro and his government there was serious political will for the programmes to go ahead no matter what.
“This was a clear decision by Cde Castro because he wanted to sustain the solidarity between the nations but also ensure that development took place in Zimbabwe,” he said.
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