A happy childhood? Not for most Zim kids

Not every child in Zimbabwe suffering from stress has had a family member jailed or murdered, although there are those instances right across the social and racial spectrum. There are also the everyday examples of living - and growing up - in an environment with an unusually high level of stress, and with parents whose exposure to, and efforts to deal with uncertainty, rubs off on their children.

Tomorrow’s leaders: What do they have to look forward to?.
Tomorrow’s leaders: What do they have to look forward to?.

Thandiwe, a mother of two, remembers the era of food shortages and how it affected her children, at the time aged four and seven.

“I still see this anxiety, related to food, in my children,” she said. “There’s definitely an element of gluttony – eating even when they aren’t hungry – just because they can. It’s two years on, and I’m certainly seeing early signs of weight problems in my nine-year old daughter, something no-one in the family has ever suffered from before.”

The effects of stress on the young are, however, most pointedly felt at school. When the top stream of a local school started their high school career in 2004, there were 32 students in the class. When they graduated six years later, in 2010, they had lost almost half that number.

The more subtle results are even more widespread…and more alarming. Among them are increased disciplinary and learning problems, as well as an increase in the number of students who are not only living alone but, in many cases, running a household of younger siblings.

“The situation forced many people to seek work outside the country, merely to survive, leaving their children here to continue their schooling,” said a remedial teacher at another high school.

“We’re seeing the result of this every day in the school: children living without reliable adult supervision, or any supervision at all, responsible for their own meals and transport and, in many cases, with little or no guidance in terms of responsibility, moral values and discipline,” she said.

She remembers the instance of a 15-year-old boy who kept falling asleep in class. When she questioned him about his lack of energy, she discovered that he was living alone as both his parents were working in South Africa.

He had to find his own transport home, a distance of about 15km, at the end of a long day of school and sports, and then, when he reached home, would often have to wait for the electricity to come back after load shedding, sometimes as late as 10pm, to start cooking himself a meal.

“Sometimes, if his parents were late sending money, he would have to walk home. He was just perpetually exhausted, and not coping at all,” she said.

The number of children being referred for remedial lessons is increasing every year, and in many of the instances, the students are found to be capable, but unable to apply themselves.

“They’re showing more signs of violence and aggression than I’ve seen in my six years of teaching at the school. Some exhibit fear and insecurity which can only be put down to neglect and lack of adult guidance and supervision,” said the remedial teacher.

A local psychologist who specialises in child and family counselling confirms that stress is playing a large role in shaping Zimbabwe’s young.

“What is of concern is that these effects will not be short-term. We are in for a long run, which is worrying because these are the adults of tomorrow, who will one day be running the country,” she said.

One of the most notable stress factors facing youth is pessimism about the future, resulting in a generation lacking in direction and ambition.

She said even if a child was fortunate enough to leave school with good O and A Levels, the opportunities for tertiary education and career development were still severely limited.

“What do they have to look forward to? They ask themselves this question and, when they realise the answer is very little. So they give up, choosing to fill their lives, instead, with drugs, alcohol and vandalism,” she said.

The counsellor was quick to caution against labelling the pressures on Zimbabwean youth as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, saying this was over-used and over-rated, saying: “PTSD is a very real condition for people who have experienced a particular incident that has been life-changing and/or life-threatening, the result of which would be a number of conditions, from flashbacks to sleep disorders.”

The lack of parental supervision coupled with the easier access to the internet, was also leading to an increase in the viewing of pornography, it being the belief that in Zimbabwe today there is porn in some form in many households.

A resultant effect is an early onset of sexual awareness, leading to children as young as six or seven engaging in activities of a sexual nature and, in the worst case scenario, being raped or sexually abused.

The high level of sexual abuse in the country has led to units being established at major hospitals solely to deal with the victims and offer counselling and support, while there is an increase in children as young as two years old who have been raped and abused.

“You get a nicely-spoken 13-year-old boy referred to you for counselling, and you ask him why he raped the neighbour’s three year old child and he tells you, I saw people having sex on the computer and wanted to see what it was like,” said the counsellor.

Counselling centres are also seeing an increase in the number of school referrals, students who have exhibited violent or aggressive tendencies, shown lack of respect for others and their property, and have been abusing drugs and alcohol.

A reaction to this has been an initiative in some schools to form clubs which encourage children and youth to speak out about the issues that concern them. One of the greatest concerns voiced among the youth who attend these clubs is how to reshape what looks like a dismal future, and they believe the only way to do this is to make money. Having experienced the era of hyper-inflation, where “wheeling and dealing” became, often out of necessity, the norm in order to survive, they have grown up knowing little else.

“No-one is interested in an education or a career anymore, the lesson they have learnt from watching society around them is that the only way out is by making a lot of money,” the counsellor said.

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