Sixty-seven Basotho studying medicine at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) say they are now “stranded” in Harare because the government has allegedly failed to send them their allowances since April this year.
Lesotho signed an agreement with the Zimbabwe government in 2011 under which Basotho students would study medicine at the UZ for three years and then complete their degrees at the Lesotho School of Medicine (LSoM).
However, this arrangement came under threat after the LSoM, which was established in 2014, failed to meet the required international standards to train medical doctors.
A Quality Assurance Committee of the Lesotho Council on Higher Education sealed LSoM’s fate last year when it recommended the school should not be accredited to train doctors as it did not have the capacity to produce such specialised personnel.
After the recommendation, LSoM stopped enrolling its second intake which was supposed to begin studies in September 2015. The first intake students, in the meantime, were still at the college but their fate had remained in limbo until the government, under a new arrangement, sent them back to Harare in April this year to complete their fourth and fifth year studies at the UZ.
Under the new agreement, the students say they are each supposed to receive M3500 per six-month semester as stipends through the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS), which falls under the Ministry of Development Planning. The money was supposed to be deposited immediately after the students left for Harare in April “as per the agreement”, the students further claim.
The disgruntled learners this week told the Lesotho Times they were now “stranded” as they could not pay for basic necessities as well as their transport to and from late-night studies when they need to hire minicabs which are more expensive than conventional taxis.
“The agreement between the governments of Lesotho and Zimbabwe was that we will spend three years in Zimbabwe, and then return to Lesotho to complete our medical training. But the government of Lesotho failed to prepare for our training back home with the collapse of the LSoM.
“To make things worse, we were sent back to Zimbabwe without being given any money. We had to struggle and borrow money for transport with the hope that we would soon get the funds from our sponsor (NMDS) because this was what we were promised by the government during our farewell ceremony held at the Ministry of Health headquarters in Maseru,” a representative of the students told the Lesotho Times.
The Minister of Development Planning, Mokoto Hloaele, the students allege, made a “bold statement in front of the media that he will not just review our allowances but pay them on time.”
But the students further claim they were yet to receive the promised funds.
“When we try to contact the International Desk at the NMDS, they are threatening us that we cannot be doctors if they don’t want us to be doctors,” the students claim.
“Basotho can remember these issues from 2012 when our allowances were slashed mercilessly without analysing the situation here in Zimbabwe. We wrote three letters to the ministers of health, planning and finance in 2012 and a team was sent here to get first-hand information about life in Zimbabwe. To this day, we have never received a report of the findings of that visit and the situation has since gone from bad to worse because of the ever-rising cost of living in Zimbabwe.
“Another humiliation was arriving at the UZ only to find out our school-fees had not been paid. We had to wait in the streets, phoning to seek help. We spent the whole week begging for food, places to sleep and transport.”
The students further say the consistent late disbursement of their stipends had made learning difficult for them at the UZ.
“We can’t print assignments, photocopy books and go to different hospitals for our training. These duties are at night and we have to attend them in order to learn and they are a prerequisite for us to pass medicine so failure to attend them means we cannot be doctors.
“The truth is in Zimbabwe, life is very expensive. For example, our NMDS is giving us R3500 per semester which is equal to US$233 and when you withdraw this money from the ATM, it becomes US$220 because of bank charges. This means we are being given US$220 to last us six months, and when you divide this by six, it comes to $36 per month. Even if we were to use it for educational welfare alone, the money is still too little. In fact, we don’t know how we are surviving here.
“We are given M1000 for project allowance, but everywhere else, students receive approximately M2000 and above. Even at the National University of Lesotho, they get M2000 or more. What about us? We are soon going for Rural Hospital Attachment here in Zimbabwe for a month (July to August), and imagine having such little money while food is so expensive here. How will we survive?”
The students allege they wrote e-mails to the Lesotho authorities about the situation in Zimbabwe “but so far we have not received any feedback. We also contacted our embassy in Pretoria via the Republic of South Africa Embassy in Zimbabwe to intervene in these issues at diplomatic level because they know and understand the situation in Zimbabwe than our Lesotho government.
“Also the University of Zimbabwe wrote a letter to the NMDS asking, on our behalf, that we be helped with the funding. But the NMDS, through the International Desk, responded with insults and refused to help us since their mission is to ensure that we don’t complete our studies and come back as doctors.
“We are humbly requesting for help from our countrymen and women since we have been asking for assistance since 2012 from our government but none has been forthcoming.”
Meanwhile, the Lesotho Times is in possession of a copy of the letter the students wrote to Development Planning Minister Hloaele. The minister, however, says he never saw the communication.
The letter is dated 12 June 2016 and reads in part: “It is with this letter that we, medical students from the University of Zimbabwe Year Five ( final year) want to alert you and inform you of our feelings and problems we encounter always due to NMDS, which is a department under your auspices.
“We write this letter because we always raise and explain these problems to NMDS, but we never get a satisfactory response. We have been struggling since 2012 when we were second-year students, we hope this time we will be heard. We need the following concerns to be addressed:
- We were not happy that we went to Zimbabwe without transport allowances, yet it was known almost four weeks prior to our departure so we had to borrow money for transportation.
- Delays of our allowances: we remember that one of the promises you made during the farewell held at the Ministry of Health in April 2016 was that our allowances would come on time, and we were so happy. As we write now, we have not yet received our allowances. The question is: what will the money do if it comes late?
- We are given sub-standardize allowances while we live in Zimbabwe. Most painfully, we are bench-marked with Republic of South Africa students where life is very cheap. The truth is in Zimbabwe, life is very expensive because of the use of the US dollar which is very powerful compared to the Rand and Loti.
- We need assistance with call allowances, especially since we drive at night. The University wrote a letter to NMDS to assist us, we have enclosed this letter for you to see, and the school did so because they found it necessary. Also, the increment on the call allowance, at least $500 is a fair allowance looking at how expensive transport alone is at night.
- Project allowances increment: we are given R1000 for project allowance, but everywhere, students receive R2000 and above, from the NMDS.
However, contacted for a comment yesterday, Mr Hloaele told the Lesotho Times through his “assistant officer”, Ms Mpho Molapo that he had not received the letter.
Ms Molapo said: “The minister has not received that letter. However, he said he was communicating the students’ concerns with the NMDS to find a solution. Once the minister has fully made his consultations regarding this matter you will be informed about the way forward.”
The Lesotho Times made repeated efforts to secure comments from the NMDS management, Education Minister Dr Mahali Phamotse and Health Minister Dr Molotsi Monyamane, to no avail yesterday.
The students had claimed they tried to reach out to the ministers for assistance but were not responded to.