HARARE, ZIMBABWE —
A history-making team of Zimbabwean high school students that became world and European moot court competition champions has been widely praised in a country where the education system is beset by poor funding, lack of materials and teachers' strikes.
The 11-member Zimbabwean team of nine girls and two boys aged between 14 and 18 and drawn from different schools was crowned world champions last month after winning the International High School Moot Court competition held online at the end of May. A team from New York City came second in the competition where participants used fictional cases to simulate proceedings in the International Criminal Court pre-trial chambers.
Zimbabwe now has also been crowned champions of Europe after beating The Netherlands in the finals of the European Moot Competition for high school students on July 3. It was Zimbabwe's first time competing in both prestigious events.
Organizers of the European competition were so impressed with Zimbabwe's performance at the International High School Moot Court competition that they invited the team to be the first-ever African country to enter their competition, said team captain Ruvimbo Simbi.
"It is surreal and extraordinary," said Simbi after returning from Romania, where the European competition was held.
"When we were at the European Moot Court, many people didn't even know Zimbabwe. We put Zimbabwe on the map, letting the world know of the amazing talent found in this country," said Simbi.
The southern African country's president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in June invited the team to his official residence and presented them with $30,000 in cash following their victory in the high school competition. He described the latest win as "another victory for the pride of Zimbabwe."
The European Union delegation in Zimbabwe has also congratulated the team.
The winning team received a rousing reception by hordes of schoolchildren, parents and supporters when they returned last week. The usually subdued airport was filled with cheers, song and dance when the team arrived displaying their awards. The team was treated to a welcome with a red carpet, flowers and balloons. Some held placards reading "Welcome back champions." Others played drums and marimba, a traditional instrument of wooden bars played using mallets.
When Zimbabwe achieved independence and majority rule in 1980, the new government vigorously expanded the country's education system so that all Black children could attend primary and secondary school. Previously the education system had catered mainly for the country's white minority. Zimbabwe achieved one of Africa's highest literacy rates.
But in recent years, the country's debilitating economic problems have seen its education system deteriorate and become characterized by dilapidated infrastructure, shortages of key learning materials such as books and frequent pay strikes by teachers.
Despite these problems, Zimbabwe's education system is still rated highly in Africa.
The victories at the international moot court events "mean a lot to us Zimbabwean educators," said Kudzai Mutsure, head of Dominican Convent, a girls-only Catholic school in Harare where some of the team members are enrolled.
"We take academic, sport and cultural activities very seriously," said Mutsure. "A student can flourish in one of those areas."