From plush to pavement

BULAWAYO - Among an assortment of black homeless figures that huddle for warmth on a row on the rough floor of a railway station waiting room is a blot that breaks the monotony.

At first encounter, one is forgiven for mistaking the bushy-bearded face for an adventurous white tourist bidding to get first- hand experience of the discomfort associated with roughing it out in the wild as most of back-packer tourists do.

But Louis George van Blerk is no foreign tourist by any stretch of imagination. In his corner is a two-legged hand-made wooden stool, a threadbare foam-rubber mattress, a bed cover and a clutch of clothing items.

The only newish item of clothing on his body is a blue workman’s overall that his peers at the railway station easily identify him with.

“I am fortunate because railway officials have let me stay here,” van Blerk says acknowledging the gesture of generosity quite apart from what he has gone through for almost half a decade.

He says he woke up one day in 2008 to find an armed army officer waving an “offer letter” for the 250-acre piece of land he had inherited from his late parents in his face, and telling him to leave immediately.

“Both my parents are buried on that piece of land. My mom and dad died the same year. My grandparents are also buried there and I had to leave after constant threats by an army officer from Harare,” says van Blerk.

His eyes dart about before adding: “I suspect the army officer has another farm in Harare and he seemed well-connected judging from how quickly I received token compensation,” he says.

President Robert Mugabe encouraged party supporters led by independence war fighters and participants to invade commercial farmland ahead of general elections in 2000.

The 53-year-old is a victim of tear-jerking circumstances that connived to transform him from a successful commercial farmer at Maygraven Farm in the Ntabazinduna farming area, 50km outside Zimbabwe’s second largest city to a jobless wanderer who now prowls city streets in search work.

When evening falls, van Blerk resorts to the waiting-room at the railway station which has become his home for the past four months.

Van Blerk was dealt yet another blow when Reserve Bank Governor, Gideon Gono declared the Zimbabwean dollar valueless after failing to turn back the raging tide of inflation running at an estimated 500 million percent.

Gono thrashed his hands about in frustration and sought to avoid further embarrassment by declaring the adoption of multi-currency mode of transaction.

The declaration impoverished many Zimbabweans among them pensioners who had their life-savings wiped out in one fell swoop.

“The army officer, called Chiriga evicted me and most of my workers. He then instructed that I collect my compensation in Harare. I am the lucky few who got $500 million dollars of valueless Zimbabwe dollars as compensation though I lost property valued at $2 billion,” says van Blerk.

Zimbabwe’s crushing cash shortage compelled Gono to institute daily withdrawal limits in an
effort to contain demand.

Van Blerk says the little he could manage to withdraw in such restrictive circumstances enabled him to go to Botswana where he spent most of the last four years hunting for a job.

He is a qualified diesel mechanic.

“I got married during my sojourn in Botswana but the woman kicked me out when hard times befell the two of us and I don’t blame the woman for doing so. It is difficult to get a job when you are over 50 years of age and my live-in girlfriend said she could not cope. She too had lost her job.” van Blerk said.

He returned home and found sanctuary among the homeless who eke out a living doing odd jobs in the derelict industrial sites.

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