33 years of ramshackle life haunts citizens

HARARE - A dirty strip snakes into a rundown compound in Caledonia, a bustling settlement established to house victims of President Robert Mugabe’s Operation Murambatsvina (drive out trash) seven years ago.

In this midst of extreme poverty, residents here, 20 kilometres east of the capital Harare, still remember to celebrate Independence Day.

But they say they feel left out as the politically well-connected feast on independence gains while they struggle on.

Bands of intoxicated youths, blaring music, a wail here and laughter there offer a window into the life of grinding poverty afflicting residents in this settlement where people live from hand to mouth and often on vice.

After 33 years of Uhuru, citizens describe life under former guerrilla leader Mugabe as akin to being in “bondage”.

The after-effects of a record inflation, political wrangling and an unprecedented economic meltdown are still being felt notwithstanding the formation of a coalition government between Mugabe and bitter political rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

Four years since the establishment of the coalition, Zimbabwe’s warring political protagonists could never have been further apart as elections beckon, a sign of how the administration has failed to change the fortunes of ordinary folk.

Tsvangirai’s MDC is promising a new dawn while Mugabe’s Zanu PF is holding on to liberation war credentials and a controversial takeover of foreign-owned firms.

Many ordinary residents say the party has failed to show any real progress of development since taking over power at independence in April 1980.

A few metres from Caledonia are some of Harare’s oldest suburbs, Mabvuku and Tafara whose fortunes have waned since independence. Poverty stinks and rivulets of raw sewage criss-cross denuded and potholed roads in these suburbs which are testimony to decades of neglect.

Yet, if people in Mabvuku thought their situation was bad, conditions in nearby Caledonia stink to high heavens and betray a revolution gone off the rails.

Pole and dagga structures count for homes in this sprawling camp.

Here you find people like Robert Siwa, 81, and less than 10 years Mugabe’s junior.

He worked for an insurance company for 17 years and now lives on a paltry monthly $40 social security pension.

From the “comfort” of a ramshackle shack, Siwa emerges with a grin that belies the hunger that has ravaged his frame.

“I have never owned a house,” he says.

“Smith (Ian, last colonial ruler) built homes for people in his time.

‘‘Even in the short space of time the Bishop (Abel Muzorewa, short-lived Zimbabwe-Rhodesia Prime Minister) did his bit and can be credited with building some houses in Glen View.

“We thought life would be better with our own in the driving seat but things are getting worse. I cannot afford a decent meal. I am in trouble, am asthmatic and cannot afford to rent a place even in Mabvuku,” Siwa said.

As if to show the creative genius in Zimbabweans, a makeshift advertisement on the walls of the mud-hut screams to quarry stone buyers.

“For sale, three-quarter stones”, needless to say customers are rare.Barefoot, limping and a full set of grey hair, Siwa hails from Mutasa District in Manicaland Province and claims most of his relatives are dead. He looks much older than the spring chicken that Mugabe is and seems to have resigned to fate.

“I have no home and came to this squatter settlement to spend the last days of my life,” he says.

“At times my wife and I have nothing to eat and we just sleep on empty stomachs. We have to buy firewood because there is no electricity and this is not my stand so I have to fork out $25 a month to the land owner. At the end I am left with $10 to get me through 30 days,” he adds.

“We had so much hope but not anymore,” Siwa says, with a chuckle.

Siwa can count himself lucky because he was once employed for 39-year-old Peter Chimanyiwa has never been to formal work.

“The shift from Ian Smith’s Rhodesia to independent Zimbabwe was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire,” says Chimanyiwa.

“We are in bondage. However, it is good that our leaders are making huge efforts to create the best environment for the coming elections and this time voting is a priority,” says the father of two girls who are stuck at home because he cannot afford to pay for their school fees.

Where Chimanyiwa and Siwa live, there is no running water, no electricity and amenities are a scarcity.
In contrast, Mugabe moves in one of the longest motorcades on the continent disparagingly called “Bob’s wailers”.

A darling of locals at independence, Mugabe and those close to him have retreated into high walls and heavy security to shield themselves from people like Siwa who are demanding answers.

“There is just too much corruption and it’s a free for all. War veterans (guerrillas from the independence bush war) are charging us because they own most of the land. No government official seems to acknowledge our existence,” said Chimanyiwa.

Caledonia is less than 10km from the leafy neighbourhood of Borrowdale Brooke, where Mugabe owns a villa.
On the extreme side of life is 18-year-old John Faindani, born 15 years after the attainment of majority rule.

“I was born at the wrong time,” he says.

“My parents could hardly afford to pay my schools fees. I did not do well and would love to go back to school but it is a waste of time because what would I do with the education. There are no jobs and my friends and I are now spending our most productive years loafing around,” Faindani said.

Millions of Faindani’s age mates have joined the often dangerous trek to South Africa in search of greener pastures after their own country failed them.

“I hear not so many people left the country during Rhodesia. It is sad that this is happening under black ‘majority rule’,” Faindani said.

Depression has set in among the youths with many resorting to potent brews smuggled from neighbouring Mozambique through Zimbabwe’s porous ports of entry.

Says 75-year-old Sawani Phiri from Caledonia: “Our children have turned to beer and prostitution. We have all been transformed into a nation of vendors by our leaders. It is not what we expected.”

“I am of Malawian origin and we have been told at last we can vote under the new law. We will vote with our stomachs,” he adds.

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