City of Kings' poor find little for their comfort

BULAWAYO - A government slum clearance campaign launched more than a decade ago purportedly to unclutter urban centres of illegal lean-tos and informal roadside kiosks has instead added dross than sanitize the urban environment.

The internationally-condemned campaign has blown the lid off a flawed state housing programme often kept out of public scrutiny until disaster strikes.

Operation Murambatsvina dredged up weaknesses in state welfare programme to deal with economic and social dislocations triggered by a discredited exercise that left an estimated 700 000 people roofless and countless others without sources of livelihood.

Squatter camps that blotted towns and cities countrywide illustrated the lack of affordable housing for the urban poor attracted to urban centres by perceived glitter due to dire lack of opportunities in impoverished rural areas despite government grabbing vast tracts of land that could be redistributed for housing and farming purposes.

And hapless victims of the government blitz contrived methods to counter the constant spectre of official harassment by resorting to putting up in environments most inhabitable expecting their plight to change over time.

Enter Sidojiwe Flats in the once-pristine metropolis of Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo and witness how stubborn problems of urban overcrowding  and homelessness has spawned rivulets formed from recurrent stagnant pools of raw sewage that pose a constant health hazard to both parents and  clutches of small children frolicking outdoor.



Sidojiwe Flats

Venture further inside the dim-lit corridors of the building’s begrimed walls scarred by years of neglect and, without a nose peg, experience an unwelcome assault by acrid stench that wafts across the wretched, narrow rooms partitioned by drooping curtaining meant to demarcate cubicles for privacy.

But the nauseating reek does little to dwarf the dissonant voices from occupants whose life appears normal like any other.

“I was a victim of Murambatsvina,” 40 year old Owen Chirandu tells the Daily News on Sunday.

He says he used to live with his wife and two kids in a lean-to at Entumbane suburb but when Murambatsvina unfolded and making short shrift of illegal house extensions, he lost most of his little possessions as he had nowhere else to go.

“I squeezed in with my relatives but that before my stay was no longer welcome. As a man I had to make a plan and then moved to Ngozi Mine squatter camp. I could not stay there as hordes of other victims were pouring in numbers,” he continues.



A tenant of Sidojiwe Flats shows the overcrowdedness in one room.

A friend told him of Sidojiwe Flats built by the municipality during the city’s heydays as the country’s thriving industrial hub. With acerbic irony, the name translates from the local Ndebele language to “we have been picked (rounded) up”, perhaps portending its future role as a dumping ground for the homeless picked from the ashes of the clean-up operation.

“That’s how I came here and since then, this has been my life.”

Chirandu who as a result of dislocation has since separated with his wife said, what compounded his situation was the closure of the company he was working for rendering him jobless.

“We pay rent of $8 per individual or $23 per room. We don’t have a problem with that but at least they are recognizing our presence therefore authorities should ensure that our conditions are improved."

Seething dragon flies drone up ubiquitously in and out of the rooms in an unhealthy co-existence with human beings typical of insects that naturally ply where filth is bliss.

Here, residents use cardboard boxes and plastics to cover the broken windows, at least to provide some semblance of decency. Used condoms and sanitary pads discarded everywhere, exposing children to health hazard sketch out an unwholesome portrait of dirt and grime.

This is a completely neglected community where an epitaph of a looming health time bomb is written and amply portrays the decrepit side of the City of Kings once touted for its tidiness.

Said another resident of Sidojiwe Flats: “Owing to overcrowding, we have a serious crisis of perennial toilet blockages which makes this place inhabitable. What is most frustrating is that the city fathers do not attend to our plight immediately as they do in other residential areas.

“We are a neglected community. Even if there is a sewer pipe burst or water problem here it is us who end up solving the problem on our own, which is a challenge.”

The Daily News on Sunday also visited Burombo Flats in Nguboyenja and Vundu Flats in Makokoba suburbs where a gloomy picture of urban space shortage and poverty is painted.

Between 600 and 800 residents are squashed at each of these flats which were built way before independence to provide accommodation for single workers.

In that set up, only about six communal taps, doorless toilets and baths are used by the residents in this squalor.

The plight of this apparently neglected community highlights one of the biggest headaches facing the Bulawayo City Council.

In most cases four people share a room leaving not enough room to swing a cat. This is a wrong place to talk of any modicum of privacy.

While residents seem to have resigned to their fate, dialogue with them reveals a people that have been hard-pressed and bottled-up by a bug of poverty. Their circumstances are worsened by an unyielding economy where politics appears to supersede concerns about the general welfare of citizens - where expedient decisions by authorities crumple aspirations as voiced by a forlorn single mother of three.

Theresa Muganyi, 34, based at Burombo Flats said: “Everyone wants to live like a king but you do what you are capable of doing at that time. I am a vendor and I cannot raise much to stay at an expensive place. I would have loved to raise my kids in a different environment but this is what we have to put up with unless fortune smiles at me and I win lotto.”

One elderly woman who identified herself as MaMdlongwa seemed to understand the situation better.

“Because of overcrowding, you cannot control sewage bursts as you may be aware the apartments are originally meant for bachelors and not families. Poverty and joblessness push a person to live in such squalid conditions.”

Ward 7 councilor James Sithole admitted residents at Vundu live in mess.

“We are very aware of the appalling conditions at the residential flats. They have been run down and dilapidated and therefore no longer fit for human habitation,” Sithole said.

He said it was unfortunate that the city faced a deepening accommodation crisis aggravated by the prevailing economic situation.

“The plans to rehabilitate and refurbish the flats are there but financial challenges hamper council from implementing them,” he said, adding: “the way people were congested at Vundu had also turned the place into a haven of crime as police routinely conduct raids to flush out criminals.”

Ward six councilor, Thabitha Ngwenya forthrightly said the only solution was to relocate residents from decrepit flats such as Sidojiwe.

“That’s not a suitable place for a human being anymore,” said Ngwenya.

“My main worry is with the kids growing up under those conditions. It is just something else. Schools there are very far especially for Grades zeros and one. All I can say as the solution is to remove everyone,” she said.

Ngwenya said council was also working on relocating the families to Cowdray Park. Although she didn’t give a time frame and how the operation would be executed, she remained adamant that these buildings should either be renovated or demolished.

“At least a community health sister from the council has been visiting the area more often as a way of preventing disease."

"Member of Parliament Eddie Cross is also in the process of raising money to help this disadvantaged community,” said the councilor.

Three years ago city fathers said they had identified land in Cowdray Park to address squalid living conditions at Sidojiwe Flats and other ramshackle flats within the city and set

"Stand 619 in Cowdray Park suburb was set aside for flats development. The proposed residential stands were meant in general to compliment Council's efforts to reduce the ballooning housing waiting –list, in particular to cater for the less privileged members of the society now living in many squalid conditions in places like Ngozi Mine, Burombo flats, Sidojiwe flats, Killarney and other areas dotted around the City."

However, an inquiry by this paper revealed that not much ground has been covered in that regard.

Ngwenya however claimed that the programme was already being implemented.

“We have created a housing corporative that is Group A, B and C, as I am speaking about 60 people in Group A have all been given stands, now the housing department is working on Group B,” she said.

Until council acts the part affected families can only find solace in remembering Theresa Muganyi’s statement: "Everyone wants to live like a king but as to make  do with what  they are capable of doing at a given time."

    Comments (3)

    Then we have prophets Angel, Makandiwa and many more driving a million worth of cars, that can prang anytime, where is the love.....if the government is failing the church shud step in, build multistorey flats and settle people. Am planning to build a soccer stadium, in rural areas but having to go through a ZANU government, telling them I neither belong to Mujuru, or ZAPU, or any of the twenty or so Mdcs, or thatbinam neither sponsored by Britain or America, that's what I hate, a stadium, in the mould of White City/Gwanzura can bring much needed business to my government forgotten Lupane....with a goodish stadium we can manage to hold a soccer tournament, have a musical concert, have a conference....and many more things, but ZANU....even to build good teacher houses as an independent sponsor can bring one uncalled for scrutiny, so we let them teachers live in solar less houses, with one borehole far away from their cottages, when for 3-4/5000 USA I can get a borehole dug for them tomorrow, I have the money right here, and to top it all done for the glory of God..Matthew 5 v 16...

    Msuuunuuu - 10 February 2015

    Its sad that years after Murambatsvina years people are still suffering from its impact.

    TREVOR - 25 February 2015

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