Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Poverty Disrupts Traditional Life

When government banned aid groups from distributing food, people resorted to other ways of surviving.
In the village of Chilonga, the centre of attention last weekend was without doubt Tiri’s mother.

The woman, whose name is Norah but who according to tradition is referred to by her relationship to her first child, had been away from the village for three months.

On her return, she made a startling claim. She had been to the Marange diamond fields in eastern Manicaland, where she had dug up a large diamond.

To demonstrate how rich she had become, she was now seeking a cow to buy.

Norah had changed in fundamental ways, the villagers noticed. She did not carry her baby on her back, as all women traditionally do. She walked differently, wore a new frock and had her hair woven into long, thick dreadlocks.

Like many young people in the rural parts of Zimbabwe, Norah has turned her back on many traditional ways in order to make ends meet. She is one of the lucky few who have found success.

A catastrophic downward economic spiral, caused by the government’s disastrous “land grab” policies, has turned what was once the breadbasket of Africa into an agricultural wasteland.

As the country’s economic and political crisis continues, rural areas have been particularly badly hit by severe food shortages and soaring prices.

Food became even scarcer in these remote regions when a government ban on the distribution of food by aid groups came into force in June this year. Although this ban has now been relaxed, the agencies will now have to meet strict requirements related to reporting their activities.

Norah’s village of Chilonga in south-eastern Zimbabwe’s arid “lowveld” is one of the worst affected. People there have survived for decades by working in game parks, the sugarcane plantations in Triangle, and the orange orchards of Hippo Valley and Chiredzi.

But over the past few years, this way of life has been disrupted.

The sugarcane fields and wilderness conservation areas were affected by the “farm invasions” as land was seized from white farmers. Fields were parcelled out to inexperienced new farmers, production dropped and thousands lost their sources of livelihood.

Norah’s father was one of them – it got to the stage when he could no longer afford to keep his children in school.

Surviving on food handouts from non-government organisations, he said he had no choice but to send Norah to live with his sister, who had married a small trader in Hippo Valley, “to help her with the house work”.

It is common for poor families to marry off daughters to richer men in order to get through hard times. That is how Norah came, at 15, to marry her aunt’s husband.

At 16, she gave birth to Tiri, before her elderly husband fell victim to the economic disaster and his business collapsed.

Norah left the baby with her mother in the village, and disappeared to join the so-called “diamond rush” that has attracted thousands of unemployed people ever since early 2006, when someone stumbled on a gem in the village of Chiadzwa in Marange district.

Experts at the University of Zimbabwe say the Marange diamonds are of alluvial origin and suitable for industrial use rather than jewellery, unlike the much-sought-after kimberlite variety, that has not stopped people flocking to the area.

At any one time, up to 5,000 people, mostly men, can be found scouring the land for precious stones. The rush has also attracted women who line the roads, selling everything from food and clothing to sex.

Norah’s story of her precious find emerged at a funeral, when she told curious listeners how she had gone to Chiadzwa and dug up a gem “so pure that if you drop it into a glass of clean water you won’t see it”.

As the area is now officially a no-go area and under 24-hour military guard, diamond-hunting expeditions are necessarily clandestine.

“In the middle of the night, we bribe the soldiers, who allow us into the diamond fields, and throughout the night, we dig up the soil and carry it in sacks to our hideouts,” explained Norah.

“During the day, we sieve the soil and gems drop out like hailstones.”

Others in the region have resorted to different, yet equally clandestine activities to survive.

Just within earshot at the funeral, a local headman told how food shortages had prompted many young people to abandon traditional village life to become poachers.

“The young who have not jumped the border into South Africa have become poachers in the conservancies,” he said.

“First, they killed small game to feed their families, but now they have gone for the big game. A rhino was found ensnared the other day with its horns chopped off. God knows what the young women are up to. Those who still remain in the villages are restless,” he said.”

On August 29, a notice from the Zimbabwean social welfare ministry announced that the ban on the food distribution by aid agencies had been lifted.

Told that the government had now revoked its ban, the headman said that while it might help some people, for others it came too late.

“It will only help the children in the schools if the NGOs can move fast enough,” he said sadly.

“But as for the young men and the young women, they have now become too bigheaded to wait for food handouts.”

Benedict Unendoro is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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