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

Rural Zimbabwe's Slow Death

Depression has set in in once flourishing rural townships.
By Mike Nyoni
Religious holidays in Zimbabwe are about much more than sacred observance – they are also a time for traditional rites and family reunions. At Christmas and Easter, people travel long distances from the towns, and sometimes from other countries, to visit their relatives, usually at the family’s rural home.

On a recent trip to the countryside, however, this IWPR contributor found that the traditional pilgrimage back to rural homes during the holidays is almost a thing of the past, as people are deterred by poverty, political upheaval and the state of the roads.

The drive from the coal-mining town of Zvishavane, 390 kilometers southwest of the capital Harare, to the communal areas of Mberengwa district is a lonely and difficult affairs. Bus operators have long abandoned the route. The roads are rugged and stony at the best of times, while rain in early April left them slippery.

These days, few people travel along the 80 km dirt road from Zvishavane to the township of Keyara. In the past, the road would have been busy with locals going on shopping trips to Zvishavane, and people who worked in the cities of Masvingo, Harare and Gweru coming back home for the weekend.

On both sides of the meandering, rutted road stand collapsing huts barely two metres high. They are home to some of the landless farmers relocated to white-owned cattle ranches seized in the 2000 land-grab.

After a tortuous three-hour drive, we arrive in Keyara. The few remaining general stores here are stocked with some basic commodities such as salt, biscuits, dried fish, tea leaves and a few bags of the staple maize. Most do not have piped water.

There is one alcohol store which doubles up as a butcher’s shop, and is the only place connected up to the national grid. Inside, a ragtag bunch of young patrons stagger about, shouting out their drinks orders to a nonchalant bar lady.

“The country is dead,” said the owner John Mbedzi, eying the township’s dilapidated buildings and drunken youths, most of them school dropouts. “What future does a person have if he can get so drunk at that age?”

Mbedzi has every reason to be pessimistic. Many young people in the area have left the country in search of work in neighbouring South Africa. Others have died of the most common cause here – AIDS-related illnesses aggravated by malnutrition and poverty.

Once the ritual of greeting one’s relatives is over, it is time to hear the litany of people who have died since one’s last visit. Tradition demands a round of visits to homesteads to pay one’s condolences.

The harvest season is over, and for the Mberengwa district, where Kiyara is located it was a bad season. Zimbabwean agriculture minister Rugare Gumbo admitted last week that most crops were a write-off as a result of poor rains.

In bygone days, sunset would be followed by a cacophony of drums as families observed rituals for long-departed relatives. These ceremonies were accompanied by drinking, feasting and all-night dancing.

Other families would slaughter an animal to celebrate the reunion with relatives from far-flung parts of the country. over beer, everyone would catch up on the news.

The holiday period also offered opportunities to solemnise marriages, as the schools are closed at this time and children can help with family chores.

But nowadays, Keyara is virtually deserted by seven in the evening. At the alcohol store, the few stragglers slow down with their last drink, aware that once it runs out they must go home and sleep. The public bars that the government opened after independence have all closed down.

The headlights of a distant vehicle pierce the darkening sky, stirring some interest among the drinkers. It could be a bus or a car containing relatives from South Africa. There is a palpable mood of hope that the new arrivals might pay for another beer. They could hardly deny a small gift to people they have not seen for more than a year.

As the car draws up, someone shouts “Injiva! Injiva! Injiva!” from a dark corner of the shop and runs out to see it. “Injiva” is an affectionate term for young Zimbabweans returning from South Africa, who are assumed to be wealthy.

Sure enough, it is a South African-registered car with the distinctive “GP” number plate for Gauteng province.

In the past, returning “injiva” would create a carnival atmosphere in the townships for a solid week with their lavish spending. The South African music blaring from their car stereos would be accompanied by wild dancing.

This still happens in Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, where “injiva” drive around in BMWs and are known for their extravagant spending at nightclubs.

But in Keyara, the car turned out to contain just one “injiva”who had picked up some passengers further up the road. He bought two beers and drove on towards Mataga, the biggest settlement in Mberengwa district.

The drive to Mataga in the east is even more daunting, a gruelling journey through rugged mountain passes and gullies. Despite the lush vegetation from the latest rains, which has worsened the state of the roads, much of the agricultural crop along the way are dead. Many rivers lack bridges so have to be forded.

Mataga has more shops than Keyara, and serves a population of nearly 50,000 in surrounding areas. There is piped water, electricity, and a choice of beer brands in the shops. There is a buzz of expectation among the shopkeepers as buses from Zvishavane, Bulawayo, Chiredzi and Masvingo offload their hungry and excited passengers.

But look further, and you will see that most buildings have been abandoned and the paint is peeling. There is little business besides the occasional visitors, and they have now become more frugal.

Mataga has not benefited from the nearby Sandawana mine, Zimbabwe’s biggest source of emeralds. More than 20 years since it was founded as a “growth point”, there is little industry or commerce except for grain mills and storage facilities, butchers’ shops and general stores.

People in rural Zimbabwe, unlike their urban counterparts, don’t talk about inflation – they just talk about poverty. They rarely talk politics as no one trusts anyone any more. It is safer to talk about the heat, or the rains or the crop situation.

The fear is pervasive. Nobody wants to hear about the presidential and parliamentary elections set for next year. Elections are normally associated with untold violence and mentioning them is like a bad omen.

Mike Nyoni is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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