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

Support Us or Starve

Region suffers for voting for the opposition.
By IWPR Srdan
For the Tonga people of Matabeleland North province, a stronghold of political opposition to Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party, drawing water for the household used to be a job reserved for women and children.

These days, however, elderly men join in the trek to the nearest source of clean water - a 15 kilometre hike from the town of Binga down to the Zambezi River.

"I cannot allow my wife to go to the river alone," explained David Mdenda, a pensioner. "There are vicious crocodiles there and so men have to always be close by. I end up carrying some containers, and of course, I can't just walk back empty-handed."

Government investment is notable for its absence in this part of Zimbabwe. Villagers in nearby Siasundu used to get their water from the Mangani Dam off the Zambezi, but now it is all silted up, full of algae and livestock waste.

"Water is a big problem here," said Mdenda. "It is dirty at the dam because cattle and goats drink there and the pump is always out of fuel. So we take our chances and go to the river."

Upon returning from the river, the women cook porridge made out of sorghum, a grain grown in the arid fields around Binga. They spend most of their day preparing it with a pestle and mortar or grinding it between two stones.

"I have to do it myself because I cannot afford to have it done at the market," said Mary Mwembe from Mangani village. "They charge 5000 [Zimbabwe] dollars, [about 90 US cents], and I don't have that kind of money."

Mary's monthly income from doing odd jobs for richer villagers is around 2 US dollars and that is quickly spent on such basics as soap, salt and school fees for her son, News, who is in his first year of secondary education.

"I want my son to go to school so that he can get a good job. I want him to be a policeman," she beams while seated on a bed made of sturdy poles and covered with a single blanket.

Above the bed a piece of string runs from one end of the hut to the other. It serves as Mwembe's wardrobe.

"The [education] ministry's policy of each child walking a maximum of seven kilometres to school doesn't work here because the nearest school is 15 to 20 kilometres away," said Joel Gabhuza, a local Binga councillor and member of Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC. "As a result, parents delay sending their children to school to make sure they are able to cover the distances and still have enough energy to learn."

When they do go, children find both textbooks and teachers in short supply here. The economic crisis in Zimbabwe, whose education system once was the envy of the continent, coupled with the AIDS pandemic, has led to a severe shortage of teachers. Like the rest of the country, where an estimated one in four of the adult population is HIV positive, the people Matabeleland North province have been deeply affected by this dual crisis.

Outside every house in Mangani there is at least one freshly dug grave. "People are dying each day. We have no knowledge on how to help them live so we just watch them die," said village headman Julius Siavhurandu. He says that while people know about the disease, they have little understanding of how to protect themselves or how best to live being HIV positive.

The pandemic is highlighting the paucity of local health care services. Only one assistant nurse works at the local clinic and when she takes time off or goes home at night, the clinic closes. Most villagers do not have money to travel to Binga hospital some 80 kilometres away. And, in any case, there seems little point since it is staffed only by nurses. Patients requiring doctors must travel to Zimbabwe's second largest city, Bulawayo, 400 kilometres to the south.

Zimbabwe overall suffers from a shortage of medical staff with many nurses now taking up jobs in Britain. Those that remain prefer to find work outside of the region, fearing victimisation and intimidation from ZANU-PF supporters as they seek to increase the party's influence in this part of the country.

Matabeleland was the scene of large-scale massacres of civilians by government troops in the late Eighties as President Mugabe sought to consolidate his power and neutralise his opponents.

Though not official practise, people here privately complain how they are often refused free medical treatment unless they can show a ZANU-PF party membership card. But if people feel ZANU-PF is still victimising the region for its continuing opposition to the government, they are careful not to say it out loud. Talking politics is taboo with villagers fearful of repercussions.

Most women like Pauline Sibanda profess a lack of interest in the subject. "I don't like politics," she said. "I know we have to vote next year, but I will wait for the leaders to tell us how to vote."

Others are too afraid to talk about their political views. "Ah, politics is not a good topic to discuss here," said Ben Ndlovu, not his real name, a temporary teacher, in hushed tones. "You don't know who is listening and who they will go and tell."

The names of some contributors in this package of stories have been withheld out of concern for their safety.