Grimy, Slimy cardboard
Saturday 28th October 2006
Dear Family and Friends,
There were about sixty people standing in a line that snaked across the car
park outside a post office a few days before the end of the month. This is
October and the month notorious for seethingly hot temperatures and this day was
no exception. Before 8.30 in the morning jerseys and jackets had been discarded,
most people were wearing slip slops or sandals and short sleeved tops. The queue
was made up of people waiting to draw money out of post office savings accounts.
A few minutes before opening time a man emerged carrying a small pile of brown
cardboard squares, each the size of a thumbnail. On each scrap of grimy, slimy
cardboard was written a number from one to fifty and the man prepared to start
giving them out to the people in the line. A peaceful, patient line turned
immediately into chaos and it was like watching a spreading pool of petrol and
waiting for someone to drop a match. Louts that hadn't been in the queue ran
across the car park to grab a square of cardboard, desperate people at the back
surged forward, arms stretched out, voices rose up and angry shouts were heard.
Then suddenly it was over, the squares of cardboard had been issued and it was
simple - no bit of cardboard equals no money for you. Only the people with a
numbered square of cardboard would be able to draw their money out today - there
just isn't enough money to go round anymore and so the levels of deprivation
increase another peg.
I drafted this letter one day before rural council and mayoral elections got
underway across the country. In the run up to the vote it has been blatantly
obvious that the ruling party are as bereft of ideas as the post office is of
money. Year after year, election after election - absolutely nothing changes. In
the last week the President of the Council of Chiefs publicly declared that
villagers who did not vote for the ruling party would be evicted from their
homes. TV news reports have showed ruling party officials addressing rallies and
from both speakers and audiences its just the same old same old. The clenched
fist-raising in praise of the ruling party, the stream of "pasi na" (down with)
slogans which are declared about anyone who dares to differ, and the predictable
shouting and berating by the leaders and candidates who don't seem to know how
to charm or persuade audiences and so they just tell them off. Ever present too
is the huge range of clothing decorated with the President's face and the
gyrating women dancing frantically in front of the candidates. All this takes
place outside in the open in the dripping October sun and there is no laughter,
pleasure or even interest on peoples faces.
Zimbabwe's rural infrastructure is crumbling, everyone sees and knows it -
roads, clinics, schools, boreholes and transport systems. It is not all hard to
know who to vote for in rural elections. It is very very hard to pay attention
to the shouting, berating and anger of prospective candidates when you know this
and some of the other facts about life in Zimbabwe this week:
A four rung, five foot wooden ladder, unvarnished and untreated cost 76
thousand dollars, this is 8 times more than the monthly wage of a garden, house
or farm worker.
A consultation and filling at a private dentist costs 38.5 thousand dollars -
this is more than most government school teachers take home in a normal month.
One orange from a roadside vendor this week cost 550 dollars - this was how
much a 1000 acre farm cost just a little over ten years ago - a farm with 2
dams, a dairy, tobacco barn, trading store, large farmhouse and 10 farm workers
This week it doesn't matter where you go or who you talk to, rural or urban,
everywhere the clarion call is the same - how much longer.
Until next week,
thanks for reading, love cathy.
Saturday 21st October 2006
Dear Family and Friends,
I do not remember what month or even what year it was when I came face to face,
for the first time, with the reality of those strange sounding words I'd learnt
at school: pellagra, beri beri, scurvy and rickets. It was in the mid 1970's and
I was in my late teens. Zimbabwe's Independence was near - just a few years away
- and I was doing a placement for my training as a social worker. I had been
sent to a high density suburb - in those days called townships - where thousands
of people, displaced by the war, were sitting it out in extreme poverty, just
waiting for the time when they could go home. The task was simple - identify and
then assist people most in need - and they were literally all around me.
That was thirty years ago but there are parts of it I remember as if it were
today. Everywhere I looked there it was - not words in text books but living
proof of pellagra, beri beri, scurvy and rickets. If ever a mother needed to
explain to their child why they had to eat their vegetables - here it was. Arms
and legs as thin as sticks; deep cracks and open sores on feet, shins and arms;
bow legs, sunken faces and staring lethargy. And scabies too - scores and scores
of children itching and itching and itching as the mites were everywhere, in
their hair, in their dirty raggy clothes and probably even in the sand under
their bare feet. What little we had as trainee social workers in the middle of a
civil war, didn't go very far. We had vitamin supplements, red carbolic soap,
antiseptic liquid and plastic basins. Forever I will remember squatting down in
the dust, picking up a naked screaming infant and bathing it in disinfectant in
a bright green plastic bowl. The child was absolutely terrified and screamed
hysterically - I can still hear that sound now.
Those are not images I like to remember but every now and again I do think of
them, it helps to know how shockingly bad things were then, just before
independence. I didn't think I would ever see those things again, at least not
in Zimbabwe. This week I saw one of those words again: pellagra - and it bought
memories of 30 years ago flooding back.
On page 7 of a weekly newspaper there was a report which I wish had been on the
front page and I wish it had been accompanied by photographs. " Malnutrition
claims five at Ingutsheni" is the headline. Ingutsheni is not a high density
suburb or a camp for refugees, it is a mental hospital in Bulawayo. The report
details the dire conditions currently prevailing. Severe shortages of food and
medicine, a very unbalanced diet and extreme financial problems. The report told
of people at Ingutsheni suffering from pellagra lesions, weight loss,
nutritional diseases and serious malnutrition problems.
Ingutsheni is not alone. Similar situations are there for any who care, or
dare, to go and see for themselves. I have a friend whose son is in a home for
mentally handicapped adults. It is bad, very bad, I have seen it with my own
eyes and it breaks my heart to know that this is happening in our beautiful,
bountiful land. At homes for the mentally handicapped, the mentally ill, the
elderly, orphanages -oh God help us - people who cannot help themselves are
suffering and dying, out of sight and out of mind in Zimbabwe's institutions.
People barely surviving on only maize meal, people who need eggs, fruit, milk,
meat, nuts, cereals.
Memories of a naked, screaming child from thirty years ago are vivid in my mind
this week. I cannot stop myself from wondering where that child is now, if he is
even still alive. This is 2006, we are not at war and this should not be
happening but it seems nothing and no one can do a thing to stop it. I write
this letter for David and his colleagues in a home for mentally handicapped
adults - you have no voice, I know and I am so sorry.
Until next week, with
Make a Plan
Saturday 9th October 2006
Dear Family and Friends,
Zimbabweans are notorious, possibly even world famous, for their ability to
"Make A Plan." It is because we are so ingenious, creative, versatile and
adaptable that the country has held together for the last seven years. Life
shouldn't be like this in the first decade of the 21st century but we have
learnt to cope with almost every deprivation that has been forced upon us. In
every home we have a botched up emergency plan for electricity and water cuts,
fuel and food shortages, non existent municipal services and crumbling
infrastructure. As individuals, however, as our hold on normal life grows ever
more tenuous, so does that of the State. Every month there are less and less
taxpayers as companies continue to cut their costs, reduce their workforce or
close down altogether. As our economy shrinks, there is less and less money and
resources available to keep the government going and so they cast their nets
This week the bands of financial control got much tighter in Zimbabwe and it is
hard to see how ordinary people will be able to make a plan to survive the new
rules. For a few weeks you have not been able to cash a cheque for more than one
hundred thousand dollars in a bank. No reason is given. If you ask, the tellers
just shrug their shoulders and say they are following orders from above. For
over a month investment and savings institutions have been refusing to accept
any new customers. Existing customers can only make deposits if other customers
have made withdrawals for similar amounts. This week 16 Money Transfer Agencies
were closed down without any warning by the Governor of the Reserve Bank. In an
unexpected swoop, the Governor said the operating licences were withdrawn with
immediate effect for what he called "non performance and deviant behaviour."
Almost all Zimbabweans who have left the country but still have family or
friends here, send money home every month through these Money Transfer Agencies.
This is how families who have been split up by economic necessity have survived
for the last seven years. One family member goes and earns outside the country,
sending money home to support the rest of the family. It is not money for
luxuries but for survival. It is money which pays school fees, bills, rentals
and medical expenses. People have being using Money Transfer Agencies rather
than government channels because they get up to five times more money on the
exchange rate. If a relation overseas was sending say 100 American dollars a
month it translated into 130 000 Zimbabwe dollars through a Money Transfer
Agency. Now that same 100 US dollars sent through the government, will only
realise 25 000 dollars. This is a dramatic difference which is going to have a
devastatingly cruel effect on hundreds of thousands of people. It means that
relations abroad will have to send five times as much money home for their families every
month just to maintain the same level of support.
Undoubtedly some people will be able to "Make a Plan" to get around the new
ruling but many will not. Many hundreds of people are already illegally crossing
Zimbabwe's borders every day for a better life in neighbouring countries, the
numbers are bound to rise now.
Until next time, thanks for reading, love cathy
Ready To Run
Saturday 7th October 2006
Dear Family and Friends,
The rains have arrived early in Zimbabwe this year.There has been all the usual
talk about signs and omens and if it's going to be a good season or a bad one.
Predictions of early or late rains were made as were observations of natural
peculiarities that may hint about what lies ahead. Everyone is talking about the
amazingly heavy crop of Msasa pods this year, and the fact that they still
haven't finished dropping. People say it's a sign of something - but no one
agrees what the sign is! The termites have gone high into the trees this year,
their columns of red mud clearly visible - this too is used as a weather
Black and burnt grasslands went green almost overnight and bought a feeling of
intense relief at not having to look at the bleak and scorched earth anymore.
Out of insignificant cracks in the hard ground multiple millions of flying ants
have poured out into the early evenings and the air has been crowded with wings.
The silky, shimmering wings of the flying ants have tempted all manner of birds
to stay out late and feast on the ants as they fly past - almost no effort
required. For the birds at least, this a time of plenty. The same can not be
said for the people.
I started making notes for this letter on Tuesday morning, after we had had two
storms and just under an inch of rain had fallen. The neighbourhood was already
crowded with people who had come to till the land at the roadsides. Men hung
their shirts in trees, women had babies in towels on their backs and toddlers
sat on cloths in the shade of bushes. It was time. Time to use every piece of
open ground, no matter how small, to grow some food. Everywhere you looked there
was someone bent over digging and preparing the roadsides for planting. Some
were scraping together sticks and weeds and clearing the area, others were bent
over with hoes, ploughing the land by hand. This year there were many more
children than normal helping to prepare the roadside lands. School is in session
at the moment but many many children no longer attend school. The fees are so
high that for many children reading and writing has been replaced with digging
and weeding. Developing minds have just become extra hands.
As the sun moved higher in the sky, still more people came and then suddenly,
at mid-day on Tuesday the 3rd of October it was all over. Two shaven headed men
arrived saying they were from the Municipality. One was armed. Everyone must go,
they said, all tools are to be put down, they are confiscated, there is no
cultivating of roadsides allowed this year. It was utterly shocking to watch.
Within just a few minutes it was all over. Perhaps forty people, men, women and
children, dejected, broken and swamped with despair, walked away from the chance
to grow a few cobs of maize. They were told that if they wanted their tools back
they would have to go to the Municipal offices and pay fines for cultivating
illegally. No receipts were issued for confiscated goods, no resistance was
proffered. The two shaven headed men filled a confiscated wheelbarrow with
confiscated hoes and rakes and left, on foot, the way they had come. An eerie,
out of character silence has descended over the newly wet roadsides in my home
town. This is the time of year when mealie madness fills the land and everyone
has an unstoppable urge to grow maize. Not this year it seems.
In the very very early mornings for the rest of the week one man without a
shirt has toiled out there on the roadside. Apparently he is doing "piece work"
for all the people who were chased away. The man is dropping seeds into holes in
uncleared, unploughed land. This is zero tillage by necessity and not design. It
is better than nothing. He has a woman with him, she stands on high ground,
watching, ready to warn him, ready to run.
For seven years the authorities in Zimbabwe have turned a blind eye to roadside
cultivation. Now, when the need for extra food is so great, it is forbidden.
Until next week, thanks for reading, love cathy.
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