If it’s Christmas Day, that’s for Chombo

Shakeman Mugari

CHRISTMAS Day could pass without anything to distinguish it from any other day for about two million poor Zimbabweans this year. They got their Christmas “present” from government

in the form of Operation Murambatsvina seven months ago.

For those affected by the controversial slum clearance operation — put at over two-and-a-half million by the UN — Christmas Day is likely to find them busy patching the leaking roofs of their shacks, hastily put up after their homes were destroyed in May.

While President Robert Mugabe might be looking forward to his traditional annual Christmas holiday abroad, the victims of his government’s brutal actions have nothing to celebrate.

With their sources of livelihood destroyed and homes razed by bulldozers, they have lost hope of ever rebuilding their lives again.

Nowhere is this lack of hope more apparent than at Whitecliff Farm where thousands were left homeless by the operation. The place now resembles a bombed village. Massive heaps of bricks and rubble are what remain of their homes.

In other places coloured floors and pock-marked slabs serve to remind them that they used to own a house there.

The government said their houses were not planned but to the people of Whitecliff their structures were home-sweet-home.

Fearful of the coming rains, the people have built makeshift shelters some of which rise barely two metres off the ground. Many have become used to crawling into their homes instead of walking in.

To ask them about their Christmas plans and New Year resolutions is an insult. Their faces bear a hang-dog look.

It is a question that they believe has an obvious answer if one looks around them. “What else can a man with a destroyed home hope for?” says July Mushonga (41), who now lives in a shack with his wife Mary and two kids.

“What can you do on a Christmas day if you don’t have money? To me Christmas will just be another day of suffering, another day of struggle to eke out a living,” says Mushonga.

It is very difficult to find any other name for his shack than a hovel. It leans precariously on two wooden poles used as pillars that it could take only a slight storm for it to crumble. But Mushonga has nothing to fear because he says the government has “killed me already”. A black plastic sheet on the entrance serves as a door. He has learnt that the simple act of opening a door is a luxury reserved for those who have proper houses.

During heavy rains he does not sleep, dealing with leaks on the roof.

“I am destroyed already. Nothing could be worse than what the government did to me,” he says almost in tears. When a man weeps in Africa it means his situation is dire.

A single sofa probably bought from Siyaso — the informal market — during the good times before government swooped on informal settlements and traders shows that he once owned furniture.

“I sold all the property I had to buy food after they destroyed my roadside tuck shop and house,” he laments. Inside the hovel, there are no demarcations between bedroom, kitchen and dining-room — one plastic contraption serves both purposes. In the dark corner of the room a glowing fire flickers underneath a black tin.

He is boiling today’s relish —nyevhe — an edible weed that grows during summer. Next to the fire is a tin half full with mealie-meal that might on first look pass for brown sugar because of its poor quality.

“This is what I will eat for Christmas,” he says opening the tin for this reporter to see.

“I am ashamed I will not be able to provide my children with the few goodies that I enjoyed during Christmas when I was young. I am ashamed of myself for failing to provide for my children.”

He remembers how as a young boy growing up in Murehwa under the Smith regime he would look forward to Christmas Day.

Then before the economy had been vandalised he would wake up early on the day with other village boys to go to the river.

There they would scrub their cracked feet to wear their canvass shoes brought from town by their fathers. They would smear their bodies with Shell oil and put on their new clothes. It was good.

Christmas was a day when the family had plenty to eat from bread to rice and chicken. For the boys those with a blinking Quartz watch would be heroes. Those without anything to show would compensate by smearing their mouths with margarine or butter to show off. No one starved because everyone was willing to share.

At the local shops the children would splash their valuable cents on local fizzy beverages drinks. One of the drinks was famous for its twisted bottle.

The rock buns and candy cakes (Chikondamoyo) were also favourite items of confectioneries.

But all that has changed for Mushonga and millions of Zimbabweans now poverty stricken because of economic meltdown caused by misrule.

The Mushongas last had bread three weeks ago.

“Bread is now a privilege for people like (Local Government minister Ignatious) Chombo,” Mushonga says in frustration punctuated with sarcasms.

“Kana ukataura zvechingwa kwandiri unenge uchitondituka. Chinodyiwa nevari muhurumende savana Chombo ndiye nyakupaza imba yangu.” (To talk about bread to me is an insult. Bread is for those in the government like Minister Chombo who ordered the destruction of my house.)

He has more pressing problems to worry about over Christmas. His eldest son, Godknows (8), will need $400 000 to go back to school in Murehwa, Mushonga’s rural area which he last visited four years ago.

In Whitecliff there is no distinction between those who have and those who don’t — they are all poor. The villagers are bound by one common goal — to get something to eat today. Tomorrow in another day to be lived when it arrives.

Norman Bondayi (38), a father of three, shares the same misery with Mushonga.

He has pulled through the past three months selling bricks from his destroyed house to people in the neighbouring suburbs like Kuwadzana Extension.

“But the bricks are almost finished. I have to look for other means to survive,” said Bondayi. Christmas to him has lost its meaning.

“Even if it meant anything to me, what would I do if there is no money in the house?” he asks.

Once a staunch supporter of Zanu PF, Bondayi now has no kind words for Mugabe and his government.

“I now know who is killing this country, it’s the Zanu PF government and no one else,” he declares bravely. He says poverty has taught him to be critical and analyse things.

“I feel angry when I hear the president’s motorcade passing along the road (Harare-Bulawayo). I ask myself why he doesn’t look this side and see how we are living.”