Beitbridge – The Zimbabwean government’s clampdown on informal trade has dealt a heavy blow to rural communities already struggling to make ends meet in the wake of another dry spell in the southern Beitbridge district.
Sikhululekile Makusha, a small-scale farmer in the
village of Chitikwa, about 10 km outside the town of Beitbridge, used to earn more than US $1 ($24 000) a day selling vegetables, enough to support herself and her three children. “Now they don’t let us sell anything – I have nothing to feed my children,” she said.
Around her the land is parched. A goat nibbles on a clump of dry grass nearby, while the sun blazes down. There is not a single patch of green for miles around and the water in the neighbourhood borehole has dried up. The leaves on the mopane trees near her hut have also shrivelled and died, spelling yet more hardship.
The mopane worm, a large caterpillar that feeds on the leaves, is an important source of protein and income for the rural communities living around Beitbridge. “We have not been able to harvest any mopane worms this year,” said Makusha. Her family has tea in the morning and sadza with vegetables at night.
“We have these two meals only – we cannot afford to buy bread every day,” Makusha said. “Families used to earn more than US$29 for each 20 litre bucket of mopane worms, which are normally harvested between April and December,” said a relief worker. Usually at least two bucketloads can be harvested from a single mopane tree, “but this year there were no rains – the leaves have dried, and so there have been no worms”.
The informal market in Beitbridge has been cleared out by the Zimbabwean authorities as part of a national clean-up campaign that began in May; it has become a parking lot for taxis. Elekias Zvonumo and three vendor friends had a seven-year contract with a farmer to sell oranges in the market. Now they sit beside the highway 15 km outside Beitbridge with over a 100 bags of oranges, hoping for a lift to Zimbabwe’s second city of Bulawayo.
“At least we can sell our oranges there, but it (transport) is expensive,” said Zvonumo. Taking the oranges to Bulawayo, more than a 300 km away, by taxi would cost more than what the total consignment of oranges are worth, he added. “The situation is desperate at home,” said Zvonumo, who supports his family of six. The arid Beitbridge district in Matabeleland South, one of Zimbabwe’s poorest provinces, comprises Beitbridge town and about 50 rural villages where most people are small-scale ranchers or vegetable farmers.
About 139 000 people live in and around the urban centre, with another 49 000 in the countryside. At least two-thirds of the population is believed to be in need of food aid. “Very little maize and grain is grown in the area, while vegetables and fruit are procured locally – everything else is brought in from outside, which often costs a little more,” said a relief worker. Cross-border trading, another important alternative source of food, was also wiped out by the cleanup campaign. The staple food, maize-meal, is not readily available in the rural areas and can cost more than US$3 for a 50kg bag – the average monthly consumption of a family of four. “Before, people used to bring bags of mealie meal in and sell it informally – now they cannot even do that,” a vendor pointed out.
Many other commodities and household items, ranging from soaps to bed linen, had also been brought in informally. “The authorities are very strict now, but goods do come in – smuggled in, or by paying hefty amounts of money to taxis coming across the border,” said another relief worker. Maize-meal is available in the shops and at the local outlet of the Grain Marketing Board, the state grain-selling monopoly, in Beitbridge town, but food is available in limited quantities, and availability and prices are not consistent.
“Prices keep increasing every day – a loaf of bread now costs between $10 to $14 000, when only in January it was selling at $4 000,” commented a consumer queuing outside a shop for a loaf of bread. “I cannot even remember the last time I saw sugar in the shops,” remarked another. Fishing, another source of revenue for the rural community has also been restricted. The authorities have prohibited people without licences from fishing in the district’s dams and rivers. “The situation is worse than last year – people could at least fish for additional income or food. How can people afford to live?” wondered another relief worker.
Desperation is driving many Zimbabweans across the border to neighbouring South Africa and Botswana. Hundreds of Zimbabweans sit by the highway, waiting for a lift to Musina, the neighbouring South African town, a mere 12 km away. Progress, 21, is among the several hundred Zimbabweans who dream of a job opportunity in South Africa.
Since their mother died last year after a “long illness”, Progress has been forced to look after her two siblings, Chipo, 18, and Sharon, 8. Her job as a part-time labourer on a farm 20 km from Beitbridge town used to pay for their school fees. “Now there is no work at the farm – the orange season is over. I just sit at home and wait. I want to go to South Africa, but I cannot leave my sister alone here.”
Their grandmother, a pensioner and a vendor living in town, provides financial support when she can. Their family could be among the 39 000 that the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) intends to feed in rural Beitbridge between October 2005 and April 2006. Following a fourth year of drought and low agricultural production, WFP plans to assist nationally four million people in the year ahead.