READING accounts of life at Chingwizi camp in the media, some of them heart-rending, one is bound to imagine life at the camp is all doom and gloom with villagers eking out a living from the depths of despair.
Elias Mambo/Tatenda Chitagu
However, a visit to the camp, where more than 3 000 families — mostly victims of the Tokwe-Murkosi flood disaster — are staying, defied such expectations and turned out to be a study in resilience under tough circumstances.
Upon arrival at Chingwizi camp, the visitor is greeted by a curious mixture of properly set up tents and the cardboard and plastic shacks reminiscent of the shanty towns in South Africa.
Three elderly women, all carrying mobile phones, emerge from the tents and their eyes light up in anticipation of a donation from us.
After a few pleasantries and upon the realisation that they would not be given anything, they shift their attention to a well-groomed young woman who has just disembarked from a truck with a cooler bag stuffed with frozen chicken pieces for sale.
The woman is just one of many traders who trudge the rows of gravel paths in the sprawling settlement to sell their wares.
The usual tales of looming starvation and confrontation towards government are not in evidence as Chingwizi inhabitants loudly haggle with traders bringing an assortment of merchandise for sale.
A young lady emerges from one of the tents into the bright sunlight, gazes intently at her reflection in a hand held mirror and starts to apply make-up to her face while a few metres away, a group of male youths take swigs from a plastic bottle containing popular opaque beer.
Occasionally, they throw approving glances in the young lady’s direction.
Clearly, even in the face of hardships, hope springs eternal at this camp, making it microcosmic of the wider resilient Zimbabwean society that continues to hold hope despite an economic meltdown now in its second decade.
“My shop has become the centre of attraction because I load music onto mobile phones and update the whatsapp application on people’s phones,” said Tinotenda Shumba whose computer is housed in a makeshift grass thatched shop.
Just across the street another enterprising youth sets up huge speakers and the entire shop rattles and reverberates to popular musician Jah Prayzah’s hit song. From the mobile gadgets and audio accessories to shebeens, Chingwizi has it all.
One of the country’s mobile networks has constructed a makeshift base station and opened a shop near the police post to keep the villagers connected to the rest of the world. It sells airtime and offers money transfer services.
Some youths play a game of pool. There is football debate as the young men air their views on which country is likely to win the World Cup tournament kicking off in Brazil next Friday.
It is hard to imagine that these people mostly have to rely on food handouts largely from foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Oxfam, whose flag flutters in the wind while government and local NGOs take a backseat.
Only last week, government dismantled a large shed that served as storage for donated food at the camp. The move which dismayed thousands of hungry people at the camp is said to be part of a concerted effort by government to force the people out of the camp.
A new tent has been erected in a bushy area 17km away where government wants villagers to be resettled on one-hectare pieces of land condemned by camp residents as arid and too small.
“These shops, these radios and these phones ensure we feel we are not isolated from the whole world,” said Mbuya Chigova, a widow who was evacuated from the Tokwe-Murkosi basin.
“The first three months were very tough as there was little to occupy us, but things have changed although most people can hardly afford what the traders sell.
“Unfortunately, we are being forced to sell our cattle for a song so we can buy groceries as government has stopped giving us any support.”
Most families were plunged into complete poverty by floods, after incessant rains in Masvingo caused the partial collapse of the Tokwe-Murkosi dam wall, washed away crops and homes.
The villagers have, since relocation, been up in arms with government’s alleged insensitive handling of their plight with some claiming to have lost livestock and valuable property during government-assisted evacuation.
Currently, there is not enough water, raising serious health concerns. There are also widespread reports of government officials looting goods intended for the flood victims, and allegedly using food in exchange for sexual favours. Some of the tents have been destroyed by heavy winds.
“As our tents have been destroyed, we are being forced to go and settle at small plots which cannot accommodate our families,” Tendai Mandebvu said. “We have been told anyone who wants food should accept to move to the plots, otherwise we will starve to death because government is ready to assist only those who accept new plots. The majority have vowed they would rather die here instead of being forced to accept a one-hectare piece of land.”
A widow, Miriam Zhou, who houses six siblings in her tent and claims to be a war veteran, criticised government.
“It seems our government is behaving like the settler colonial government,” she said.
Maxwell Saungweme, a local social commentator, said what is happening at Chingwizi is typical of resilient Zimbabweans.
“Since the colonial era, Zimbabweans have demonstrated their ability to take abnormal situations to be the ‘new normal’. Even during the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme in the 1990s, to the land invasions and political violence in 2000 and years after, to the hyperinflationary crisis that peaked in 2008-9, Zimbabweans have shown that they can bear extreme hardships,” Saungweme said.
“Life needed to come back to Chingwizi; unfortunately, this will lead to the government forgetting the core issues this unfortunate community faces. They will be forgotten again and only remembered when another disaster strikes. As Zimbabweans, we must not accept these abnormal situations to continue and confront the government, the duty bearers, to deliver on their mandates. We have to take them to account.”
Another commentator, Youth Initiative for Democracy in Zimbabwe director Sydney Chisi, said whatever is giving the people smiles during the day in Chingwizi will surely give them sadness in the long-run if their plight is not resolved.
“Chingwizi villagers’ patience will be eroded the longer government takes to resolve their issues, Chisi said. “While camp inmates might celebrate the comfort of their open prison system, the reality is that what they have lost through the relocation is huge. The micro-businesses provided by crisis-entrepreneurs within the system will offer only temporary relief.”