At 102 years old, Masango Matiroko — who has virtually lost his sense of hearing — is the oldest inmate at Melfort Farm Old People’s Home in Goromonzi District and was brought to the home in 2009 by a local councillor.
“Matiroko was a farmworker who moved from farm to farm doing all sorts of jobs, but last worked at a farm called Sanga which is 45km from this place,” explains Daniel Francis, an administrator at the old people’s home who is also a pastor.
“He is a Zimbabwean from Nyanga; we have tried to trace his history and where he comes from, but it seems the generation which new about him has since passed on. Tracing the history of many of our inmates is difficult because most of them do not want to open up on who they really are, while some appear to have forgot their names or their roots due to mental problems.”
Francis said finding relatives for some of the inmates would be much help as they would assist cater for their needs. He also said the home is now under Scheme C of old people’s homes, which means it only takes able-bodied people as it does not have hospital facilities.
“Where necessary, we transfer some of our elderly to hospital old people’s homes, such that our 102-year-old inmate (Matiroko) will soon be transferred,” he said.
The country’s land reform programme launched 15 years ago to address colonial land ownership imbalances brought hope of prosperity for many resettled black Zimbabweans, but for Melfort Farm inmates the chaotic land invasions were the beginning of further hardships and grinding poverty, worse than their initial problems.
Located about 40km outside Harare along Mutare Road, the Melfort Farm project for old people was founded in 1979 by a catholic sister and a Jesuit father who donated 36 acres of land for the displaced and destitute elderly.
In 1985 a committee, including white farmers which was running the home, registered it under the social welfare, hence the adoption of the name Melfort Old People’s Home.
“Those who ran this institution owned farms around the area and the majority of the people who ended up at the home were former farm workers who did not have relatives or could not trace them, hence had nowhere to go. Many of them came from neighbouring countries such as Malawi and Zambia,” said Francis. “All was relatively well before the land reform programme as surrounding farm owners would cater for the home and pay staff adequate salaries for taking care of the elderly, but things dramatically changed for the worse in 2002 at the height of land reform.”
At its height, the farming sector accounted for around 40% of Zimbabwe’s gross national product and also suppled the region with produce. But today Zimbabwe imports large quantities of the maize staple, a wide variety of fruit and other agricultural products. In fact, the country can no longer feed itself. As a result of the land reform, an estimated 300 000 black farm workers lost their jobs and received no compensation, while less than 300 white farmers remain out of about 4 500 before land reform.
“As the farmers who used to take care of the home’s inmates were evicted, I was left alone as a worker and with nowhere to start, but I felt I could not dump the elderly,” Francis told the Zimbabwe Independent during a donation by the South African Embassy a fortnight ago. The embassy donates plenty of groceries and blankets to the inmates.
He said the home currently takes care of 24 senior citizens comprising 19 men and five women.
“For three years after the onset of land reform I struggled to get things moving, but I could not turn my back on the aged and just leave, so I took two ladies on board. But things continued to be tough and we ended up under the NGO Help Age Zimbabwe in 2005 although Help Age also struggled for resources.”
Melfort mostly relies on donations from well-wishers. While senior citizens are traditionally highly respected in Zimbabwe society, this recognition has been seriously eroded due to the breakdown of the extended family and government’s lack of wherewithal to cater for them as the economic crisis persists. Organisations that represent the welfare of the elderly decry the lack of resources and social support services.
“Besides donors we have no one else to take care of us as most of us have lost contacts with relatives. If we see or hear cars coming here, we pray deep down and hope it’s people who have come to ease our plight through donations,” said an 89-year-old inmate who identified himself as Sekuru Jimmy.
Since October last year, Melfort Farm is under a new board comprising individuals from a local Anglican church in the Melfort area led by chairperson Bernard Haatendi who says his board has identified projects it thinks can give the home self-sufficiency.
“One of them is the chicken project which will accommodate 600 to 1 000 layers; we also want to have at least 50 she-goats and we are also rearing some rabbits so that we are able to offer two to three meals per day to inmates,” Haatendi said.
He said his volunteer staff will drive the projects with the help of some of the inmates.
The inmates require at least 300kg of mealie-meal per month, meat, soya mince, laundry soap, a bar of washing soap per inmate, detergents as well as medication.
Speaking on funding, Haatendi said: “We have made our funding applications to social welfare although we have not yet received anything yet. We know the difficulties government is facing.”
But another board member who preferred anonymity decried the fact that government was neglecting the elderly.
“This year our organisation did not get the funds we were supposed to be allocated by government in February and until now we have received nothing.”
The home currently has one volunteer nurse, but does not have a vehicle to ferry its inmates to health centres for examinations and treatment.