Covid-19, drought pile the woes for poverty-stricken rural folk

FOR 45-year-old carpenter Arnold Hungwe, working with wood is what he does best. It allows him to put food on the table.So important is the skill for his survival that he has encouraged his teenage son to learn the craft under his tutelage.

CHIPA GONDITII/ CLOUDINE MATOLA

Hungwe operates from his rural home in Macheke, Mashonaland East province, and his business has also been negatively affected by the coronavirus (Covid-19), an acute respiratory disease which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives around the world.

The global pandemic is making it difficult for him to fend for his family.Hungwe has been a carpenter for almost 20 years. Carpentry is the only source of income he has ever had.

With potential customers either restricted from movement or having no money left following the prolonged lockdown, which was introduced on March 30 to contain the mass spread of the coronavirus, he is stuck with his merchandise in a makeshift storehouse at his home.

Zimbabwe is currently in its second month of a lockdown that has so far preserved lives, but has devastated an already fragile economy. Livelihoods are at stake.

While much of the focus has been on how people in urban areas are affected by the Covid-19 lockdown, little attention has been paid to those living in rural areas.

Hungwe represents one of the country’s numerous rural-based entrepreneurs whose operations have been severely hampered by the lockdown.
The pre-lockdown days, when life was normal for Hungwe, he would commute to Marondera to buy raw materials for his work at the request of his numerous customers and then craft the desired products.

Such simple tasks, now rendered impossible during the lockdown, allowed Hungwe to put food on the table for years.“Covid-19 has drastically affected my work as a carpenter because I frequently travel to Marondera where I buy raw materials for my products, especially different types of wood and other things like nails,” Hungwe told the Zimbabwe Independent in an interview this week.

“I have lost many contracts due to this lockdown and this is really taking a toll on my family since I am a breadwinner. We are small-scale entrepreneurs whose operations have not been exempted from the ongoing lockdown.” .

He says he has since been impoverished.In the mornings, you will not find him holding a chisel or a hammer, the essential tools of his trade.
Hungwe has no option but to join his wife and three children in the field with the hope of salvaging the little crop that was spared by the devastating drought of the previous farming season, mainly pumpkins and other edibles.

So deep is the desire to find something edible in the fields that any pumpkin, even a shriveled one, is handled with utmost care. No losses are allowed, for the lean days have been unleashed upon the land.

“Go back last year, you would not see me searching for pumpkins for breakfast like this. I would be actually in Marondera buying materials to build a wardrobe or cabinet for someone. This earned me an income which l used to take care of my family and send my children to school,” he said as he picked a fully ripened pumpkin under a heap of rotting maize stumps and carefully placed it in a basket.

“I really hope that things go back to being normal soon. I am tired of living a life of hand-to-mouth , but what l worry about most is my family, I do not want them to live like this.”

In the evening, the same routine is followed but this time the search for pumpkins is replaced by the search for its closest relative: pumpkin leaves (muboora/ibhobola). These leaves, which will be boiled with only soda and salt, go down well with sadza come dinner time.Most people in Zimbabwe’s countryside are in the same predicament.

For Agnes Makore (63), also of Macheke, life has never been the same.She received ZW$400 from her Harare-based daughter for groceries via mobile money, but she has not been able to use the money and it continues to lose value.

“They do not accept any EcoCash payments at the local shops and I cannot travel to Marondera where I usually buy foodstuffs because of the lockdown. I have run out of cooking oil, sugar and other things that I want and I have no way of replenishing them,” Makore said.

The same situation besets Anna Mapuranga, who used to earn a living from selling vegetables and fruits to travellers along the Harare-Mutare highway.
She was only able to return to the site after the lockdown was eased two weeks ago, but with little traffic on the road, there are barely any sales.
“We don’t know what to do any more. We don’t blame the government for imposing the lockdown, but they should at least help us survive,” she moaned.
Mapuranga has only heard of the government’s ZW$600 million facility to cushion people like her on radio, but does not know anyone who has ever benefitted from it.

The government says it has availed a ZW$600 million (US$12 million at a parallel market rate of US$1 to ZW$50) fund to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 with one million beneficiaries out of a population of 16 million. This meant each recipient was supposed to get ZW$180 (US$3,60) each, but even that meagre pocket money has not been distributed yet amid conflicting statements by government ministers.

“We only heard it on radio but there is nothing that has come to us yet,” Makore said.Less than five kilometres from Hungwe’s home lies the humble homestead of 55-year-old widow Charity Katsande.

Like Hungwe, her family also has to live on pumpkins, pumpkin leaves and forage for other plants as winter sets in.Katsande used to work at the nearby farm previously owned by a white couple which was kicked out during the government’s land reform programme, leaving her jobless, hungry and vulnerable.

She suddenly found herself homeless when the farm was allocated to indigenous farmers, who immediately pronounced they could not accommodate her.“Since the coming of the coronavirus, my life has not been the same. When my husband died years ago, I decided to work at the white man’s farm. The money I got there allowed me to buy groceries and take care of my grandchildren, but things are now difficult, he is gone now and I am here having to struggle to fend for the family,” she said.

“Like many people in this region, I go out to my field looking for pumpkin leaves to cook at night. Right now, I do not even have cooking oil and I use magwambiza (animal fat extract) to cook the vegetables so that they can taste better. I heard government is going to be helping the vulnerable like us with money and foodstuffs, I hope they come because I do not know how I will survive in the near future.”

While the World Health Organisation is encouraging the frequent washing of hands with soap and the use of alcohol-based hand sanitiser, she does enjoy such luxuries. The little soap she has is strictly reserved for laundry and bathing, while she has never seen a hand sanitiser.

“What I know about Covid-19 is what I been hearing on the radio, and l remember hearing that people will be getting free sanitisers but that has not been the case because I have not received anything,” she said.

Poverty has certainly worsened for rural dwellers in the wake of Covid-19.The World Food Programme (WFP) recently classified Zimbabwe as one of the 18 countries in the world that will likely come out of the Covid-19 worse off.

According to the WFP, donor support is needed now for Zimbabwe and other countries affected by political instability as they grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Zimbabwe’s worst drought in a decade has compounded the economic and social crises engulfing the country.

In a domestic and international humanitarian assistance appeal for April 2020-2021, the Zimbabwean government, through Finance minister Mthuli Ncube, pleaded for US$2,2 billion with immediate effect in humanitarian assistance in the short to medium-term.

The country had recorded 46 confirmed cases of Covid-19, including four deaths and 13 recoveries as of Tuesday this week.

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