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No masks. No Covid. But problems do abound

Over the course of 20 years, 60-year-old Tonny Ndlovu has been evicted twice from the Killarney informal settlement in Bulawayo during government operations. But he always found his way back to the place that has been his home since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980.

The first time Ndlovu was evicted from the settlement was in 1985. The second time was in 2005 when Zimbabwe’s government launched a large-scale campaign, codenamed Operation Murambatsvina (Clear the Filth), to forcibly clear slums across the country, making Ndlovu one of a reported 700,000 Zimbabweans who found themselves homeless.

That exercise was described as having been carried out with “indifference to human suffering” by United Nations special envoy Anna Tibaijuka, who was at the time the executive director of UN-Habitat. Kofi Annan, in his capacity as United Nations secretary general, described her report on Zimbabwe as “Distressing”.

Although Ndlovu has repeatedly chosen returned to the settlement, life there is far from rosy: people live in squalid conditions, there are no taps providing running water and there is no electricity. What it does have, however, is a single “Blair toilet” – a ventilated pit latrine – shared by 120 families.

Ndlovu said he came back after being evicted because he could not find a way to make a living at the place he was taken to. But at Killarney camp there are a number of ways to get by – illegal mining at nearby claims, running shebeens and looking for menial jobs in nearby wealthy suburbs.

As an old-timer at the settlement, Ndlovu was at one point chosen by other settlers to be the “village head”, giving him the authority to act as a magistrate to solve differences among residents and represent the camp in meetings with donors and council officials, among others.

Ndlovu was born in the area in 1961 to migrants parents from Malawi who worked at a nearby mine that closed at independence in 1980, forcing him into homelessness.

“In 1985, we were moved from here and taken to Tsholotsho and we were just dumped in the forest,” he told The Continent. “We were not allocated any land, we were not given any papers. If you don’t see even one person following up on you after leaving you in the forest, you must know you were dumped. It was like being left in the Kalahari desert.”

The Killarney settlement is home to people from different backgrounds and different districts of the country, as well as those who trace their roots to neighbouring countries such as Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi.

Some worked for white employers who fled the country during the 1970s liberation war and others found themselves destitute as a result of economic hardships in the country.

With the outbreak of Covid-19 last year, and no basic services, the settlement seemed like it would be the perfect setting for the virus to spread.

Yet, during the interview, Ndlovu wore no mask and there are up to 10 other people without masks in his home. The same indifference to the threat of the pandemic prevailed along the camp’s roads and at neighbouring homesteads.

(Solidarity Peace Trust)

“People have masks but they only wear them when they are leaving the camp,” Ndlovu said. “Since Covid-19 started there has not been a death recorded here so no one has died of Covid-19. We are sometimes tested by a mobile clinic but no one has tested positive. We do not know of any Covid-19 case or patient here.”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Zimbabwe has recorded more than 38 086 cases of the virus, with 1,557 deaths reported by 27 April. Dr Edwin Sibanda, the director of health services in Bulawayo, confirmed his deparment had not received any Covid-19 alerts from the Killarney informal settlement. “As a result, there is currently no record of patients residing at the informal settlement. No one was suspected or followed up from the area on Covid-related issues.”

However, in the nearby suburbs of Killarney, Parklands and Khumalo, which enjoy proper sanitation services, a number of cases have been reported.

Zimbabwe’s vaccine rollout began in early March. The WHO said 410,611 doses of the vaccine had been administered by 27 April. According to Our World in Data, as of 26 April, 2.4% of the population had received at least one dose of the Sinopharm vaccine and 0.3% had been fully vaccinated.

Ndlovu said the major worry in the Killarney camp right now was not Covid-19 but rather yet another eviction, which he said was imminent. There is no chance of a third comeback for him to the land he has known since childhood, because it is earmarked for the development of a residential suburb. 

“I don’t think we will be here by August. They have already pegged the stands,” he said, resignedly.

A woman who lives in the settlement, who asked to be identified only as Mandlovu, said life was hard at the informal settlement, and she and other young women had resorted to sex work. None of her colleagues had caught Covid-19, but they do not know how much longer they will continue being bypassed by the virus in their line of work.

“No one among us has fallen sick. We do not have sanitisers but we do our best to prevent getting Covid-19. For example, with our clients since Covid started, it’s just sex and no kissing,” she said.

According to the Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights, the Zimbabwean Census Statistics Office does not record the population of slum dwellers separately from the rest of the population, making it difficult to have authoritative statistics on the number of people living in slums.

This article appeared on The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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Kudzai Mashininga
Kudzai Mashininga

Mashininga is an experienced Zimbabwean journalist.

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