Bob's peasantry

“I am not separated from my husband—we were separated only by the police.” Matilda* (59) has spent the past month in a village amid the dry bush of Matabeleland North. She is one of thousands of Zimbabweans to be dumped in the countryside in the past two months. “We were deported on the basis of where we were born.
My ID card reflects this place, my husband was sent to Esigodini [200km away].”

Matilda, formerly a domestic worker in Bulawayo, lost her home in the city’s Killarney informal settlement as part of the Zimbabwe government’s Operation Murambats-vina, which targeted homes the authorities deemed illegal. The demo-litions began in May; since July, the government has been relocating people from cities to the country. Families have been separated and people left in places where they have no food or shelter.

People who used to send money earned in the city to relatives in the drought-afflicted countryside have now become a burden on the people they once supported.

National statistics on numbers of people moving to the countryside are unknown, but Alouis Chaumba of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, said that in Harare alone, churches had offered help to 2 500 people who were going to rural villages.

As in the days of South Africa’s Bantustans, Zimbabwean identity cards indicate an ancestral area of origin that is not necessarily the birthplace of the bearer.

Charles*, 32, had earned a living recycling rubbish at a Bulawayo dump. “The police came to destroy our homes. We stayed in the bush until the pastors took us to a church. We stayed there for a month. Then at eight o’clock one night the police came and raided us.” He was taken to a transit camp where “for three days there was nothing to eat”, before being dumped beside the road several hours’ walk from the village where he now is.

Zimbabweans who saw their city homes destroyed are almost unanimous that the “tsunami”, as they call it, was a punishment for areas that voted for the opposition in elections earlier this year. “The underlying political plan is to make people more rural, so the government can re-educate and control them, so they can vote for them next time,” said a Catholic priest in Bulawayo. “People have become concerned with basic needs, it’s the politics of the stomach.”

The dispersal of thousands of people into the bush has made the logistics of aid unfathomable. “Until we have numbers, it’s very hard,” one aid official said. “We don’t know where they are and we don’t know what they want.”

People such as Matilda and Charles are eating thanks largely to the efforts of local churches. Yet, a Protestant pastor, attempting to distribute mieliemeal and blankets along the untarred roads of rural Matabeleland North, was detained and questioned by a man from the Central Intelligence Organisation: Zanu-PF’s secret police.

Some city-dwellers resisted the deportations: “Three or four times a day, the police were telling us to go kumusha [to the village],” said Simeon*, who was moved with his wife and six children to the Caledonia Farm transit camp after their home in Harare’s Hatcliffe Extension township was flattened at the end of May. “Some went. But I am supposed to be at work. How could I have gone?”

Yet, for the informal traders whose livelihoods were destroyed along with their houses, there was little reason to resist the orders to go kumusha.

Mary*, who had been living in the open since her house in Harare’s Epworth area was destroyed in June, had come to collect a bag of mieliemeal at a church before setting off for her husband’s home village near Kwekwe. “When we go we will be sitting doing nothing until the rains come,” she said. “We have no house there, but my mother-in-law will help. If we can we will start a vegetable garden and sell things ...” Previously, her husband had been sending money to his parents.

With Mary was Charlotte*, a temporary teacher whose husband used to make a living as a street photo-grapher. “Times are hard. No one wants their picture taken any more. So we decided it was better to go to the rural areas.” Charlotte’s in-laws are dead, and she believes her husband has land, but no house, in his ancestral village near Hwedza, 180km from Harare. She is worried about how she will get their three children into a new school there. “There will be problems. We have never stayed in a rural area. It’s a different life from here.”

More of Justin Pearce’s reports can be found at * All names have been changed to protect interviewees

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