‘Last year there were times when I had no food at all for days,â€ says 80-year-old Evelyne Mandizvidza.
‘Then I would just boil water and drink it while it was warm to fill my stomach. My skin was hanging off me.â€
Amid cautious optimism about the government of national unity, the most vulnerable Zimbabweans are not yet experiencing any benefits: day-to-day survival continues to be the issue.
The ‘dollarisationâ€ of the economy — which has seen foreign currencies replace the Zimbabwe dollar — has helped to curb inflation and shelves in shops are now full.
But for people who have no access to currency, particularly orphans, the elderly and people with disabilities, this has actually made life harder.
‘Things are now available in shops, but the problem is in getting cash to buy those things,â€ said Mandizvidza. ‘At my age it is impossible to get
a job and earn cash and I don’t have anything to sell.â€
Even those in formal employment, such as civil servants, are earning only a US$100-a-month allowance (R790) — not a lot in an economy where a newspaper costs $2 and a loaf of bread $1.
The precarious situation of the elderly has been exacerbated by the fact that pensions have not been paid since December.
A lucky few have cash remittances sent home from relatives working abroad, but in a country in which HIV/Aids has decimated the economically active population and where unemployment stands at 90%, they are not in the majority.
Mandizvidza was identified as a vulnerable person by community workers from the Joint Initiative for Urban Zimbabwe and now receives a monthly assistance package that includes maize meal, corn-soya blend, cooking oil, peanut butter, soap and cotton wool.
She has also joined the urban gardening project run by the Joint Initiative, which provides seeds, watering cans and training, allowing people to grow vegetables and fruit in their backyards. ‘Now I have seeds to grow my own garden — I have planted carrots, garlic and tomatoes,â€ she said proudly.
Standing in line at a food distribution centre in Mzilikazi, Bulawayo, Mandizvidza and Mpanywa Siwela (83) compare notes on their backyard gardens. Siwela is a member of the food
committee in Mzilikazi and has a flourishing vegetable patch in his yard.
He exchanges gardening tips with Mandizvidza, his wizened face wrinkling even further in consternation as he tells her: ‘I need something to spray those red spiders that are attacking my tomatoes.â€
The success of his crop is not just a matter of pride — it is also about putting food on the table. But there are things he can’t grow and can’t afford to buy: ‘I can’t tell you when I last drank tea —â€ he said longingly. ‘But where can we old people get rands or dollars?â€
Food gardens are not the only way people can regain some self-sufficiency. Admire Chinjekure of the Lead Trust (an NGO which is part of the Joint Initiative) explained how a pilot cash-transfer project has grown out of the food distribution programme.
The project gives each member $25 a month, which not only provides access to hard currency but allows them to be more in control and independent.
‘Some people prefer to get the cash so they can pay their rent or for medical services. Some reinvest the money — for instance, they buy firewood which they sell,â€ said Chinjekure.
Christopher Ndabambe (66) has signed up for the pilot cash-transfer project. ‘I have diabetes, high blood pressure and a heart problem,â€ he said.’Dollarisation is good because it means there are drugs available now, but it is quite difficult for me if I can’t get currency.
We need a better health system and to be able to get drugs from our hospitals. I opted out of the food programme and joined the cash-transfer project so I can buy my medicines.â€
Ndabambe is regularly forced to make a choice between buying food and buying medicine. ‘I have to go into town to buy my heart tablets and that costs a lot of money for transport. So then I can buy only a one-week supply. ‘If there is anything left over I buy some foodâ€.
Nicole Johnston is Oxfam’s regional media and communications officer for Southern Africa
Suffer the children
Tatenda* is 13 years old. He likes footballers Christiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba and supports Manchester United.
He also supports his siblings and members of his extended family, having lost his last adult blood relative just two days before we met. ‘We were a family of five living in Gutu with our parents.
Our firstborn was a boy. He passed away. Then my mother passed away.â€ Their father sent the rest of them to live with an uncle, who died in prison. ‘My sister was taken in by my father’s cousin after he passed away last year. I came to live with another uncle but he died on Monday.â€
Tatenda’s neighbours alerted community workers and he now receives a food assistance package. ‘I want to do well at school so I can become a pilot.
But I’m not sure what will happen now. He used to pay my school fees.â€
* Not his real name
Gogo goes green
The old folks of Mzilikazi aren’t sitting around waiting for things to get better — and they’re not prepared to become dependent either.
The backyards of the township are full of grannies armed with a badza (hoe) and a watering can, hoeing, planting and keeping an eagle eye out for any weed that dares ventures into their crop.
A few blocks from the food distribution centre, Dorothy Shilling (68) picks young spinach leaves from her small backyard vegetable patch.
Her father was a farmer, so making things grow is in her blood and in her hands, she laughs. ‘We were getting food from the centre and then they asked who was interested in gardening.
We were given seeds and have formed groups to help each other. ‘I know the food distribution is short-term — this food I am growing for later,â€ she says as she waters her mango and orange
‘It’s expensive to buy tomatoes and greens every day, so it’s much better if I grow it for myself. I have harvested my spinach twice and next month I am hoping to harvest my carrots.â€
As we leave she proudly offers us an enamel bowl full of enormous sweet potatoes. ‘You cook these with a little butter and add salt. They are very good — I grew them myself!â€
Rising from the ruins
A pile of bricks nestles next to a glossy patch of spinach and an odd concrete oblong is being dug up for an onion patch.
‘Oh, those were the houses destroyed in Operation Murambatsvina,â€ says Admire Chinjekure (of the Lead Trust) matter-of-factly.
The foundations of the bulldozed homes are now acting as a cornucopia of home-grown, nutritious food. ‘I’m not working, so I had a problem feeding my family,â€ says Martin Chapungu. ‘I joined the gardening programme to try to get some food for them.
We were taught how to use herbs like marigold and blackjack as fertilisers and how to use a mixture of onions, soap and water instead of pesticides.
Mostly we use things which we don’t have to buy. ‘Now I am a facilitator who trains people how to make their own small gardens.
We have been eating carrots — look how big they are,â€ he says as he pulls a mammoth carrot out of the ground and presents it proudly.
Chinjekure rinses it, takes a bite and pronounces it delicious, as Chapungu’s face is split by a huge grin. ‘My children really enjoy the vegetables,â€ he says, as his daughter, Blessing (11), happily waters the beds.
‘Their skin looks so much better since we have had the veggies and they even take some to school to share with their friends.â€