Zim: Starving and sleeping in the rain

Flooding in Zimbabwe has stranded thousands of families, and the government cannot cope with sheltering them.

Flooding in Zimbabwe has stranded thousands of families, and the government cannot cope with sheltering them.

The morning sun sweeping over thousands of plastic shacks lifts a veil on the failure of the Zimbabwean government to take care of its own.

More than 20 000 people now live in the plastic shelters, spread across a dry plain at Chingwizi, an isolated camp inside the Nuanetsi ranch.

The area is so arid it had previously only been meant to be a game ranch, but now thousands of people evacuated from the banks of the flooded Tokwe-Mukorsi dam in Masvingo must call it home.  

Tokwe-Mukorsi, which is still under construction, will be the country’s largest dam when complete. Construction started in 1998, stalling midway after money ran out, before resuming in 2009. Thousands of families living on the banks of the dam and the rivers feeding into it should have already been moved by now, but bureaucracy and poor funding slowed the evacuations.

Now, after heavy rains, unusual in the dry region, the rivers burst their banks and the incomplete dam was at risk of collapse, leaving the government with the job of moving over 60 000 people all at once. Overwhelmed, the government has had to make an urgent $20-million aid appeal to move and shelter thousands of stranded families, many of whom lost everything in the floods.

Lack of preparedness 
At the Chingwizi camp, evidence of how unprepared the government remains in responding to natural disasters is everywhere.

Government trucks roll in every few minutes, dumping the displaced at the camp with little food, water or adequate shelter. Donated tents have run out, and 1 700 families are without enough food or shelter in the rain.

Outside a small tent at the camp, a group of close to 200 new arrivals sits quietly, as a single official records each name in a notebook. They get soap, blankets, and donations from well-wishers and aid agencies.

Then they head off into the bush to cut down makeshift tent poles to put up what shelter they can. These will be their homes – until the government pegs out land for them to build more permanent shelters. Nobody knows when this will happen.

Workers at the camp are overwhelmed. The district administrator, the government official in charge at Chingwizi, emerges from a small tent, towel in one hand and doing up his shirt buttons with the other. It is early morning but he already looks as though he has just run a marathon.

“We are all tired,” Stanley Chamisa says. He reels off the numbers. This morning alone, close to eight more trucks have arrived, emptying new refugees into his already crowded camp. Today 200 more are expected.

He is interrupted by the roar of two more trucks rolling in, carrying everything from door frames to clay pots and bicycles, and more families desperate for shelter and food. By the end of the day, there will be just more than 20 000 people here.

But the tents have run out, Chamisa says. “We have over 3 000 families at Chingwizi now. More than half of these are sleeping in the open, in the rain. We ran out of tents last week.”

Hut schools
Five kilometres from the camp, after cutting across a maze of gullies, three huts made of tree poles and plastic sheeting stand in a clearing in the middle of thick thorn bush. The huts are what passes for a school for more than 1 000 children from the camp. Outside the huts stand the school’s entire staff of just four volunteer teachers, themselves flood victims.

Teacher Charles Matsikidze is quickly swarmed by the pupils in his class – all 280. There are no books and the children sit in the dirt, he says. “Many of them have not even eaten today.” Elfas Mapanji, another teacher, says many of the children have been traumatised, and will fall far behind on their schooling.

The teachers are interrupted by a boy asking to go to the toilet; he runs across the footpath and disappears into the bushes.

It is estimated that more than 2 000 children are out of school because of the flooding. None of the teachers are sure how long they will be here. “We were told this will be the site for the permanent school. We are not sure.”

Outside the makeshift clinic, a long line forms outside a Red Cross tent where people get treatment for cuts and bruises. But a few metres away, a longer line of people are registering to get their antiretroviral treatment. One man says his medicine was lost in the floods; he had now gone for two weeks without taking his medicine.

Government’s slow response to the crisis has drawn sharp criticism from the public.

Construction of the dam began in 1998, stalling midway owing to the economic crisis. But even when construction resumed in 2009, the evacuation of those in the dam basin was slowed by poor planning and a lack of funding.

“The current relocation as a result of the rapid flooding does not indicate any preparation by provincial and central government in relation to a long-term relocation plan. Or if it is there, by now there should have been a publicly announced place of relocation for the displaced families,” says political commentator Takura Zhangazha.

But Chamisa insists they were as prepared as they could be. “The fact that we have this camp means we had identified it well ahead of time, as a place we could move people. What we have lacked is the funding.”

Nobody knows when the government will resettle these people permanently. “They say it will take six months,” one nurse says. “No, they said relocations will start after six months,” another aid worker says.

There have been other such camps that were meant to be temporary shelters, but that have since become permanent slums ridden with disease and crime.

Outside Harare, Porta Farm and Epworth stand as squalid monuments to the government’s failure to build permanent homes for people it has moved en masse. 

This week, government ministers visited Tsholotsho, another region hit by floods. The group included 11 ­ministers, a sign that the government was beginning to feel the sting of public criticism over its handling of natural disasters.

Forced to move out
Back in the Tokwe-Mukorsi dam basin, the government has had to send in the police and army to force hundreds of families still there to move out.

Many villagers refuse to leave their livestock, and do not want to be uprooted from their ancestral lands. Anita Maregere was just about to harvest her crops when the flood waters swept everything away. She managed to save her cattle, but refuses to leave because she cannot trust the government to take care of her cows. She is also emotionally tied to the land.

“I cannot leave. My family has lived here for generations. My ancestors are buried just over there,” she says, pointing at a small hill.

But the gravesite is barely visible now. Over the past week, Maregere says, it began disappearing slowly under the murky waters of the flooded dam.

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