Zimbabwe turns 33 on 18th April 2013. Because it’s a dangerous occupation taking photographs here, it’s safer to use words to describe what my home town looks like 33 years after independence from colonial rule.
Outside the large provincial government hospital half a dozen convicts from the local prison have been put to work doing the job that the ratepayers of the town pay the municipality to do, but which they don’t do. The convicts are wearing white shirts and shorts and are guarded by three, armed prison officials who lean against the grey durawall around the hospital and whose appearance, if it could talk, would scream: “bored !” The convicts are clearing grass and scraping litter into piles. Inside the large provincial government hospital outpatients haven’t been able to get the most basic drugs for their ailments for the last three months, sent away to commercial pharmacies to buy them, bring them back and then they’ll be treated.
In residential suburbs around the town, it’s inky-black at night, street lights haven’t worked for at least eight years. There’s a nasty, angry buzz of flies hovering around dustbins which haven’t been collected for three weeks. The dustbin truck did come two weeks ago but roared around the neighbourhood so fast at a few minutes before 6pm that most people didn’t manage to get their bins out onto the road in time. Strom drains haven’t been cleared for countless years, tar roads have sharp, steep drop offs at their eroded edges; dirt roads have become narrow tracks with deep gullies and rocky outcrops making many of them completely impassable. Everywhere you see people carrying buckets of water or piles of branches for firewood on their heads.
In the central business district every pavement is crowded with vendors. You can buy anything from bananas and belts to mobile phones and artificial hair pieces, there’s no need to actually go into a shop. Countless shops have been turned into flea markets; dark, crowded rooms with invisible partitions that separate young women all selling cheap Chinese shoes, clothes and underwear, their goods piled up to, and hanging down from, the ceiling. In parking bays around the town pick-up trucks with their tailgates down are loaded with sacks of potatoes, onions and butternuts, piled high with cabbages, mountains of carrots or bundles of leaf vegetables. These mobile shops are ready to race off at a moment’s notice should any official actually decide that they are causing a traffic hazard, blocking the road and trading illegally. Outside supermarkets young well dressed teenagers with plugs in their ears spend their school holidays selling car wax, windscreen wipers, phone chargers.
On the main highway that runs through the town, crowds of people wait for lifts, standing on both sides of a sign that says “Stopping prohibited, no hitch hiking.” Amongst the crowds there are always police in uniform, hitch hiking like everyone else. Doing the rounds about town in recent weeks has been a sheet of paper with a ‘wish list’ from the police looking for assistance from residents. On the list is everything from fuel and tyres for their vehicles to paper, pens, paper clips and drawing pins.
This is the picture of our country which has become one giant, made-in- China, flea market where ordinary people desperately try and sell anything to make a few dollars. Meanwhile, swishing past the town on the highway leading to diamond fields and the border, fancy state-of-the-art vehicles with tinted windows carry impeccably dressed and accessorised occupants. How did they make so much money in a country where 8 out 10 people can’t get formal work? Was it from the farms they took, or the mines, or the 51% indigenization, or the government or the gold and diamonds? Happy Birthday 33 year old Zimbabwe and, as the activists say: “A-loot-a continua!”