With anxiety and excitement I headed out onto the open road one day last week; everything was in order: travel permit, face mask on, hand sanitiser and gloves at the ready. I had anxiety for what I suspected I would see and excitement at seeing what I knew I had missed.
I was not wrong on either count.
It was day 43 of Zimbabwe’s Coronavirus lockdown, a beautiful day with a blue sky that stretched to the horizon and roads lined with the golden grass of winter. The highways had been taken over by trucks labouring up the hills, giving me a chance to glance out the windows and soak in the spectacle. Just as they had been 43 days ago, there were the timeless, beautiful kopjes, the Mukwa trees covered with fried egg pods, an eagle soaring high in the deep blue sky and, standing proud and alert on a rock, a big male baboon, his tale arched, the lookout. Oh Zimbabwe, how I missed you.
Children who should be in school were herding cattle on the edges of the road, waving in response to my greeting as I passed, eyes wide at the sight of the face mask, our new, impersonal reality. In common with children all over the world they’ve been out of school for over two months now. But unlike other children, most here don’t have laptops, internet connections, online learning, electricity or even books at home and so their education has just completely stopped.
In a rock pool on a river women were bent over washing clothes. On a bridge over a sluggish olive-green river a thin woman sat on the tarmac, collecting maize pips that had fallen off a passing truck. Carefully she put them in a small enamel bowl at her side and my eyes stung with tears. How much longer must Zimbabweans live this?
This isn’t coronavirus hunger – this is just plain hunger from drought, exacerbated by a toxic cocktail of punitive economic policies and taxes that have impoverished our entire nation.
Strikingly absent everywhere were the thousands of men and women who make their living on the roadsides: their homemade wooden tables and stalls empty, not allowed to sell their bowls of bright red tomatoes, pockets of butternuts and potatoes, bunches of carrots. Every now and again a lone vendor braves the police and sits on a stump with his tomatoes, ready to run into the golden grass. How are they surviving? Is anyone helping them? Are their vegetables going rotten in the fields?
Tragically the promised financial assistance of Z$200 each for vulnerable families affected by the coronavirus lockdown, pledged by government on March 30, has still not materialised. Six weeks ago the minister of finance said a Z$600 million fund would support “one million vulnerable households under a cash transfer programme and payment will commence immediately”. That didn’t happen. At the time of writing not a cent has been disbursed.
Social Welfare Minister Paul Mavima said they were busy verifying people to make sure they really were vulnerable, and once that was done the payments would be made. Six weeks later and you still can’t see who’s in trouble? What can I say except look into people’s sunken, desperate eyes and you will know. But that’s not quite the end of this absurd story. Now we are told that the promised Z$200 for vulnerable people has been increased to Z$300, which today is only worth US$6 – enough to buy two packets of non-existent sugar and one loaf of bread with money that is so far non-existent anyway.
What a disgrace, but it was to get much worse.
Exposing the government’s lack of assistance to vulnerable and needy families during lockdown, a small protest was held in Harare last week. Afterwards three Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) officials who had been in the protest were allegedly abducted at a road block near the National Sports Stadium in Harare.
MP Joana Mamombe, youth vice chair Cecilia Chimbiri and deputy organising secretary Netsai Marova then disappeared.
In the hours that followed, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights checked at numerous police stations but there was no sign of the women. The British and American embassies expressed their concern publicly. The police said they did not have the women in custody and so, again, Zimbabwe feared the worst, remembering the disappearance and torture of Doctor Peter Magombeyi some months ago.
On Friday morning the three women were found, dumped at Muchapondwa shops in Bindura. Rescued and now receiving medical attention, their horrific stories are being revealed. Heads covered with hoods, they were driven into the bush, dumped in a pit, and brutally assaulted.
At the end of this sickening story we can only assume that the people behind the abduction and torture of three women are not hungry, haven’t got family members who are picking up maize pips on the roadside for supper, haven’t lost their jobs, haven’t had their salaries cut by half, aren’t watching their tomatoes going rotten in the fields, and aren’t concerned about catching or spreading coronavirus.
Copyright © Cathy Buckle
Cathy Buckle is a Zimbabwean writer and blogger living in Marondera, Zimbabwe.