With its tree lined avenues, newly re-opened 5 star hotels and tranquil suburbs (recalling Surrey more than any place in Africa), Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, appears reborn. In 2008, when hyper inflation forced people to resort to barter and severe food and oil shortages meant there was no food to sell and anyhow no way to get it to market, Harare was close to a ghost town, with empty shelves and haunted citizens. Today, just three years on, traffic congestion, new supermarkets and busy cafes and restaurants signal that relatively normal life has returned.
Much of this is down to dollarisation of the economy, which has allowed the cash economy to return. The establishment of a Government of National Unity, where the defeated Government party “ZANU-PF” led by Robert Mugabe was forced to share power with the former opposition party “MDC” led by Morgan Tsangirai, has also given some political certainty.
The cost of keeping the peace is to allow Mugabe retain the Presidency and his party maintain control over much of the economy, the security sector and media. Blatant lies and misinformation continue to spew out of the ZANU-PF controlled Herald newspaper and state TV and radio. Meanwhile the army, funded from people’s taxes, is reported to have trained and placed 80,000 young men in rural areas in order to intimidate and threaten voters ahead of the election expected in the next 12 months.
On the surface then, Harare is a beautiful city returning to normality, with downtown skyscapers similar in style and quantity to an Asian or North American city. Only one tall building reveals some of the strangeness of Zimbabwe life - the ZANU-PF Headquarters building, a 20 storey North Korean designed monolith in the heart of downtown.
Where are the city slums you might ask, in a country which is at the bottom of the UNDP 169 country development index? The hungry children even? In Harare the informal area is noticeably smaller than in other cities in Africa and all the kids appear well fed, happy and well dressed in their school uniforms.
The simple answer is to find the slums you just have to really know where to look. Because of the government launched “Operation Murambatsvina” (in English “Clear out the Rubbish”) in 2005, which forcibly cleared urban slums, and deprived over 18 per cent of the country’s population of their homes or livelihoods, the poorest people have been forced out of the cities.
I had always wondered, where did these people, who had worked up to 20 years to build solid houses and livelihoods, go? Did they just leave to other countries or try and resettle in rural areas?
I got part of my answer today, when visiting a former white-owned farm about 20 km outside Harare. Known as Bobo Farm, without foreknowledge you would drive past the farm and all that it contains without a second thought. Remarkably, this farm, which was seized in 2000, is now a settlement/ town/ city of 6,000 families and an estimated 25,000 people.
The main entrance to the settlement is a dirt track off a commuter road going east of Harare. Once on the farm you are faced with row upon row of one room “houses”, some made of brick and others of wood and plastic, with a tiny area of ground to the front. Families of up to 13, as I met in one case, of a grandmother, her daughter, her seven children (including triplets of 8 months )and four orphaned children of the grandmother’s dead daughter, live in one room of no more than 2 metres squared. Water is from untreated boreholes (a cholera epidemic swept through here in 2008) and the land around is dry and sand like and requires substantial irrigation to make it fertile.
Irony upon irony, the people living here are considered to be squatters by the authorities and are thus not entitled to land tenure or even the provision of a school. Instead the community has come together and those with basic education share this knowledge and take classes in a roughly constructed set of brick rooms.
The authorities’ refusal to recognise the people’s right to stay on the land is so ironic because they were actually placed there by the Government. These 25,000 people are some of the displaced hundreds of thousands who were forcibly removed from Harare during Operation Murambatsvina in 2005.
Slums are everywhere in Africa and many other parts of world. Yet what made this one different is its essentially artificial quality. Families were uprooted and placed in these fields, for political (because they were thought to be supporters of the opposition MDC) and for aesthetic (keep Harare beautiful, “clear out the rubbish”) reasons. The result is an artificially ordered capital city and a hidden underbelly of stark poverty far away from tourist , diplomat or President’s eyes. Those displaced are very far away from the city and it is prohibitively expensive to travel into Harare to work. The limited land left on the “farm” is insufficient to support those living there.
Neighbouring farms are large, one of them produces flowers for the export market, but they are surrounded by electric wires and obviously out of bounds. The very next farm to Bobo Farm is owned by Solomon Mujuru, the former army commander and wife of the Vice-President and Zanu –PF politician Joyce Mujuru. The Mujuru’s attractive old farmhouse looks worn and the thatch is falling down in places. It must be difficult to maintain the more than 100 farms and farmhouses they own between them. This farm too is rarely encroached. Also for obvious reasons.
Trócaire supports Caritas Zimbabwe to deliver food aid, fertilizer, some livestock and HIV prevention to the poorest on Bobo Farm, generally those headed by children and one parent families. The needs are enormous.
Hidden away, quietly forgotten, life chances destroyed; these are the true victims of the despotic rule of Robert Mugabe.