Christian Aid regional co-ordinator Louise Whitelegg travelled across Zimbabwe in December on a self-funded trip to see for herself a number of the projects funded by the charity and the Manx government’s International Development Committee.
Here Louise, who stood as a candidate in Ayre and Michael in the general election, talks about some of the highlights of her visit.
By coincidence, Christian Aid Week’s 2017 project is the funding of a disability support programme in the Binga district of Zimbabwe.
Binga, home to the Tonga people, is a western district of Zimbabwe that shares a border with Zambia. Traditionally the Tonga people were settled along the banks of the Kariba River surviving on the fertile soil as subsistence farmers.
In 1958, the river was dammed and as a consequence the Tonga people lost their traditional homes and were forced to migrate.
Many left the area but others were forced to move north, further inland. Families were given plots of land, an acre for a homestead and a couple of acres for their farms.
Their homes consist of small round mud huts with thatched roofs. The area is extremely arid. It currently takes 40 minutes of pumping the well to raise water, and after two years of drought all the river beds are dry.
Levels of poverty are grave. Infrastructure is virtually non-existent and standards of education are far below an acceptable level. With a population of an estimated 200,000 people there are 80 primary school and 40 secondary schools. The whole area currently receives grain and seed from the World Food Programme and the Zimbabwe government’s food aid programme.
In Binga, as the families have been allocated their land, there are no villages as such. So families face 5-40km journeys on foot to the nearest shop/school/clinic.
Imagine trying to seek medical assistance. Bhekimpilo, an 11-year-old child broke his leg playing football, such a normal thing for a child his age to do. But as there was no way to get him any medical attention he developed sepsis, the leg healed naturally thus leaving him with severe trouble walking.
Christian Aid’s partner has been working with disabled children for the last two years on a Comic Relief-funded project. I was able to talk to the children, parents and village heads in some detail. Some of the stories are truly heart-breaking and mind boggling.
Prior to working in the area, disabled children were often hidden from view, as many believe that witchcraft and curses are the cause of the child’s ailment. The project team found one child who had been kept inside his mud hut home for entirity of his 12 years’ existence.
I met with the children and families in the drop-in centre of the charity. One of my favourite images is London, who was dozing in the shade on his mother’s knee. In addition to Down syndrome, he has many complex medical needs. This did not stop him from being the most fun and cheerful chap there.
I had many interesting conversations with the parents and asked what their hopes were for the future.
Their homes and lives are as completely different as you can get from the island. It is not only one of the most impoverished places I have ever seen but also the most socially isolated.
But I did not see apathy or despair. I saw grit and determination in the most desperate of circumstances.
I returned to Harare for the weekend to help celebrate my friend and travelling companion’s parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Francis and Marlene Peter celebrated with a special Catholic Mass and were presented at the cathedral with a Papal blessing.
My travels continued to the east and the opposite side of Zimbabwe to Mutare. This is the home to a completed Isle of Man Government International Development Committee-funded Elephant Pump project.
This project costing £77,000 built 54 safe, clean and efficient wells in and around the district of Mutare. Before the project there was an existing open well, where the villagers would have to draw water in a bucket.
As the wells were open to the elements, dirt and contamination made the water unsafe to drink and the nature of rope and bucket meant that only those who were physically fit could draw the water.
The elephant wells are a new design. They are quick, easy and safe to use, transforming villages lives. An additional benefit are that they cost a 10th of the alternative bush pumps, use sustainable recycled materials and are very simple to maintain.
I felt very moved and proud to see the wells decorated with the Isle of Man crest. When you are faced with such daily struggle to get such a basic staple as water, I don’t think even the hardest of hearts would begrudge the island’s kind donation.
I met Rose who has a young family. She told me that before the well was installed she would worry her children and animals would fall in the well and drown while she was working in the fields. Now she says, breaking in to a big grin, she has ‘no worries’.
It is truly moving to see how something that we take for granted, water, is so scarce and precious. Living on the island it is near impossible to imagine life without it.
I found myself to be visiting Zimbabwe at a very interesting political time. In recent years, after hyperinflation the government has abandoned its local currency and adopted the US dollar. Up to 95 per cent of the Zimbabwe economy is in the black market, and therefore based on cash transactions. At the time of my visit the government had just launched a Zimbabwe Bond but trust in the Bond was low and it caused a run on the bank.
Queues of people, some sleeping out over night to draw cash were common place. Restrictions were placed on the amount you could withdraw from $1,000 a day to just $20 a day before Christmas.
The final section of my trip consisted of visits to a couple of legal partners. Christian Aid works to give people in poverty a voice. Part of this philosophy supports organisations inside the countries that fight for tax justice, human rights, and civil rights.
l In the New Year, Louise will be doing a series of talks across the island about her Zimbabwe trip. If you would like to find out more, contact her on 474275.-.iomtoday.co.im