Men are born free but they are everywhere in chains.
I thought about the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous words that inspired the French revolution when I toured Chingwizi transit camp in Nuanetsi ranch last weekend.
The Tokwe-Mukosi villagers, who are stationed at Chingwizi awaiting resettlement, are not a free people.
The lucky ones are caged in match-box size tents that retain the searing Mwenezi temperatures. The less fortunate, those that failed to get tent allocations, must stay in the open, exposed to the vagaries of the weather. These men, women and children, find it difficult to even change clothes, engage in private conversations with loved ones, have quality time with their spouses and have no place to hide whatever little valuables they still possess.
People at Chingwizi cannot engage in any meaningful economic activity at the camp, since they were parked there two months ago. They live a life of refugees in their own country, 34 years after independence.
If some of the gallant sons and daughters who died trying to free Zimbabwe were to rise from their graves and tour Chingwizi, they would be forgiven for thinking that, maybe the war was not over yet and people were still in the Rhodesian “keeps” (protected areas).
How else can one explain the caging of fully grown people at a camp where they spend the day doing nothing but waiting for handouts. These people used to be involved in all kinds of income-generating projects at their homes, and were able to fend for themselves. Now they wait for handouts.
Children, mentally ill patients, the elderly and some with chronic ailments are the worst affected. Some of them can’t venture outside the tents, except when answering the call of nature.
In order to appreciate how it all began, I first toured the dam area. My first port of call was Zunga Primary School where abandoned houses with window panes, doors and half-roofs ripped off, told a story of people who left their houses in haste.
Ripe crops; maize and groundnuts were in abundance in the fields, but there was no one to harvest them. I was told this bumper harvest was the first in a long time.
Unfortunately, the people who bought seed and fertiliser and toiled in fields to produce acres and acres of this crop did not have a chance to enjoy the fruits of their sweat. Almost 150km away, they are now scrounging for food in the dustbowl of Chingwizi transit camp.
Just further down the school, I met a triumphant man, Shadreck Hosea (30) who shared a story about how they had killed a crocodile that ventured out of the dam and got into one family’s yard. The reptile could have killed someone if men, emboldened by Mukumbi (a highly potent traditional brew made from Mapfura [amarula fruit] that is very popular in this part of the country) had not fought and killed it. He showed me the pictures of the dead reptile on his phone. Jubilant children could be seen stepping on the dead crocodile; the menace had been neutralised.
I drove past huge stone walls designed to control the flow of the water, and went up on my way to the hills. What struck me was the fact that houses on the foot of the mountains were abandoned. These homesteads, on high ground, when compared to the dam’s basin, were clearly out of danger. It baffled the mind why the powers that be decided families living there needed to be evicted and dumped in the open at Nuanetsi ranch, without shelter or food.
When I went further up, on my way to base stations overlooking the dam wall, it then clearly dawned on me that the humanitarian disaster at Chingwizi was a result of things that we have become familiar with in Zimbabwe: lack of planning, failure to respect people’s basic rights and poor disaster response.
I wondered why government had waited until rains set in to remove villagers from the Tokwe-Mukosi dam’s basin. As construction work picked pace over the past three years, it required common sense for anyone to realise that the homesteads built 150 metres away from the dam wall would be submerged in water, come the rainy season.
But why people with houses clearly out of danger were hurriedly moved out of the area, is the million dollar question. These are the same people who left abundant food at their homes, who are starving at Chingwizi.
I heard tales of soldiers climbing on top of people’s houses and ordering them to leave. The areas would be set aside for game, the villagers were told. The effect of these blanket evictions was to bring calamity and hardship to people who could otherwise have been well off, considering the bumper harvest in the area. These people could otherwise be assisting their relatives, affected by the floods, who had left with nothing.
I met many of these people who had come back to harvest their crops. The message coming from them was one of utter disgust at the way government had forced them to leave. They felt violated: kicked out of their shelters and dumped in the open. In the process of relocating, they lost their precious possessions. They wondered what had happened to their right to shelter, food and water. Did the government ever care about them, or it was more concerned about avoiding paying them compensation?
From the dam wall, I headed to the transit camp.
Rows of tents greet visitors to Chingwizi. You think you have reached a refugee camp in a war zone, not a free country where only a few weeks ago the president of the country was celebrating his birthday.
Chingwizi is a man-made humanitarian disaster, to say the least.
Government knew well in advance that once a wall was erected on the Tokwe-Mukosi dam, the area would be flooded. People should have been moved out of the area a long time ago. Equally, the pegging and demarcation of land should also have been completed a long time ago. People who were once proud owners of homes, property and crops have now been reduced to paupers. Those who live in tents and shacks are the lucky ones. Over 2 000 families literary live in the open.
When it rains, they absorb the raindrops; when it’s hot, their bodies get burnt by the searing Mwenezi sun. Chingwizi Transit Camp is simply an anathema, a blight on our conscience. Does government have a plan for these displaced people? Will they be compensated?