Marefura Namupita — probably in his late 80s or early 90s sits forlornly outside his red brick four-roomed house at Rugare Township warming himself in the sun.
REPORT BY VENERANDA LANGA
He looks very deep in thought, probably thinking about where his next meal would come from as a National Railways of Zimbabwe pensioner who earns a meagre US$30 per month for his upkeep.
His wife, Kerina looks two decades younger than him as she sits next to her husband with her left foot plastered. She says she slipped and fell, breaking her leg in the process.
Kerina still has a very good memory of the good times during the 1960s to early 1980s when NRZ was one of the best employers in the country and even built houses for its employees in different suburbs like Sizinda, Tshabalala and Newton West in Bulawayo and Rugare in Harare.
The husband cannot remember exactly when he was born.
However, he still remembers that it was in 1954 that he joined the trek from Malawi (then Nyasaland) to Zimbabwe in search of greener pastures and he got a job as a general hand at NRZ.
“I started off in 1954 as a general hand but was later promoted to ticket checker,” recounted Namupita speaking in Shona with a Chewa accent.
“Then, I used to earn a salary of 15 pounds per month, but I remember it was a lot of money as I could afford to feed and clothe my family and take my kids to school,” he said.
Namupita said he retired in 1992 when the Zimbabwean dollar was still the local currency. He does not remember how much he was given as a lump sum, but his wife could still remember.
“The total pension package was Z$1 000. We thought it was a lot of money then, but it was all gobbled up by expenses we incurred when we enrolled our first born daughter for a Secretarial course. The whole idea was that if we educated our children, they would soon be helping us during our retirement age.
However, after paying for the course and building a two-roomed cottage, the pension was all gone,” she said.
According to the couple, life as pensioners is a living hell as the US$30 monthly pension they receive is not enough to pay for water, electricity as well as buy food for the other children who are unemployed.
“Our other four children are not working and our monthly electricity consumption is worth US$50 while US$25 is needed for water. Right now we have a US$200 water bill and live in fear that any day the city council will cut our water supplies. Well-wishers are the ones who assist us, as well as our daughter who now works as a teacher. However, she is married and has other responsibilities,” explained Kerina.
She said things were better when she used to collect US$100 from renting out the extra rooms they had built. However, in 2005 when government ordered Operation Murambatsvina, their source of income — the two rooms — were destroyed leaving them with nothing to live on.
“I sometimes sell second-hand clothes to supplement the monthly US$30 pension. Now, I cannot do that because of the fracture on my foot. We can no longer access medical care as Railmed is no longer treating pensioners and we cannot access medicines. We do not pay service fees at government hospitals but we have to buy prescribed drugs. I was asked to pay US$25 for X-rays when I hurt my foot; how can pensioners afford that,” Kerina said.
A drive around the whole township of Rugare was proof enough that people were suffering. Although there were a few houses that had been extended and were fenced or walled, most people live in squalor.
A local pastor from the Apostolic Church of Pentecost, Henry Zihove said Rugare was “a forgotten community” and that was why it was rare to hear people speaking about it in Harare.
The roads showed that they were last resurfaced probably during the 60s. Youths old enough to go to work mill in the streets doing nothing. Burst sewers are the order of the day, toilets are pit latrines per house. On average, 13 people use one latrine.
“Water is not clean and many youths are unemployed because most of the people in Rugare were migrants from countries like Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. They came to look for jobs when they were already old people and married Zimbabweans. They had children late and became pensioners when their kids were still of school-going age. That is why many youths here did not attain higher levels of education,” said pastor Zihove.
A widow, Catherine Chamunorwa (59) of Rugare, said her late husband also used to work for the NRZ until he passed on in 2002.
“Life has been very difficult because I get a widow’s pension of US$16 per month from the NRZ. I was given a lump sum pension when my husband died but I cannot remember the amount which came in Zimbabwean dollars,” she said.
“I had built four outside rooms to put tenants as a source of income but they were destroyed during Operation Murambatsvina. I have six children and two of them were of school-going age when my husband died. I had to relocate to Mhondoro to do communal farming to supplement my income. I also sell tomatoes.”
Chamunorwa said life was difficult because she also looked after three school-going grandchildren left in her care by her two daughters who passed away.
“Luckily for me my other children are working and they sometimes assist with money. However, it puts too much strain on them as they are married. I sell tomatoes and sausages to supplement my income as I have to pay electricity and water bills,” she said.
Chamunorwa said she also gets a monthly US$60 pension from the National Social Security Authority (NSSA).
Another widow, Penia Christina Marindiri (56) of the same suburb, said her husband also used to work for NRZ as a health assistant.
She said her husband worked for the NRZ for 23 years before he passed away. Marindiri said the lump sum pension that she was given enabled her to build four outside rooms to enable her to earn extra money in rentals.
But the rooms were again destroyed during Operation Murambatsvina.
“I had seven children but four of them are late. The remaining ones do piece jobs. I get a monthly pension of US$29 and am no longer getting any payments from NSSA because they said I filled in the forms late. I sell tomatoes to supplement my income but I suffered a stroke in 2010 and can no longer carry tomatoes from the market,” said Marindiri.
She is also looking after seven grandchildren from her children who passed away and life is very tough for her family of 12 people, who share a four-roomed house.
“Life as an NRZ pensioner’s widow is very difficult. If they could raise our pensions to at least US$100 it would go a long way in alleviating our poverty. We sometimes go without eating meals due to lack of money,” said Marindiri.
According to pastor Zihove, Rugare does not have a single supermarket.
“There is no shopping centre here, but there are bars [bottle stores]. People buy their daily groceries from tuck shops. There are about 1 118 cluster houses in Rugare,” he said.
NRZ, once an employer of choice, is now in a comatose state. Recent media reports said it needs close to US$2 billion to fully recover.
It is also battling to settle a US$12 billion debt which has ballooned over the past three years.