Residents of Epworth, a grossly underdeveloped dormitory of Harare situated on the eastern periphery of the capital, continue to live under shocking and deplorable conditions which expose them to diseases.
By Phyllis Mbanje
Despite its well-documented haphazard planning and poverty, the settlement, run by a local authority — the Epworth Local Board — still attracts politicians who come only during election time, laden with glowing promises which, needless to say, never materialise. It’s faithful inhabitants are poverty-stricken, mostly unemployed citizens, among them gangs of criminals and prostitutes who find the unplanned settlement an ideal haven.
The Water Sanitation and Hygiene (Wash) situation in this heavily populated suburb — 12km from Harare’ city centre — has continued to deteriorate and has reached levels where if a disease breaks out, it would wipe out many thousands.
In the literal sense, people are living no better than animals in Epworth where generations are being born into the muck of their forefathers, with everyone scrabbling for the few “means” of livelihood.
A large number of the inhabitants of Epworth, sometimes called “the forgotten town”, are homeless people, some of whom were displaced during the infamous Murambatsvina purge of 2005 which rendered over 700 000 people homeless.
But what draws the most attention to Epworth, other than issues surrounding the generally sordid way of life there, are the Wash concerns.
The majority of people in this community use pit latrines and they drink from untreated water sources — usually shallow wells which are dug up in their backyards, some alongside the pit toilets.
But how do they put up with this kind of life? Are the local authorities really aware of this state of affairs? Are the people making this known or have they become so accustomed to their way of life that they now find it normal?
The Standard went out to Epworth last week and explored the settlement, speaking to some of the residents.
“We are so tired of this life. As women, it is hard on us because we have to look for alternative water sources in the absence of running water,” said Mandy Mugowa (21) from Ward 1 in Epworth.
Her two children have never experienced the little pleasures of childhood like turning on a water tap and playing with the precious liquid.
Despite her young age, Mugowa has two children aged four and 17 months. Dressed in a wrinkled puffed up black jacket commonly referred to as bomber jacket, her eyes mirror the disappointment she feels about her community.
At first, she is hesitant to have her picture taken and fusses over her plaid skirt and her braided hair. Her worries about her appearance are normal for her age. But as she speaks soulfully about the challenges they face, she quickly forgets about the skirt and braids.
“We do not trust the water wells which are few anyway, but what options do we have. Around this area there is one functional borehole but you have to wake up in the dead of the night to get even one bucket,” she said, her voice becoming stronger and more confident. It is quite obvious the matter is close to her heart.
Other women who were listening to the interview joined in and told The Standard crew that fights often broke out at the borehole which is situated at Chihota Bus Stop. Some even opt to sleep at the borehole so that they can keep their places.
“There are ‘people’ who control the borehole and it is very difficult to get even one bucket. There is a lot of shoving and fights often break out. It is not for the faint-hearted,” said another young woman, who owns a small tuck shop which sells only avocado pears.
The wells, which are often unsecured, are not subject to safety and health checks. According to a rapid public health assessment report by the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors For Human Rights (ZADHR) and the Epworth Residents Development Association (Erda), those without own water sources sometimes buy from others at an average of 10c per 20-litre bucket.
Rudimentary water treatment agents are available to some residents, but commercial treatment agents such as Water Guard are out of reach for many as they are expensive.
Residents generally do not boil water as it is expensive to do so. Four pieces of firewood cost around 50 cents.
“We would really appreciate the water treatment pills. We used to get them but not anymore,” said one, Mungami, who has set up a “tailoring shop” right by the roadside.
She has one machine and as she stiches away, she complains about the water situation and how the community faces risk of disease outbreaks.
“We have not yet experienced a serious outbreak but we are constantly afraid because of how we live,” Mungami said, gesturing to her surrounds.
Most of the makeshift pit latrines are in a terrible condition, some with squirmy fat worms crawling on the walls. Many are overflowing and residents now practise open defecation in nearby bushes while toddlers just go behind the house.
“We cover it up with soil but sometimes these naughty children will dig it all up. We cannot watch them all the time,” said a vendor who was selling her wares by the roadside.
During consultations with residents, the ZADHR and Erda teams established common concerns in the seven administrative wards.
Besides the water and pit latrines issue, the residents were also unhappy with public food handling.
Discarded meat products, especially chickens are being sold at as low as $2 per kilogramme in Epworth, making them a preferred choice for this poor community.
The meat is sold in buckets on pavements outside shops or by vendors who move around in the communities.
In Ward 3, popularly known as Dombo RaMwari (balancing rocks), the last time water came out of their taps was about 10 years ago, residents of the area said.
The community now relies on borehole water and there is only one functional borehole at Mhandu.
Engagement with the local board has not yielded much and no commitment has been made to correct the situation.
Of concern too is the domestic waste management. In almost all wards, heaps of rubbish are piled up and many people dump garbage on any open space, as long as it is a distance from their own house.
As part of their recommendations, ZADHR and Erda have suggested re-establishment of communication lines between the local authority and the residents, as well as health literacy on diseases like typhoid and cholera and better management of waste in the absence of services.