Despite working underground, Edson Mwale (69) recalls with nostalgia the golden age of a prosperous lifestyle free of diseases.
social commentary with Moses Mugugunyeki
He says they saw the best of times — rubbish-free roads, uninterrupted electricity supply, no burst sewers and a salary that was unfailingly paid at the end of the month. They lived in homes where water and electricity bills were being taken care of by the company.
But the good times eventually deserted the mining community of Mhangura, 189km from Harare. Mhangura Copper Mine (MCM) shut down in 2000 due to a host of problems, among them poor international copper prices.
MCM’s closure left about 1 500 workers out of employment, while its copper refinery plant, which had the capacity to mill 4 800 tonnes per month, also winded up operations.
The mining community attracted workers from surrounding villages in Makonde district and migrants from neighbouring Zambia and Malawi, offering them respite from famine and poverty back home.
While many of his colleagues have died because of depression, malnutrition and Aids-related illnesses, Mwale is now a witness to the slow decline of the mining community, once one of most vibrant places in Mashonaland West province.
Today, residents of Mhangura are compelled to cope without running water and electricity as well as bear a life of squalor that has caused infectious diseases to flourish in the area over the years.
The settlement has become home to a growing humanitarian crisis, with many families living below the poverty datum line. This has resulted in most residents succumbing to infectious diseases such as TB, dysentery and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including Aids.
The Standard Style during a recent visit to Mhangura established that poverty, malnutrition, overcrowded housing and squalid living conditions, including water shortages, as well as poor sanitation were the major drivers of infectious diseases in the area.
“It’s a dog-eat-dog scenario in this mining settlement,” said Mwale, who still resides in the company’s four-roomed cottage with his two children and three grandchildren. “Most residents here are out of employment and live in abject poverty.” he said.
Mwale said after the closure of the mine, economic problems worsened which also signalled an increase in the settlement’s mortality rates.
“Lack of economic opportunities and healthy food options, coupled with poverty, were contributing to staggering levels of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity, cancer and suicide,” Mwale said.
“However, this community is grappling with STIs, including HIV and Aids. We have had many deaths due to Aids-related illnesses, but STIs among young people are widespread and worrying.”
Mwale said prostitution had risen to alarming levels in the area with girls as young as 13 years old joining the oldest profession to make ends meet.
“It is a hive of activity at night — girls as young as 13 years old service clients in secluded places and cars,” he said.
The old man, who is taking care of three grandchildren, said girls were the most vulnerable.
“Elderly men pounce on these young and innocent girls, some who are even in school. One of my daughters fell prey to these ‘sugar daddies’ and I am taking care of her child,” Mwale said.
In the wake of adolescent girls and young women being uniquely vulnerable to HIV and STIs, a number of Aids service organisations have come up with a cocktail of HIV intervention strategies in Mhangura.
One such programme is the Sista2Sista Club, which offers a safe place where vulnerable adolescent girls can speak with mentors and each other about their problems.
Girls in the club learn about sexual and reproductive health and rights, financial literacy, and how to navigate difficult social situations, including coercive relationships.
The programme also aims to give girls the confidence and self-esteem to stand up for themselves.
Sista2Sista mentor in Mhangura, Cathrine Kasiuti, said the programme was helping girls to socialise with their peers and learn from others about how to defend their sexual reproductive health rights.
“Girls learn a lot of things under the Sista2Sista programme, with the main emphasis being helping girls navigate difficult social situations. A lot of girls who have gone through this programme are doing well and the mind-set of the community has changed,” she said.
Florence Katuruza, a victim of an early marriage, who is now part of the Sista2Sista programme in Mhangura, said the programme had made an enormous impact on her life.
“I have learnt a lot of things, including that early marriages are wrong. They are wrong in the sense they breed gender-based violence, something that I saw happening in my marriage,” she said.
“Apart from early marriages, we also do sessions on sexual and reproductive health, as well as HIV and Aids.”
Katuruza, who now stays with her parents after her marriage collapsed, said most girls in the community were falling in love with elderly men with financial muscle.
This “sugar-daddy” culture contributes to an elevated risk of HIV and STIs for young women as they are exposed to older men who may be more likely to have STIs, or who hold the power in the relationship and determine condom use.
National Aids Council district coordinator for Makonde Yvonne Chavhunduka said programmes such as Sista2Sita had a great impact in the response to HIV and Aids.
“You will realise that Mhangura is one of the HIV hot spots in Makonde district. We have increased our intervention programmes targeting young populations and we believe this will go a long way in reducing new infections,” she said.
“It is pleasing to note that Makonde, as one of the districts with a high prevalence rate of child marriages, has embraced programmes such as Sista2Sista. Our programmes include sensitising communities and engaging community leaders in discussing issues like child marriage as well as HIV and Aids.”
Approximately one in three girls in Zimbabwe are married before their 18th birthday.
Child marriage predominantly affects girls who live in poverty and in rural areas. Girls from the poorest 20% of households are more than four times likely to be married/in union before age 18 than girls from the richest 20% of households. The less educated a girl is, the more she is likely to marry during her childhood.
Chavhunduka said the HIV prevalence rate for Makonde district was 13,6%.
While Mwale believes HIV interventions are paying dividends in the response to HIV and Aids, he feels a lot needs to be done to address the issue of poverty.
“It was taboo during our time to talk about STIs because they were limited to only a handful of promiscuous men and women. As for the young people, getting an STI was unheard of,” Mwale said.
Zimbabwe has the sixth highest HIV prevalence in sub-Saharan Africa at 13,5%, with 1,3 million people living with HIV in 2016.
Chavhunduka said some of the intervention programmes were targeted at religious groups.