By Themba Sibanda
PLUMTREE — The sun sets on a windy Wednesday in mid-July, in the border town of Plumtree.
People hurry in different directions. Upon seeing this kind of activity, one is right to assume these people are heading to retire for the night.
A stone’s throw away from the main road to the Botswana-Zimbabwe border, about 50m from the commuter omnibus rank, is the local train station.
There, two groups of young to middle-aged men sit. Opposite the station are shops that sell different merchandise, including basic food items.
The groups have 25 people in total.
The first group, comprising of about 14 of them, is made up of young men in the ages 19-28.
After taking a closer look, one realises that these young men are busy gambling using a deck of cards that are spread on the ground.
The second group, 11 in number, whose average age is approximately 33, sits outside an array of shops, busy munching chunks of bread which they seemingly purchased from one of the shops.
One of the men leaves the group for the bathroom.
We establish that his name is Chamunorwa Goredema, who hails from Rusape. He is heavily built and is dark in complexion.
Says Goredema: “We are here awaiting the sun to set so that we skip the border into Botswana.
“We have lived there without proper documents for about three years now.
“We returned home for a few days. Most of us work there.
“We have had to change names so that we avoid being arrested as Botswana police are out to flash out anyone who is in that country illegally.
“Most of us here in the groups do not have proper Botswana identity documents. Survival is by the grace of God.”
With a little bit of pestering, he tells this reporter that they have been travelling home and back to Botswana using an illicit entry point along the Maitengwe border post.
The closure of borders as a measure to contain the Covid-19 pandemic has seen young people using an illicit entry point along this (Maitengwe) border post to travel between Zimbabwe and Botswana to visit their families. Plumtree locals say they fear exposure to Covid-19.
It is estimated that about a million Zimbabweans work in Botswana with thousands of undocumented citizens working in the agricultural sector.
“The people you saw there are waiting for transport to get to the border area when it’s a bit dark,” Goredema said.
“There are people who will help us cross into Botswana that we pay between 300 and 500 pula for facilitating our movement.
“They know where the police are and how to avoid coming across them. There is nothing we can do.
“The situation is forcing us into this kind of life.”
Once in Botswana, they avoid going into urban centres lest they be caught up in the crackdown by Botswana authorities enforcing the Covid-19 lockdown measures.
“We work in farms. We have not gone into the cities and towns lest we get caught.
“There are SSG [Botswana army] officers as well as the police everywhere.
“It’s better to be safe in the rural area than to be sorry when they have catch you.
For the young men, being able to come back and check on their loved ones in Zimbabwe is more important than the potential risk of contracting the coronavirus and spreading it.
“Our kids and families matter more than anything at the moment. Some of us have kids that still go to school.
We want to check and see that everything is in order. Corona can wait. Our families are more important,” he said, before joining his group mates.
Plumtree residents say they live in constant fear of a contracting the virus that could be brought into the area by these undocumented citizens.
Zandile Tshuma, who resides in the border town, said there have been calls on the law enforcement agents to actively monitor and arrest people found using illegal entry points, but there has been a slow reaction.
“It’s only by the grace of God that people here have not contracted the coronavirus,” Tshuma said.
“We have so many of these people coming from Botswana who have not even been checked to see whether they have it or not.
“They are avoiding going through the testing centres because once they are found to have the coronavirus, they would be quarantined and that affects their income as they will not be able to work. Something needs to be done urgently.”
Agnes Mahomva, the principal coordinator of the Covid-19 response programme in the office of the President and cabinet says government is working closely with communities and police in these areas to ensure that they report any persons who are known to be visitors to the country who would not have gone through the quarantine process.
“We are working with law enforcement agencies to enhance patrols along all borders so as to curb the continued entry into the country by individuals that have not been subjected to checks for Covid-19 at our centres in the vicinity of the border areas,” Mahomva said.
However, it is not yet clear how many “border jumpers” have been traced so far.
Moffat Nyoni, who hails from Nopemano village in Bulilima, outside Plumtree town, is concerned that deep in the rural areas, villagers continue to live life as if everything was normal.
“People come from Botswana through Maitengwe border and visit their relatives and leave groceries for them,” Nyoni said.
“There are times when some of them attend burials of their relatives. No one cares about the pandemic anymore.”
l This article was originally published by The Citizen Bulletin, a hyperlocal non-profit news outlet covering Covid-19 in Matabeleland.