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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Poverty creates internal refug

Scores of people - mostly children - are moving into Zimbabwe's towns and cities as they escape starvation, AIDS, grinding poverty, and political instability in the countryside. Yet, the government continues to turn a blind eye to this problem, and prohibits criticism and even discussion about it.
Rodrick Mukumbira

A new breed of street children has hit most Zimbabwean urban centres as the country experiences severe economic and political problems that have resulted in food shortages.

Their ashen and frazzled mothers accompany the new arrivals, aged between two and five. They jump at every car from traffic islands and street boundary lines. Their requests are often simple: coins, empty bottles, and scraps of food.

Hunger has begun to chase ordinary Zimbabweans away from rural places they used to call home to towns and cities. Theft, prostitution, and child labour are some of the coping mechanisms that people are resorting to for survival.

Children who are supposed to be in schools work either as prostitutes, petty traders, or as gold panners as part of the wild search for relief. Begging has long ceased to be a humiliating practice so much so that many city dwellers, including workers, are now openly asking for help.

Information on poverty-induced migration and other internal movements remains sketchy, given the transient style of the hungry, complicating any effort to target them for organised relief.

But the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) seems not to realise the extent of the damage. In the face of such a crisis, it has maintained the notion that the problems the country is facing are short lived and would soon be over.

A May assessment by the Internally Displaced Persons Unit of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs called for attention to an urgent need to fill the "important information gaps" in this situation of poverty-induced internal displacement. The office seeks to locate and count the number of people who had left their homes because of political violence or economic hardship.

The Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe surveyed 235 large-scale commercial farms, 10 percent of all farms in the four provinces in the west, central, and eastern parts of the country. The organisation found that, as of May 16, about 52,000 people had left. Political violence displaced around about 30,000, according to human rights groups.

The number of AIDS orphans is estimated to be between 900,000 and 1.2 million. Most wander around, which makes enumeration difficult.

The Farm Community Trust also found that there were an average of 12 orphans at each commercial farm.

"This means there is a significant increase in child-headed homes," explains Salatiel Mutengi, director of Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe. "In the villages, most grandmothers are desperately trying to raise thousands of children without food, income, medical drugs, or answers."

A third category of displaced people, the Trust suggests, includes those who were encouraged to invade farms during the early stages of the chaotic land reform programme but are now being evicted as new owners move in.

All of these new arrivals from the rural areas join the generation that moved into the streets around 1984. That generation consists of young adults, all men. Girls rarely remain street urchins beyond the age of 10. Nobody seems to care about their whereabouts as soon as their breasts begin to sprout.

But the street men, here for almost 20 years, have seen and heard it all: the late First Lady Sally Mugabe, who came up with a fund in 1988 that is no longer being mentioned; former Harare mayor Solomon Tawengwa, whose municipality donated land in 1996 and who promised them manna, housing, schools and a decent lifestyle. Nothing happened, but the numbers of street people kept on swelling.

As agile, streetwise, and enterprising but forgotten men, the street gangs have virtually occupied every parking lot, claiming to be in the business of guarding cars for a small "service fee." Their deportment and language are vulgar and openly uncouth. They spew all kinds of obscenities to innocent motorists, especially women, without any moral fear of, or respect for, the society around them.

The true story of the impact of hunger, HIV/AIDS, and social instability remains untold. Families and individuals have all been thrown from a curse of misery into a climate of fear, silence, and bewilderment because of the drought and the unending political crisis.

But debate in Zimbabwe has been clouded by a serious dearth of vision, covered by an obsession to destroy reason and force loyalty to ZANU-PF, according to Masipula Sithole, a University of Zimbabwe political scientist.

"No one cares anymore about the toddlers in the street," he says. "The sheer weight of the public responsibilities facing the government is so much that President Mugabe and his government alone no longer have the energy to lift a finger. Those who must show leadership and rekindle discussion watch helplessly as the government equates open debates to treason and regards critics as traitors."

Analysts say there is need for Zimbabwe to come up with an open forum to discuss the country's problems. But opposition parties say the national agenda is lost in a jungle as the people search for food. Coming up with a simplified version of the issues affecting this nation would be complex, they say.

"The real issue is that ZANU-PF must accept its failures," says Welshman Ncube, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change spokesperson. "It is now no longer necessary to continue blaming its failures on Britain and America."

The government accuses foreigners, especially the British, of being Zimbabwe's main enemies. It says foreigners use a willing coterie of traitors and avaricious puppets such as MDC to advance their own interests, which is the cause of Zimbabwe's economic woes that have devilled the country rather than bad governance and shoddy economic experiments.

The situation is so bad that sociologists predict that more and more young Zimbabweans are postponing marriages with the belief that the situation will improve. But there is no hope in sight. The country buries 4,000 people every week because of HIV/AIDS, and the number of unemployed is growing as educational institutions continue to churn out hundred thousands into the job market.

Coupled with this is the daily bullying and assaulting of people by youths who ZANU-PF trained under a dubious employment creation programme. The economic crisis is deepening and the government has ruled out devaluating the currency to attract foreign investment and solve the foreign currency problems that have prevailed for over two years.

An entire generation of parents face the risk of being wiped out by AIDS. Despite President Robert Mugabe's March election campaign promise, there are no anti-retroviral drugs in public hospitals.

The signs of starvation are all over the country. The list of queues is endless as everything that has to be consumed demands that one joins the queue. At the same time food prices, despite so-called price controls, continue to rise.

But there are no public forums in Zimbabwe at which these matters may be debated. There are also no open expressions of anger as the government has put in place legislation against that. What prevails is fear, even to whisper a dissenting tune.

With close to six million completely famished, the nation continues getting away with a notion and definition of the opposition as a foreign-inspired concept which deserves nothing but hate, not as a partner.

However, according to sociologist Rudo Gaidzanwa, family stability and the rescue of street children is only possible through economic prosperity. "That prosperity is a by-product of democracy," she says. "And, democracy comes from tolerance, which is an expression of love and morality. Sadly, that is missing in Zimbabwe."

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