(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Cyclone Idai disaster compounds problems for Zimbabwe

    Hours after Cyclone Idai battered the coast of Mozambique last week, it made its way to Zimbabwe, bringing a wave of destruction with it.

     

    More than 139 people have been reported dead in Zimbabwe, but that toll could rise amid reports of nearly 200 missing persons and uncounted bodies swept away by the floods. Some areas – as in Mozambique – remain inaccessible, making it difficult to establish the exact number of people in need.

     

    After a cabinet briefing on Tuesday, local government minister July Moyo told journalists that lessons from this and previous disasters must be learnt.

     

    “A few weeks before Cyclone Idai happened, we already knew the areas that were going to be affected, but we didn’t know the intensity,” Moyo said, adding that provincial and district leaders had been warned in writing, but most people did not heed the call to move.

     

    But locals, in turn, accused the government of failing to issue the necessary alerts that could have helped people prepare and move to higher ground.  

     

    Bishop Bakare from the United Mutare Residents and Ratepayers Trust told The New Humanitarian he believed the government could have made prior arrangements to evacuate people to a place of safety before the disaster struck.  

     

    Cyclones have hit Southern Africa before. Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all experienced floods in 2000 from Cyclone Eline.

     

    The Zimbabwe Red Cross Society said flooding caused by Cyclone Idai continues to cause massive destruction, with more heavy rains reported since the initial 15 March hit.

     

    “Crops and livestock have been destroyed, power supply and communication continue to be disrupted in affected areas,” the society said. “The hardest-hit areas remain inaccessible as heavy rains have damaged roads and main access bridges have been washed away.”

     

    There is also concern over the increased risk of malaria, cholera, and other diarrhoeal diseases.

     

    The cyclone has compounded an already dire situation in Zimbabwe and countries in the region, as the 2018/2019 farming season has already been marked by dry spells and drought.

     

    Counting the cost

     

    At the St. Charles Lwanga Secondary School in the southeastern district of Chimanimani, a boulder rolled into the dining hall and towards the dormitory, trapping 14-year-old Donnell Mashava and two of his classmates. Only Mashava made it out alive.

     

    “The school head and other teachers had to use a hammer to crash the rock into pieces in a bid to rescue the trapped kids,” said Mashava’s mother, Helen Benza. She said her son’s body, legs, eyes, and face were still swollen and bruised from the crush.

     

    Chimanimani is the Zimbabwean district worst hit by the cyclone, which also cut off the Mozambican city of Beira and brought intense flooding to parts of Malawi. Heavy rains and flash floods saw homes, livestock, and people swept away – bridges and roads destroyed.

     

    Read more: The response to Cyclone Idai

     

    According to the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society, more than 200 people have been injured, mainly in Chimanimani, while more than 900 homes have been destroyed and some 15,000 people are affected.

     

    In Chipinge district, Rutendo Mushimo’s entire compound was washed away by the cyclone, while bridges and roads were completely ruined.

     

    “Our school-going children used to use this road to school, but now the area is inaccessible,” said Mushimo. “Our clinics have been wiped out, leaving us with nowhere to seek healthcare.”

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    Sally Nyakanyanga/TNH (formerly IRIN)
    Cars destroyed by the cyclone.

    Women who used to bring their goods to be sold in the area have been left unable to get to market with no source of livelihood. “Many of us are now homeless and our source of income have been greatly affected,” Mushimo said.

    One Chipinge resident, Cephas Mushoni, said people were no longer safe there. “We are in desperate need of help,” Mushoni said. “The walls of our homes have fallen. There is nothing we can do as the fruits and vegetables we used to plant and sell were all swept away.” 

     

    Food crisis

     

    The World Food Programme says 90 percent of Chimanimani has been significantly damaged. It also estimates that 200,000 Zimbabweans are in need of urgent food assistance for the next three months.

     

    “This disaster compounds an already dire situation, as the hardest-hit areas were facing severe food insecurity and economic hardships prior to the cyclone,” Paolo Cernuschi, Zimbabwe country director at the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement.

     

    “Whatever crops that were being grown despite the drought have now been destroyed in the floods, and these districts will need the help of the international community now more than ever.”

     

    Zimbabwe’s agriculture minister Perence Shiri acknowledged it’s going to be a tough year for the country, but said in a statement that the government needs to prepare for such disasters and put measures in place to tackle the challenges posed by climate change.

     
     

    Read more: What the fuel protests means for Zimbabweans

     

    Southern Africa is facing El Niño conditions for the second time in three years. People in the region are still grappling with the impacts of a strong drought episode in 2015/16, which already weakened their capacity to produce food.

     

    The latest report from the Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) Network, a food security watchdog, highlights that most crops in Zimbabwe are water-stressed with some already completely written off because of the prolonged dryness this season and extremely high temperatures in arid areas in most parts of the country.

     

    An invasion of Fall Armyworm has worsened the situation, affecting crops – mainly maize – in all districts, and about 2.4 million Zimbabweans are said to be in need of food aid due to drought.

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    Cyclone Idai disaster compounds problems for Zimbabwe
  • Seed banks help Zimbabwe’s farmers tackle climate change

    “Seed security is food security” is something of a mantra in developing world agronomy circles. In Zimbabwe, the adage is gradually being put into action by promoting the use of indigenous small grains threatened with extinction by the dominance of maize, both in fields and on dinner tables.

    This dominance has left indigenous small seeds such as millet, cowpeas and sorghum as bit players in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, despite their greater resilience to weather shocks such as droughtwhich are occurring with increasing frequency and severity in Zimbabwe because of the effects of climate change.

    Such small seeds also tend to require fewer of the expensive inputs required by commercial hybrid maize.

    John Misi, the administrator of Mudzi District, in Mashonaland East Province, explained that getting farmers to use small grains “has been a challenge as maize is our staple food, and as such people are used to planting maize in this community.”

    For example, most of the land farmed by Jameson Sithole, a smallholder in a marginal and dry area of Chipinge, in Manicaland Province, is planted with maize. He sows just two of his 17 hectares with indigenous small grains.

    “Maize is a cash crop such that I am able to sell without challenges, helping me to send my 10 children to school and buy equipment for my farm,” he told IRIN. “With small grains it’s different. But l need to supplement my maize stocks when they run out and feed my family during drought.”

    One hurdle standing in the way of greater use of indigenous seeds is their relative lack of availability.  Whereas farmers tend to buy maize seeds from commercial suppliers, 95 percent of all other kinds of seed are obtained from their own crops or those of fellow farmers.

    Community spirit

    Seed banks can help to solve this problem.

    Community seed banks tend to work along the same lines as money banks: farmers take out loans of seeds, which in many cases are donated by the local community, and then repay the loan in kind with interest after they harvest their crops.

    Seed banks typically consist of small dark rooms protected from the heat of the sun and filled with shelves of pots and bottles containing a wide range of indigenous seeds, including, in the case of Zimbabwe, millet, cowpeas and local varieties of maize.

    According to an April 2017 paper on the evolution and role of seed banks in several countries around the world published by Development in Practice, such facilities help “enhance the resilience of farmers, in particular of communities and households most affected by climate change.”

    This is because they can “secure improved access to, and availability of, diverse, locally adapted crops and varieties, and enhance related indigenous knowledge and skills in plant management” – including seed selection and distribution.

    Jameson Patricia Muchenje, a smallholder farmer in the district of Rushinga, in Mashonaland Central Province, is a case in point.

    “In our community we are working towards keeping and protecting our small grains from disappearing through our community seed bank,” she told IRIN. “We have been working together, teaching each other on planting the right seeds and use the best farming techniques.”

    She added that she and other farmers in her neighbourhood were soon hoping to sell seeds from the seed bank “to enable us to get some income, which we can use to upgrade our seed bank infrastructure or start our income-generating projects such as market gardening or poultry projects."

    Marjorie Jeke, a farmer in Murehwa District, in the neighbouring province of Mashonaland East said: "In the event that there are floods and our crops don’t do well in the field, the seed bank becomes useful as I will go back to the seed bank and retrieve my seeds for free to replant.

    “I don’t have to struggle borrowing from neighbours, or to bother my children with money because the seed bank has made it easier for us to survive as farmers.”

    Safety net

    According to recent field research conducted by Oxfam in Zimbabwe, “access to the right seeds at the right time, and for the right price, is critical to being able to produce enough food to eat in the face of growing climate disruption.

    “Farmer seed systems and community seed banks provide an important safety net for cash-strapped, vulnerable people,” the Oxfam report said. “Supporting them is an adaptation opportunity that is currently being missed.”

    In September, the Community Technology Development Trust, an NGO based in Harare, opened a seed bank in Mudzi district. It was the fourth such facility it had set up, and several more are in the pipeline.

    They are needed because “farmers are slowly losing their valuable indigenous crop seeds due to the vigorous promotion and growing of hybrid crop varieties, which concentrate on a small number of varieties designed for intensive farming,” CTDT Director Andrew Mushita said at the opening.

    If Mushita has his way, seed banks, which he said cost around $20,000 each to set up, would be established in all of Zimbabwe’s rural districts.

    The value of seed banks is clear, but Zimbabwe’s agriculture sector – despite its importance to economic growth – suffers from under funding.

    Without sustained external support, there’s a risk that seed banks fall into disuse after the initial start-up financing runs out, the Development in Practice paper noted.

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    Seed banks help Zimbabwe’s farmers tackle climate change
    Part of a special project that explores the impact of climate change on the food security and livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe
  • Mind the gap: Why Zimbabwean researchers need to work with farmers

    Maize seed in drought-prone regions of Zimbabwe should by now come with a government health warning: “Planting can seriously damage your well-being”.

    That’s because although maize delivers like a champion under the right conditions, it’s highly vulnerable to water stress. If the rains come too late, or even too early, the crop is a write-off.

    Tariro Moyo knows this from bitter experience. A communal farmer in Gwanda, in southern Zimbabwe, she has continued to plant maize despite her yields decreasing with each bad season.

    “Last year, I watched all my maize crop wilting and dying due to drought,” she told IRIN. “I [had] used all my money to buy maize seed and fertiliser in anticipation of a good harvest.”

    Gwanda is in Matabeleland, a region hit by successive poor harvests linked to one of the strongest El Niño events on record. Deep rural poverty and a lack of access to financing means farmers here are forced to rely on rain-fed production and cannot afford irrigation systems.

    Climate change will mean still dryer conditions for Zimbabwe. Given that scenario, the challenge for the government and research bodies is how to develop and promote alternative crops that offer farmers some resilience.

    Resistance to change

    Drought-tolerant small grains such as finger millet, pearl, and sorghum were the traditional foods in Zimbabwe long before maize became the dominant crop across southern Africa more than a century ago.

    But reviving them means overcoming significant challenges. The reason maize won out is because it is much higher yielding, requires less labour, and its outer husk provides good protection from birds and other pests.

    A powerful agro-industry markets maize meal as the cornerstone of Zimbabwe’s food culture and family life. Millet and sorghum are available on supermarket shelves, but they represent much more of a niche market.

    “Very few people buy small grains as compared to maize,” said Moyo, explaining the major production downside: “The amount of time spent and labour needed to prepare these small grains is too much for me. Besides my husband, I have no one to help with farming work as all my children are away.”

    Kizito Mazvimavi, the executive director for the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, countered: “There is need for labour in any farming activity.”

    But even though his organisation promotes small grains, he acknowledged that the technology for processing them “is limited and not readily available in many rural areas” – an additional problem that makes uptake harder still.

    Moyo said she was not opposed to small grains if they made economic sense, especially given the lottery that maize production has become.

    “If they improve my livelihood and, with the necessary tools and equipment, can be the best for me, I cannot continue to put money into waste,” she concluded.

    Research to the rescue?

    This is the gap that researchers and the government need to fill, argues Shepherd Siziba, chair of the Agricultural Economics and Extension Department at the University of Zimbabwe.

    Not enough is being done to ensure the relevant research is being understood and acted upon by farmers in the field like Moyo, Siziba told IRIN.

    “Theses are being done at universities and literature on climate change generated, but what is missing is the intensive interaction between policy, research, and farmers,” he added.

    Noah Kutukwa of Oxfam Zimbabwe believes the government needs to play a more active role.

    “Farmers continue to grow maize where it’s not working,” he said. “Though the adoption of small grains has improved, uptake has been slow.”

    Even though small grains are seen as a critical component of adaptation to climate change, there is no effective support to champion production.

    One simple example: The government continues to distribute maize seed as a drought recovery measure in arid regions instead of more appropriate small grains.

    “There is a need for deliberate efforts through availing small grains seed, creation of markets for the crops, and providing appropriate technology to lessen the time spent and labour needed for the production of small grains,” said Kutukwa.

    The explainers

    The vital link in that chain between the research and production should be the government’s agriculture extension workers.

    They are supposed to provide farmers with information on best practice, including climate change adaptation techniques. But in the face of Zimbabwe’s decade-long economic crisis, they have been starved of funding.

    Ideally, there should be one extension worker for a maximum of 300 farmers, according to Donald Mbangani, an agribusiness specialist at the Agriculture and Extension Services Department. In reality, each officer has double that caseload – and no transport is provided.

    There are also few training and refresher courses available to equip the officers with the skills they need, let alone the necessary equipment, from laptops to motorbikes.

    If Zimbabwe seriously wants to build resilience to climate change, what is really needed is to “strengthen the research, extension [worker], and farmer linkage,” said Mbangani.

    This, he said, would mean that as new crop varieties and farming technologies are developed, there is collaboration at the research trial stage “with the farmer and agriculture extension workers involved.”

    The urgency of the reforms is underlined by the successive poor harvests Zimbabweans have endured. At the peak of the 2017 lean season, 4.1 million people were estimated to be food-insecure because of El Niño-induced drought.

    Zimbabwe’s food relief programmes are already underfunded, and now there are threats by President Donald Trump's administration to cut US aid to Zimbabwe, including programmes designed to reduce the effects of climate change.

    The country could be running out of time to get its crop strategy right.

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    TOP PHOTO: Finger millet is one of the neglected minor millets that thrive in harsh conditions CREDIT: Bioversity International\ Y. Wachira

    Mind the gap: Why Zimbabwean researchers need to work with farmers
    Part of a special project that explores the impact of climate change on the food security and livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe
  • After drought, Zimbabwe contends with fall armyworm invasion

    It was first detected in Africa barely a year ago, yet the fall armyworm, a type of caterpillar whose name derives from its tendency to maraud in vast numbers, has already infested hundreds of thousands of hectares of maize across more than a dozen countries on the continent, presenting a serious threat to food security.

    Spodoptera frugiperda is a formidable foe. Pesticides only work when the larvae are very small and before they have begun to cause visible damage to the crop. After that, there are no quick fixes.

    The pest can cause crop losses of more than 70 percent.

    In Zimbabwe, El Niño-induced droughts left four million people needing food aid during the 2015/2016 agricultural season. This year, good rains had raised hopes of a decent harvest, but now the fall armyworm is dashing them for many farmers.

    Vavariro Mashamba, 51, hoped to harvest 10 tonnes of maize from each of the 20 hectares he planted in his farm in the Karoi district, in north-central Zimbabwe. But when he started to see ragged holes on the foliage of his crop and sawdust-like frass near the whorl and upper leaves of the plants, he knew he was in trouble. His best hope now is a yield of six or seven tonnes per hectare.

    “At first I thought it was the African armyworm (Spodoptera exempta) that was damaging my crops. I bought Carbaryl pesticide and sprayed on the plants. There was no change. Instead, the worms continued to multiply in my field,” Mashamba told IRIN.

    Experts from the Ministry of Agriculture visited his farm, but by then it was too late to eradicate the fall armyworm (The “fall” part of the name comes from the caterpillar’s feeding habits: In its native Americas, it does most damage in late summer and early autumn – or “fall” in US English. See here for more details).

    Mashamba experimented with different pesticides, but to no avail.

    Widespread problem

    According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which held an emergency meeting on the pest in Harare in February, up to 130,000 hectares of maize and corn could already be infested by fall armyworm in Zimbabwe, 90,000 in Zambia, and 50,000 in Namibia. It was first detected in Africa in Nigeria in January 2016 and its presence has also been confirmed in Botswana, Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland, Togo, and Uganda.

    Shingirayi Nyamutukwa, acting head of plant protection at the government’s Department of Research and Specialist Services, said all of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces had reported being affected by the caterpillar but it was difficult to ascertain the extent of the damage to yields now as crops were at varying stages of growth.

    “We started receiving reports that there was a pest causing damage on crops in October last year in Matabeleland North,” said Nyamutukwa, warning that most of the country’s 1.3 million hectares of land under maize cultivation was potentially at risk.

    Zimbabwe Farmers Union Director Paul Zacariya said the country was ill-prepared for the arrival of fall armyworm.

    “No information or warnings were given to notify farmers of the pest. As such, many farmers could not identify the pest and lacked the knowledge and requisite skills on how to contain the damages caused,” he told IRIN.

    Food security threatened

    Noting its stubborn resistance to available control methods, FAO Sub-regional Coordinator for Southern Africa David Phiri said he was worried “the pest could be here to stay”.

    “The costs and implication of such a scenario are very serious indeed, as seen in places where the pest is endemic, like in Brazil where the government incurs control costs in excess of $600 million per annum,” he warned. “The implications for livelihoods and food security are also too serious to contemplate, and assessments have to be done to ascertain the damage caused."

    At the emergency meeting, the FAO advocated a countrywide response as part of a regional programme of integrated management of fall armyworm.

    “Already, we are working in collaboration with other partners. We are ready to assist countries with the necessary assessment activities aimed at improving understanding on the extent and intensity of the fall armyworm threat to the region,” said Phiri.

    Zimbabwean plant scientists teach agricultural extension workers about the fall armyworm

    Zimbabwean plant scientists teach agricultural extension workers about the fall armyworm
    Sally Nyakanyanga/IRIN
    Researchers train agricultural extension workers about the pest

    But he warned that it could take several years to develop effective methods to control the pest.

    “Planting quick-maturing crop varieties and early planting may lessen infestation and damage caused by the fall armyworms,” he said. “And no single method or product has been found to completely eradicate the fall armyworm.”

    Additional measures proposed at the meeting included the deployment of other insects such as lacewing, ladybirds, minute pirate bugs, parasitic wasps, and flies – all of which feed on armyworm eggs.

    Prompt action

    Nyamutukwa said farmers should treat their crops before armyworm larvae burrow deep into the whorl or enter ears of more mature plants.

    If applied early enough, insecticide applications by ground rig using at least 30 gallons per acre (340 litres per hectare) and high pressure are believed to give the best results.

    “It is also advisable to apply pesticides early or late in the day, because fall armyworm larvae are most active at these times,” said Nyamutukwa, adding that ministry experts who directly advise farmers, known as extension workers, were now better placed to respond to the infestation.

    “So far, 479 [extension] officers and task force teams have been trained in all 10 provinces in the country and procured chemicals, which were distributed for free in all provinces for the management of the fall armyworm,” he said.

    In addition, the Zimbabwean government is preparing for the winter wheat season by putting in place community-based armyworm forecasting systems and intends to put plant clinics in rural communities.

    "If farmers do not control the pest and it attacks the cobs and developing grain, then farmers lose by a percentage yet to be determined because crops are still in the field. Fall armyworm infestation impacts negatively on yield, [so] a reduction in yield is a threat to food security and nutrition," he explained.

    Zacariya, the director of the farmers’ union, noted how critical food security is to Zimbabwe’s rural development and the need for assistance given the armyworm invasion.

    “The fall armyworm has the effect of drastically reducing the yields of rural farmers,” he said. “As such, the gap created will need to be covered through local safety nets or government and food aid agencies will have to step in with food aid programmes to avert any shortages that may rise."

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    Zimbabwe losing battle against armyworm
    Part of a special project that explores the impact of climate change on the food security and livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe
  • Pregnant and homeless: South Sudan's women refugees

    Josephine Maziku arrived at Uganda’s Nyumanzi Transit Centre in June this year six months pregnant and with only the dress she was wearing.

    “I wish I had managed to carry clothes. At least I would use those to cover my child,” said the 18-year-old.

    Like many other expectant mothers who fled South Sudan’s violence, she had little time to think of anything but escape. When she got to the border, she was brought to this overcrowded settlement in Uganda’s northern Adjumani district.

    According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, 1,700 South Sudanese arrive in Uganda each day. The country currently hosts approximately 315,000 refugees and asylum seekers from its troubled neighbour. 

    Nyumanzi is one of four transit centres set up to cope with the flow. The wait is meant to be for just a few weeks before the refugees are relocated to permanent settlements in Adjumani.

    But some have stayed for as long as three months. As a result, a centre designed to hold 2,000 people can have a population of several times that.

    Survival is basic: a daily ration of posho – maize meal porridge – and beans, inadequate pit latrines, and not enough water. Diseases such as cholera and malaria are commonly reported.

    “For expectant mothers, the situation is critical,” said William Drani, coordinator for the Nyumanzi Health Centre.

    At transit camps, maternal mortality increases “dramatically” as a result of “poor nutrition (expectant mothers are given the same ration of posho and beans), walking long distances to the health centre, poor health infrastructure and lack of family [support],” he told IRIN.

    Albert Alumgbi, assistant settlement commander in the office of the prime minister, and stationed at Nyumanzi, said the centre’s sole clinic is only a referral facility, and also caters to the local population.

    “This is an emergency situation,” Alumgbi told IRIN. “Sometimes there are no medical personnel at the clinic to assist them, especially during the evening.”

    The centre serves more than 180 patients per day, and since June that has included a total of 380 expectant mothers.

    Prisca Mindraa, from Pagan in South Sudan, is six months pregnant with her seventh child. She has only been to the health centre once since she arrived three months ago.

    “I have to wake up early in the morning and walk a long distance [and queue] in order to arrive at the health centre on time before they close at midday,” she explained.

    Pregnant and labouring

    Expectant mothers are advised to visit at least three times during their pregnancy. But aside from the more-than-two-kilometre walk to the centre and the long queues, they also have to contend with gender norms, which leaves all domestic chores to women.

    “I have to fetch water and queue for food for the family even when my husband is there,” said Limio Nite, who is expecting her third child.

    Vicky Amondi, a midwife at the health centre, acknowledges that development partners provide “dignity packs” to mothers after delivery, including soap, underwear, and a bucket.

    But she says what’s also needed is special food for pregnant mothers, and clothes for the babies once they deliver.

    “Organisations that support refugees should provide special food packs for pregnant women at the camps, and assist with clothes for the newborn babies, as the dignity pack only has a shawl to cover the baby,” she said.

    To earn some money, women – even if they are pregnant – weed the fields of Ugandan farmers, or collect firewood to sell in the camp for 15 US cents a bundle.

    “We spend the whole day working in the fields for [30 – 60 cents] for the whole day with no food,” said Abio Kevin.

    But she has a hidden stash of wealth, in the form of a duck she managed to bring from her hometown of Nimule, close to the Ugandan border.

    “I’m hoping to sell the duck for [$4.50] in order to raise money to buy clothes for my unborn child,” she told IRIN.

    What money she’s earning at the moment she uses to buy more nutritious food, and to vary the monotony of posho and beans.

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    TOP PHOTO: Refugee women in Nyumanzi Transit Centre, by Sally Nyakanyanga

    Sally Nyakanyanga is a 2016 fellow with the International Media Foundation Africa Great Lakes Region Reporting Initiative

    Pregnant and homeless: South Sudan's women refugees
  • Zimbabwe’s season of discontent

    The focus of Zimbabwe’s growing civil disobedience campaign shifted to a court building in Harare on Wednesday, where pastor Evans Mawarire, a leader of the protest movement, was appearing on the charge of subversion.

    Mawarire, who heads the reformist #ThisFlag campaign, was arrested on Tuesday ahead of “stay at home” protests planned for today and Thursday.

    But in a dramatic move late on Wednesday, magistrate Vakayi Chikwekwe freed Mawarire, ruling that his rights had been violated. He had orginally been charged with inciting violence, but before his court appearance it was was changed by prosecutors to the more serious charge of attempting to overthrow a constitutionally elected government. 

    Mawarire’s lawyer argued that the change was unconstitutional and Chikwekwe agreed.

    Interior Minister Ignatius Chombo had said in a statement on Tuesday: "Let me warn the instigators behind the intended protests that they will face the full wrath of the law."

    That hard line approach appeared to have had the desired effect. It was business as usual in Harare on Wednesday, aside from a large crowd of Mawarire supporters gathered outside the magistrate’s court where he was due to appear.

    However, academic and political commentator Ibbo Mandaza predicted that Mawarire’s arrest will “worsen the situation” and was a “terrible shame”.

    The disobedience campaign, organised through a vibrant social media, is protesting government corruption and economic mismanagement. It is the most serious challenge the ruling party, led by President Robert Mugabe, has faced in a decade.

    Last week a one-day stay away led to a complete shutdown of schools, businesses and shops across the country. Opposition MP Thokozani Khupe has called for women to take to the streets of the second city of Bulawayo in a #BeatThePot campaign on Saturday to protest deteriorating standards of living.

    Taking on the police

    More than 300 people have been arrested across the country since the beginning of the month, according to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. Demonstrators have been beaten by police, mauled by police dogs, and some have been refused medical attention while in detention, the NGO said.

    The unrest began in the border town of Beitbridge, with residents protesting the banning of imports from South Africa on which the economy of the bustling trading centre depends.

    Tonderai Mashavakure has for the past 10 years made a living from buying goods from South Africa for resale in Zimbabwe. “Through thick and thin my kids have been able to go to school and have food on the table,” he told IRIN.

    The import ban, imposed by the government to conserve scarce foreign exchange, threatens to put him out of business. “This shows a government that is distanced from the realities of its citizens,” said Mashavakure.

    Daily hardships extend to the bribes demanded by the police. On 4 July, bus operators took to the streets to protest the proliferation of roadblocks, some merely an excuse for extortion.

    “Every day we pay more than US$30 as spot fines to the police, and we are expected by our employers to produce $80 to $100 at the end of the day,” said bus driver Alois Cheza.  “The roadblocks are too many and a breeding ground for corruption.”

    Last week’s protests were triggered by the news that civil servants were to receive their June salaries only in the middle of July.

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    Protesters gather outside magistrate's court
    Sally Nyakanyanga/IRIN
    Pastor Evans Mawarire's supporters gather outside court

    “I have rentals to pay and [I need to] service my loan at the bank,” said one public service worker who asked not to be named.

    Cash shortage

    For months now there has been a crippling cash shortage, an indication of the economy’s deep distress. A daily withdrawal limit of $50 has been imposed by most banks, and long queues form outside ATM machines each day, snaking around bank buildings.

    Zimbabwe runs a hand-to-mouth budget, with 82 percent of its revenue spent on wages and salaries leaving little or nothing for developmental projects. It was this balance of payments crisis that forced the government to try and delay paying public sector wages.

    "Clearly there is an intersection of national grievances across the board, economic and political,” said Mandaza. “We are in a new phase of politics.”

    According to official figures, small and medium enterprises and the informal sector contribute about 60 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. More than 80 percent of workers are employed in the informal sector.

    The formal job market is not only small but shrinking. According to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, 226 companies shut down during the first half of the year. Hwange Colliery and the National Railways of Zimbabwe are the latest major companies to announce the shedding of jobs.

    Nearly half of foreign inflows – around $1 billion – comes from remittances. Most of that is generated by Zimbabweans working in South Africa. The downturn in South Africa’s economy has affected not only household incomes, but the foreign currency available in Zimbabwe’s dollarised economy. The country has not had its own currency since the hyperinflation days of 2009.

    The government blames its economic woes on western “sanctions”, and the current protest movement on its enemies who are bent on regime change. But it is also trying to arrange a loan from western donors to cover its arears to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Paying off the debt would make it eligible for fresh lending, after years of isolation.

    Desperate

    Economist Luxson Zembe said the mass action, despite the government’s known intolerance for protest, is an indication of public anger and desperation.

    “People are saying something drastic has to be done to correct the situation. [It's] a clear statement from the general public that they need solutions from the leadership,” said Zembe. 

    There has been as much insult as injury. Mugabe recently admitted that over the past eight years, revenue worth $13 billion from the Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe had gone missing. As the diamond region is under the control of the army, it is unlikely that heads will roll.

    Last week demonstrators broke into the hotel of Vice-President Phelekezela Mpoko to protest his stay there for more than a year at taxpayer’s expense.

    The government is hoping that a deal on its arrears will provide the money that could allow it to limp on. But demonstrators see the government itself as bankrupt and are demanding far more radical change, after 36 years of rule by Mugabe.

    sn/oa/ks

    Lead photo: Protest in Beitbridge, Sally Nyakanyanga/IRIN

    Zimbabwe’s season of discontent
    More protest action called
  • One more sign of Zimbabwe’s decline

    The advert in the jobs section of a Zimbabwean newspaper read: “Vacancies in the Middle East. For those interested please contact …”

    When Soria Hove*, 34, spotted the ad earlier this year she immediately called the number provided and was told to visit the agency’s office and bring along her qualifications.

    A few days later, anxious but hopeful, she walked into a well-appointed office with neatly-dressed, professional staff. The job on offer was as a maid in Kuwait. The salary would be US$750 with $150 deducted each month as reimbursement for her air ticket.

    Hove was over the moon. The average wage in Zimbabwe is $253 a month—and that's for just five percent of the population who actually have a formal job.

    “It was an opportunity of a lifetime,” she told IRIN. “Finally I could earn an income for the first time and support my family.”

    If it seemed almost too good to be true, that’s because it was. Hove wasn’t getting a real job, instead she was about to be trafficked and exploited.

    Not what it seemed

    The realisation that something was wrong began to dawn on Hove at the airport in Kuwait. She and several other African women were told to line up in a separate queue, and were then marched single file by a police officer, who had confiscated their passports, through the airport to a basement room.

    The policeman then handed over their passports to officials sitting behind computers, and in return received a payment.

    “The officials harassed us and held us hostage for more than 10 hours in the basement waiting for the [employment] agents,” said Hove.

    Her “agent” finally arrived, and took Hove and three other women to her home. A day later, a couple came to the house and again money changed hands and Hove went to work for them, ostensibly as a maid.

    Abuse

    But what followed was months of abuse. The hours were extremely long, sometimes she was not fed, surviving only on tea, and she was also raped repeatedly.

    “The males in the home would take turns to sleep with me,” she told IRIN.

    On one occasion, the head of the household approached Hove while she was ironing and started to fondle her. When his wife suddenly appeared, he accused Hove of making advances on him. They took turns beating her up.

    Hove finally managed to escape when she found a phone SIM card while she was cleaning. She hid it, but didn’t touch it for five days for fear of being accused of theft. She’d been told punishment was the cutting off of a hand.

    When she finally plucked up the courage, she discovered the phone could not make calls – but she could access the internet and the instant messaging service, WhatsApp. She searched for human trafficking organisations that could help, and eventually located one in Kuwait. They got her out of the house.

    Trafficking ring

    It was only then that Hove discovered her story was far from unique. She joined 32 other Zimbabwean women who had also been trafficked, and were being sheltered by the Zimbabwean embassy while they awaited repatriation.

    Shuvai Badza* was yet another victim of the scam. She remembered how excited she felt at Harare airport waving goodbye. “I knew this journey meant positive change for me my family,” Badza told IRIN.

    In Kuwait she and other African women were handed over to an agent named Lailla. As they left the airport she asked Laila if she was dressed well enough for the hotel job she thought she had been recruited for.

    “Is that what they lied to you about?” Laila replied. “You are going to work as a slave.” Badza remembers going numb with shock.

    She worked for a couple for 40 days, surviving on tea and the chocolates she managed to steal. “I was told to bathe six times a day as they said Zimbabweans smell,” she said.

    Fortunately, she had hidden her cell phone, on the advice of one of the women she had met at the agent’s house, and like Hove used it to finally escape.

    Economic woes

    Zimbabwe has one of the best-educated workforces in Africa. But its economy is crippled. A severe cash crisis this year has led to a raft of retrenchments. Public sector pay was delayed in June, triggering protests, and this week strike action has spread.

    Activists have been using the hashtag #ShutDownZimbabwe2016.

    Zimbabwe is an agro-based economy but drought has slashed production. An estimated 4.5 million people – half of the rural population – will need food aid by March next year.

    According to the International Labour Organisation, forced labour is a global business worth $150 billion a year.

    Trafficked women see none of that money. The definition of their exploitation involves deception and coercion, with power wielded over vulnerable and desperate women like Hove and Badza.

    In May, as many as 200 Zimbabwean women were believed to be stranded in Kuwait. According to press reports, local recruiters were earning $500 for each woman they signed up, and the agents then sold them on to Gulf families for $2,500.

    Kuwait is a known trafficking hub. According to the US State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, “Kuwait does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making sufficient efforts to do so.”

    Kuwait’s sponsorship law, which ties a migrant worker to an employer, restricts workers’ movements – and is a license for exploitation. Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to forced labour inside private homes, and there are regular, grim, media reports of the rape, murder and torture of maids.

    An outpouring of civic action in Zimbabwe has raised money to help with the repatriation of the stranded women. A petition was also launched by the Standard newspaper, condemning “sex slavery” and calling on Kuwait to “set free human trafficked Zimbabwean women & punish perpetrators”.

    A former Kuwaiti ambassador to Zimbabwe, Ahmed Al-Jeeran, has been charged for allegedly being the mastermind of the trafficking ring, and embassy staff have been arrested.

    But while the Zimbabwe operation may have been shut down, Kuwait remains a lure for other poor and susceptible women.

    sn/oa/ks

    * Not their real names

    Lead photo: Maid working in the Middle East, credit MOPAW Foundation

    One more sign of Zimbabwe’s decline
    Women desperate for work trafficked to Kuwait

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