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Poverty and neglect in informal settlements

[Zimbabwe] Kids playing in Porta Farm
Ten people died after police fired tear gas into homes (Obinna Anyadike/IRIN)

Porta Farm, a 30-minute drive from the Harare city centre, is home to among some of Zimbabwe's poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

It was meant to have been a temporary settlement, to accommodate the homeless cleared out of the capital by the image-conscious authorities when Queen Elizabeth II visited Harare to open the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government Meeting in 1991.

Twelve-years later, the 6,000 residents remain officially unrecognised as a community, compounding the squalor and their despair.

Porta Farm is still designated a "temporary holding camp", and retains an air of impermanence. Narrow, dirt lanes run between homes made from mud brick and plastic sheeting. The population is served by three NGO-run pre-schools, and a log-built primary and secondary school. There are no health facilities and there's no electricity.

What money there is in the community comes mainly from illegal fishing in a nearby reservoir and the sale of firewood. Some of the residents used to find occasional work on the commercial farms in the area. But those opportunities have dwindled with land redistribution, where a new class of resettled farmers are themselves struggling to make a success of their plots.

Former farm workers who have lost their jobs through land reform are the latest additions to Porta Farm's growing population. Many of them, as with the original residents, do not have identification documents or proof of Zimbabwean citizenship, compounding their marginalisation.

According to an assessment survey of Harare's unofficial settlements conducted last year, the Porta Farm community ranked its concerns in order of priority as: "hunger/shortages of food; health/HIV/AIDS; water and sanitation, and housing".

"In Porta Farm hunger is the problem," Felistas Chinuku, a community leader, told PlusNews. "Food is expensive and you can't find it. Hunger can kill you even with money in your pocket."

Roadside stalls run by traders from Harare sell tiny amounts of basic commodities at prices far higher than charged on the capital's black market. Because it is an informal settlement, there are no licensed shops selling price-controlled goods. There are also no deliveries of Grain Marketing Board maize.

The Porta Farm survey, conducted by a team of development consultants, noted: "The biggest threat to livelihoods is currently hunger, a direct result of drought-related nationwide food shortages and poverty. Many families do not have plots to till and hence rely on food purchases on the market."

A local NGO, Inter-Country People's AID (ICPA), was helping with a supplementary feeding programme for children aged under nine, comprising one meal a day of sadza (maize meal) and dried fish. For children aged under five attending pre-school, ICPA provided a highly nutritious corn soya blend drink known as "mahewu".

A funding shortfall recently ended the initiative, but the World Food Programme is expected to step in with assistance to revive the project. However, the impact of the break in the scheme has been immediate, with "children collapsing in class and some not coming to the crèches", community chairman Matthew Chadambuka told PlusNews.

Education is not necessarily a path out of poverty. The government provides teachers to the primary and secondary school, but standards are low as is attendance. In the primary school the pupil teacher ratio is 1:60, and there are shortages of books and equipment, the survey found.

"Because of poverty, some kids are given away by their parents for lobola [bride price]. Some of the kids don't want to go to school and indulge in sex at any chance they get, especially those from child-headed households," one aid worker explained.

"Early marriages or non-formalised unions between youths aged 11-16 are common, while child sex work and rape of children are all prevalent in the settlements. Many of these children enter into these unions or become involved in child sex work with the knowledge and acceptance of their parents, who, in the latter case, often benefit financially themselves," the survey noted.

Humanitarian official believe that the HIV/AIDS rate is extremely high. Those living with HIV/AIDS do receive counselling and extra food rations from NGOs working in Porta Farm, but that has not always led to behaviour change.

"Sex is like entertainment, and although people know about condoms, they don't always worry about protected sex," an aid worker noted.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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