Sandra Gourdet Visits Partners in Zimbabwe
The Africa Area Executive visited Zimbabwe from November 28 – December 1st. She participated in the installation of the Rev Edward Matuvhunye, President of the United Church of Christ, that was held at the Mbare UCCZ church in Harare on November 30th. She traveled to Bulawayo on December 1 to visit the leadership of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. This official visit was not simply to participate in the installation but also a critical presence visit with partners at a time when Zimbabwe is an outcast of the international community and the people face untold suffering.
I visited Zimbabwe from November 28 – December 1st. I participated in the installation of the Rev Edward Matuvhunye, President of the United Church of Christ, that was held at the Mbare UCCZ church in Harare on November 30th. I traveled to Bulawayo on December 1 to visit the leadership of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. This official visit was not simply to participate in the installation but also a critical presence visit with partners at a time when Zimbabwe is an outcast of the international community and the people face untold suffering.
It is very difficult to put into words the myriad experiences and changes that had taken place in a very short period of time. Having lived in Zimbabwe from 1995 – 2003 and traveling there in 2005, 2006 and 2007 the deterioration, the desperation, the fatigue and the attempt to maintain sanity and an unbroken spirit were visibly expressed on the faces of the many people that were encountered.
The flight from Johannesburg to Harare flew at less than normal passenger capacity, and yet, more than thirty of us had to wait until the following day to receive luggage due to the excess cargo load in order to get supplies into Zimbabwe. The late evening drive from the airport to the home of the President was also very revealing. Although there were still good roads, they had not been maintained for quite some time resulting in a very bumpy ride home. Many of the traffic lights were not working at some of the major intersections. We were to see the result of this the following day when we came upon several accidents.
The super inflation was perhaps the most astounding feature of life in Zimbabwe today. Billion dollar notes had been previously used in the country. Today the largest note in circulation is one million Zimbabwe dollars. ZW$2.5 million dollars were needed to purchase a loaf of bread, whereas the average monthly salary of a teacher is only enough to purchase two loaves of bread. Bus fare to work in town, while I was in the country, went from ZW$500,000 to ZW$1 million per single ride. Long lines at banks with average wait time of four to five hours, were an everyday occurrence with a daily limit of ZW$500,000 on withdrawals – not enough to pay bus fare to return home. It was learned that the use of foreign currency such as South African rands and U.S dollars, in street language known as “forex”, has become the acceptable means of shopping and transacting business. Shelves in shops in Harare were filled with commodities where prices on some items were labeled in forex and minimal items available in local currency. This contrasted sharply with Bulawayo where the shelves in large supermarkets were totally bare. People were reduced to waiting many hours in long lines simply to get inside the few smaller shops that sold basic commodities in foreign currency.
Schools had closed for the Christmas break with only those students writing end of year exit exams attending. Since teachers in government schools had been on strike the entire school year, students and parents expressed anxiety as to the effectiveness of the exams. Church schools were also affected as teachers are paid by the government. Schools operating with any normalcy were the elite private schools that accepted only foreign currency. One young man expressed his bitterness at having worked hard at university only to find that as he was prepared to enter his final year, the university was closed.
Large government clinics and hospitals had closed for lack of medication and equipment. Private clinics were still available for those able to pay the required money for treatments. Our hospitals at Mt Selinda and Chikore – both the lifeline of the rural communities where they are situated – have been greatly affected. The efforts to keep them open are noble. Chikore has functioned more as a community health center for a number of years under the direction of a senior nurse. It was learned that the staff had gradually left as it became increasing more difficult to survive under the existing conditions with only the senior nurse remaining. To the disappointment of many, it was sadly learned that she had given her resignation the day before my arrival in the country.
The cholera outbreak is no exaggeration. Hundreds have died in Harare from the disease as it spreads across the country. Most of the victims in Harare were from communities where there is an extreme lack of water, let alone clean water. There are no chemicals available in the country to purify the water and the sewers are backed up. Where water is available in the city, the citizens are no longer drinking it for fear of contamination. People walk or drive long distances to obtain water from neighbors willing to share water from their private wells and boreholes. Even more troubling is the discovery that the Limpopo River near the South African border is contaminated. As cholera spreads, there is great fear that borders to neighboring countries will be closed. This will be catastrophic for Zimbabweans who rely on obtaining food and supplies from these countries.
One of the most damning images is that of the military presence in the streets. In Harare as anger mounts, one observes police and military with large weapons using force to disperse small groups gathered along the streets. Money changers are constantly on the move to avoid the police. As the potential for mass rioting increases, the military and police become more aggressive. Effectively, while leaving the country, news came that police were trying to get riots under control in Harare.
With such a bleak picture painted, where were the signs of hope? In the city of Bulawayo, the Bongani Child Care program for orphans and vulnerable children, under the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, was still functioning, despite many difficulties. Many of the original volunteers were as committed as when the program stared in 1999. More than 200 volunteers are working throughout Matabeleland with 13,000 children who have lost one or both parents. Gardening projects help to provide food for the children and those from the community that attend Bongani’s day care. A local clothing store donates remnants that are sewed to make clothes for the children. Clothing with slight defects are also donated and used by the children or sold to generate income. Another store contributes generously to food drives. At one Bongani center, children are taught the skill of candle making and candles sold in the communities.
The hospital at Mt Selinda continues to function because of the dedication of one doctor and a few staff members. The few committed teachers and workers at church schools at Mt Selinda and Chikore work long hours preparing the students in terminal classes to prepare for the exams.
The faith that change will come is expressed by many. It is this faith, although beyond comprehension, that continues to sustain a people under fire. The courage to survive will not allow their spirit to be broken.
Please continue to pray for the brave people of Zimbabwe.
Sandra Gourdet – Global MinistriesAfrica Area Executive
P.S. A new 100 million Zimbabwe dollar note went into circulation December 4, 2008, which is worth about US$14 and can purchase 50 loaves of bread. According to South African news media, the Zimbabwean government requested international assistance on December 4th after declaring a national emergency over a cholera epidemic and collapse of its healthcare system.