Walking on the once beautiful streets of Zimbabwean residential areas, it has become a norm to be welcomed by a stench of garbage thrown all overopen spaces and blocked sewage pipes that splutter onto walkways. For many, nostalgia catches on as the stench becomes stronger and those in Harare think of the days when their city was the ‘Sun City.’ It’s easy to remember the children chasing garbage trucks down the road as they played ball on the streets, the weekly routine of putting trash cans on the road side for the garbage men. All this has become a once was that is greatly missed in the midst of disease, poverty and collapsing services. By its nature this situation creates a lot of despair, hopelessness and a great lack of social responsibility in residents, but not for the women of Mbare;a high density area of Harare;who have been referred to as the phenomenal women of Zimbabwe.These women have taken it upon themselves to keep the streets of Mbare clean.
The journey to this phenomenal comportment began in 2009 June when Envision Women’s Trust launched a ‘How To’ Dialogue Series in Mbare. It brought women from diverse political backgrounds to address common issues such as access to clean water and reliable water supply, timely garbage collection and efficient sewer systems. This was a challenging task considering that the political polarization that had brought about divisions had separated communities, including Mbare, have destroyed the social fabric that bound societies together as a one big family system. During the 2008 elections the political situation in Zimbabwe reached a crisis situation which was characterized by arson attacks, rape, assault, displacements and murder. This happened in close knit communities where the unimaginable calamity caused neighbor to turn against neighbor, brother against brother, mother against son.
The aim of this dialogue by Envision is to bring people together to resolve conflicts and rebuild their communities together to resolve their problems together. This was done by bringing thirty women of different socio-political affiliations to have frank discussions about what they can do to address the water and waste challenges. In the first meeting the women identified some of the causes of lack of clean water such as burst pipes, low water pressure; poor sewer systems and poor waste management. In the very extreme cases people are using the bush system to release themselves due to the poor sanitation facilities posing a threat to health. The city council was failing to cope with its duties due to lack of a sufficient financial budget. Having outlined these challenges the women were asked to brainstorm for possible solutions which they could take up in order to address them.
Mrs Modesta Kanonyerera, one of the women from Mbare, said “You know there is a lot we can do as women to help our communities help themselves to have access to clean water and functional water systems. For example we can reduce blockagesin water pipes by teaching our neighbors not to rinse pots washed with sand and left over food in sinks; to tell our children to stop throwing objects in toilets”
The ideas were different touching on different challenges they were facing. Francisca Mabiro one of the old women in the community suggested that rubbish can be thrown in designated areas; better water conservation practices be created and most importantly that the battle to get city council doing their job again should start immediately. At that moment the key things that council needed to do was fix water pipes, unblocked blocked sewer systems and collect rubbish at more regular times. Already this neglect by council had lost the community many precious lives to cholera, a deadly water borne disease.
Once these many bright ideas had been put on the table; the women realized that putting them into practice was going to be the most difficult task. A lot of commitment would be needed to see this to fruition. Most of this difficulty is that a culture had developed where individuals no longer valued social responsibility and saw it as their right to throw litter everywhere if council did not collect it. As they tried to inculcate these values in their community as a starting point of strength, they were met with much resistance. Most residents felt that it was too much work to change the habits they had acquired over time. It was even harder to engage with council which at first ignored complaints and requests for quick service delivery of pressing issues like blocked water pipes and sewers. Change always brings fear and uncertainties in societies, especially for those in position of authority, of what the new slate may mean for their lives. Despite the resistance they faced the women persevered and marched forward with the few voices that were behind them.
The women came to a greater realization that they had to be fully committed to this work themselves. Through Envision’s networking systems they were able to get information from a civil engineer on waste management. They were sensitized on how waste can be a source income when it is recycled and a source of organic manure when it is used to make composts and increased a families’ subsistence instead. It is easy to do this when waste that can be recycled is separated from that which cannot. With this knowledge their first action was to get bins and start the process of separating the waste.
An observer of the two days these women launched the Cleanup campaign on 19th and 20thJanuary, 2010, Chipo, commented,
“ I was in awe of these women who equipped with donated protective gear, gumboots, gloves, face masks, enthusiastically threw themselves into the gutters that were knee high in human waste, sewage and multitudes of rubbish and started to clear it out manually. The stench was gut renching, I was even gagging because it smelt so bad and yet these women, some of them old enough to be my grandmother, worked relentlessly for 4 hours!”
Mbuya Mambiro, who is an elderly member of the committee that is devising more projects the women can take on in Mbare passionately expressed that, “We needed to show ourselves and our neighbors that we have the power to do so much to cleanup our neighbourhoods, create healthy clean places for our children to play in, restore the dignity of our living spaces. Once we piled up the rubbish in specified locations, we did get City Council to come and collect it. Now, with the help of 2 engineers, our sons, who were born in Mbare, even though they now live elsewhere, they are coming home to us to help us continue to solve our water and sewage problems. We are also looking at how we can establish income generating projects by turning our waste into gold.”“ I was in awe of these women who equipped with donated protective gear, gumboots, gloves, face masks, enthusiastically threw themselves into the gutters that were knee high in human waste, sewage and multitudes of rubbish and started to clear it out manually. The stench was gut wrenching, I was even gagging because it smelt so bad and yet these women, some of them old enough to be my grandmother, worked relentlessly for 4 hours!”
This intervention helped the people who affected most when services are not delivered. Women use water most in their cooking, washing, cleaning their families, when there is no water they have to walk long distances to get the water normally from unprotected sources. In the process of lobbying council for service provision they became empowered people who in the future know how to approach the authority whenever they have social needs that need attention. More importantly they came to know that as residents they have to act responsibly and not wait for the government always in order to make sure that clean areas remain clean and children play in a harmless environment. After the cleanup no one throws litter everywhere especially because it changed the mindsets of residents and now they police each other.
Another outcome is that the women of Mbare have decided to take the campaign to other communities that have been similarly affected. Every residential area in Harare and Zimbabwe has been affected by the deteriorating service delivery by council. The women vowed to go to Chitungwiza and other informal settlements like Hopely Farm and Epworth. These areas have also experienced extreme political violence. Through such an exercise, previous political enemies can become friends whilst addressing universal challenges and thus rebuild their communities.
The Mbare women are a real inspiration to many communities in Zimbabwe that have failed to take social responsibility for the betterment of the country. A range of challenges still affect Zimbabweans and their root is in the social and political situation that is currently prevailing. For a long time Zimbabweans have waited upon their policymakers to deliver in vain; but these women stand as a symbol of hope that when the people of Zimbabwe will decide they will indeed get rid of all the ‘garbage’ in their systems that stall development.