by Constance Manika
- Zimbabwe -
It has been a year since I last wrote for The WIP and it’s really good to be able to share what has been happening in our country.
Every weekend for the past eight months, my husband and I have been forced to make the 20-kilometer trip by road from our home in the high-density suburbs of Harare to the affluent suburb of Belvedere to fetch clean water. In the early morning hours while our little angels are still fast asleep, we load up into the car empty 20-liter plastic containers for refill.
We have tap water where we live, but it can hardly be said to be safe for human consumption. When you pour the water into a clear cup or container and let it sit for a few minutes, a green, sewage-like substance settles to the bottom.
Although this journey is cumbersome and costly for us, it is has become a necessary expense for us to stay alive.
Since last August at least 4,274 people have died of cholera while over 98,000 cases have been reported since then, according to the World Health Organization.
This water borne disease began in the Budiriro and Glen View suburbs of Harare because of erratic water supplies. Without access to clean water, residents resorted to digging up wells and obtaining water from other unsafe sources resulting in the biggest health crisis Zimbabwe has ever recorded.
Even though some areas actually had running water, the government-controlled Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) had no money to buy water purification tablets and continued to supply unclean water, exposing people to disease. Zimbabwe underwent a general sanitation crisis because of the crumbling economy - uncollected garbage festered in the street and sewer pipes were left in disrepair in many urban areas triggering the cholera epidemic.
That my family has been spared by this cholera epidemic is truly the mercy of God.
Before I knew about the kind Indian community and its borehole we used to drink Harare’s contaminated water with the exception of my youngest daughter who was just 1 year 8 months then. I used to spend large sums of money buying her bottled water because we were afraid her developing bowels would not be able to stomach our tap water and she would succumb to illness.
Because my husband and I couldn’t afford to buy the bottled water for the entire family, the rest of us boiled the dirty water coming out of our tap to kill the germs. But this process was even more depressing.
After boiling the water, greenish deposits would come swimming to surface. Once the water had cooled, we would pour the water through a clean cloth to sieve the sludge. We would then bottle it and put it in the freezer after which it would be ready to drink, but because of the boiling process the water was tasteless. Even after this rigorous germ-killing process, it always took a lot of courage to drink this water. We really had no choice until one day someone told me about Belvedere. Since that day my husband and I have woken up early every weekend to beat the long queues at these watering holes.
But this is just one of our many struggles for survival in Zimbabwe - the survival game has numerous aspects to it. There is also the tremendous challenge of trying to stay alive when you can barely afford one meal a day.
According to the World Food Programme more than half of Zimbabweans are in urgent need of food aid. I remember not so long ago before the dollarization of the economy when inflation was chasing salaries and getting by was a living nightmare even for professionals like my husband and I. Our salaries were eroded by inflation even before we got to pay day.
There is also the challenge of trying to stay alive in a country where the health delivery system has virtually collapsed, where nurses and doctors opt to stay at home because they cannot afford the cost of transportation to get to work.
In this case survival has meant avoiding falling ill - few can afford the astronomical health fees charged in the private health sector. Medical aid schemes that used to cushion many of us from the high medical fees were run out of business as a result of inflation. For me as a mother, this means a daily prayer to spare my children from illness because I know for sure I cannot afford the consultation fees in the private sector, where meaningful health care is still being offered.
Throughout 2008, when things were at their darkest in Zimbabwe, we were lucky to have only had to seek medical treatment for our youngest daughter when she had an asthma attack.
One night at the emergency room cost US$150 for consultation and a five-hour observation. If her condition had not improved, we would have faced hospitalization. At that time, the cheapest private hospital was asking for a minimum deposit of US$500 - money we didn’t have. By then, all state hospitals were closed.
But fortunately after three hours in the ER, she made a miraculous recovery. We were lucky that we had the money (sent to me by a relative working abroad) to save our daughter’s life, but the reality is that when confronted with illness, many people are not as fortunate.
Last year’s cholera epidemic revealed just how few choices most Zimbabweans have. For many of us, the raging cholera epidemic was the biggest sign that things were seriously wrong in our country. The transmission and escalation of the outbreak to an epidemic greatly exposed the collapse of the health sector and the breakdown of social services in Zimbabwe to the entire world.
Recently the World Health Organization--tasked with coordinating the cholera fight in the country-- said the cholera epidemic appears to be slowing down in many parts of the country. It however notes that in urban areas such as Harare, Chitungwiza and Kadoma (about 100 kilometers outside Harare) the epidemic remains difficult to control because of “persistent water and sanitation problems.”
In the Budiriro and Glen View suburbs of Harare, the epicenter of the cholera epidemic, residents have not had consistent water supplies for quite a while now. Although some relief agencies have assisted residents by drilling boreholes, they cannot service all residents. Clearly the only solution is for government to address the general water problems in Harare.
There is really no telling what the extent of the catastrophe would have been in the country without the goodwill of aid agencies and the Indian community. But what is ironic is that when the Indian community drilled these boreholes many years ago it was in response to their own water problems. They had not anticipated that they would one day be catering to hundreds of water seekers from many suburbs throughout the capital city.
“I really don’t mind helping people with water. Borehole water comes straight from the ground water, it’s a gift from the almighty so why would we even ask people to pay?” asks Belvedere resident Ahmad Mohammed.
“We are all brothers in one way or the other and we must help one another.”
This article is the first in a two-part series from Constance that updates our readers
on the realities facing Zimbabwe today. - Ed.
About the Author
Constance Manika is a journalist who works for the independent press in Zimbabwe. She writes under this pseudonym to escape prosecution from a government whose onslaught and level of intolerance to journalists in the independent press is well documented.