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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Harare: Is It Really the Worst City on Earth?

An Article by Counter Punch

For a change, I don’t want to discuss politics. I don’t want to debate whether big bad Mugabe is actually an African national hero, as many on this continent believe, or some brutal dictator, as we are told relentlessly by the BBC, The Economist and virtually the entire Western establishment media.
‘Data’ about Zimbabwe is developed somewhere, to serve Western political interests, and then it is recycled, repeated by hundreds of websites all over the Internet. Old reports are not updated when the situation improves. Incorrect statistics are hardly challenged.
I don’t want to discuss all this now. One day I will, I promise, and in detail.
* * *
Now the world is in turmoil: President Hugo Chavez is dead; he passed away or, as some believe, he was assassinated. And this poor and ravished continent – Africa – is experiencing the latest wave of carnage sponsored and organized by several Western nations. From West Africa to Somalia, from Mali to DR Congo, flames, tanks, aircraft, drones, and also misery and hopelessness are once again killing millions.
As Chavez, proud leader of the global opposition and a favorite punching bag of Western propaganda, was put to rest, I took off from Nairobi. Three hours later I found myself approaching Harare International Airport, endless plains and fantastic rock formations under the wing of the Brazilian-made Embraer of Kenyan Airways.
I had to do it; I had to come, as a gesture, as my tribute to the Latin American revolution, as my internationalist duty towards Africa. Instead of mourning Chavez, I decided to continue working for the revolution that he triggered and which I always tried to be part of.
The world’s least livable city on earth’, I read before coming here, ‘The worst city on earth’. There were expat surveys, surveys by The Economist, and at some point surveys that ‘leniently’ depicted Harare as the 4th worst city on earth, not the worst, in 2012.
I am used to working in war zones and in the most hopeless and dangerous slums. I am used to the cities of the sub-Continent, of DR Congo, of Haiti. I survived many Western outposts all over the world, officially glorified but collapsed urban centers like Jakarta, Nairobi, Kampala, Djibouti, Phnom Penh, and Cairo.
I was not afraid of ‘horrible’ Harare. But I was not convinced by reports coming from the West. That’s why I decided to return to Zimbabwe. Once again, I would use my own eyes and ears and my own brain, challenging the official propaganda coming from London and Washington.
Downtown Harare, worst city on earth?
Downtown Harare, worst city on earth?
* * *
Harare International Airport is simple but modern. The staff appears to be unmotivated and slow, but they are friendly and in possession of great sense of humor. There is no tension and there are no insults, no power games, as at Nairobi airport, or in Phnom Penh. No throwing passport to your face and no finger printing and photographing, as is done at all third world airports that are known for sending intelligence to the West; from Bangkok to Nairobi.
After I purchase my visa on arrival, immigration officers can’t find change. I have to wait for five minutes. While I am waiting, we chat about the Kenyan elections.
Soon after, I am driven through green and quiet streets, some carrying fairly interesting names like Benghazi and Julius Nyerere, towards Harare’s modern and elegant city center.
Right from the beginning, something just does not feel right. The worst city on earth: I search for sandbags and gunners like in New Delhi or Mumbai, for gangs roaming the streets like in Colon in Panama, for the garbage-clogged rivers and horrid pollution of Jakarta or Alexandria. I see nothing like that here; no appalling slums and no burning fires, real or metaphoric.
There are a few beggars on the sidewalks, but fewer than there are in New York or Paris. The pavement is often broken, uneven, even potholed, but it is nothing compared to Kampala.
And then, as I am slowly approaching my hotel in the center of the city, it strikes me that, at least through the window of a car, Harare could be described as a beautiful city! Of course, it is not as stunning as Cape Town, it is on a much smaller scale, but in a very modest way it is very attractive.
I pinch myself. I blink few times, quickly. I ask my driver to slap my face, but he refuses.
“Why, sir?” he appears bewildered.
“But…” I mumble. “Harare appears to be a very nice place.”
“It is”, replies driver.
“But…” I continue to wonder, “It is supposed to be the most terrible town on earth.”
“Who says?”
“The newspapers in the West… The reports, surveys…”
“Oh”, the driver smiled. “Then we should slap their faces, not yours. For lying, you know…”
Harare from the mountains.
Harare from the mountains.
* * *
I suggest this: let’s not talk about the President and about the past and political present of the country. Let me just take you for a long walk through Harare, so you can get to know the city described by our propagandists as the worst, absolutely the worst, in the world. And let me throw a few images into the bargain.
Just stay by my side and let’s walk, for several days, searching for the truth.
But before we stroll, let’s listen to some voices from the UK and the US – those that are manufacturing public opinion all over the world.
On September 7, 2011, iAfrica reported:
A top research group on Thursday rated Zimbabwe’s capital as the worst of 140 world cities in which to live. The British-based Economist Intelligence Unit said its researchers excluded cities in Libya, Iraq and other war zones. Harare, where power and water outages occur daily, scored a 38 percent “livability rating,” the group said.
The group said the threat of civil unrest and the availability of public health care and public transport in Harare were intolerable. Energy and water supplies were undesirable, it said, calling phones and Internet services uncomfortable…
In 2009 the BBC claimed that Zimbabwe’s women had an average life expectancy of 34 years and that men on average did not live past 37. That information was duplicated by countless websites.
Other BBC reports were republished word by word by thousands of news and reference outlets, including Wikipedia:
The health system has more or less collapsed. By the end of November 2008, three of Zimbabwe’s four major hospitals had shut down, along with the Zimbabwe Medical School, and the fourth major hospital had two wards and no operating theatres working. Due to hyperinflation, those hospitals still open are not able to obtain basic drugs and medicines.
Predictably, the official propaganda news agency of the UK threw in colorful words like ‘genocide’ and ‘tragedy’, and selected quotes from several medics who blamed the situation on the Zimbabwean government.
Not one glimpse of diversity, no arguments from ‘the other side’.
Not even a word about what the majority of those in the Southern part of Africa believe, or even what some members of the Western establishment have recently confirmed.
According to African Globe [November 17, 2012]:
The United States government has, for the first time, admitted that the illegal sanctions it imposed destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy and were hurting ordinary people.
Incoming US Ambassador to Zimbabwe David Bruce Wharton made the admission yesterday at a media roundtable discussion in Harare and pledged to work with authorities in Zimbabwe and the US to normalize relations.
The admission comes after the World Diamond Council said it was also engaging the US government and the European Union to lift sanctions they imposed on Marange diamonds, despite Zimbabwe having received the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme nod to export the gems.
But I promised: no politics… Let’s just walk and see.
* * *
The ‘Trauma Centre & Hospital Harare’ is in a quiet part of the city and it could easily qualify as one of the most elegant medical facilities I have seen elsewhere in the world. It is stylish, full of artwork, and at the same time high-tech and immaculately clean.
I greet two representatives working at the reception area. One of them is Ana – a young, sophisticated lady who came to Zimbabwe from Serbia.
“I came here to see whether Harare has any operation theatres”, I mumble, suddenly feeling embarrassed. “You see, there are some reports that say that the capital shut down all of its hospitals, or at least all its operation theatres.”
‘Now it’s out’, I thought, expecting blows. Instead I receive big and welcoming smile.
“Would you like some water, of coffee? We can show you around. Before you came, there was already one film crew that was investigating the same issue.”
I am taken to a high-tech emergency room, equipped with the latest technology. Then I am asked to take off my shoes, and to change my clothes. Next thing I realize, I am wearing a white coat and being taken through a sterilization room to two operation theatres that look more like the interior of a space ship. Surgery rooms are not the places where I would normally choose to spend my evenings, but these are damn beautiful surgery rooms! And, above all, despite what they say in London, they actually do exist!
“Let me take one photo of you, standing next to the operation theatre, so they don’t say in England or the US that the images are pirated from some medical journal”, Ana says laughing.
“We have specialized Laminar flow theatres used for Key Hole surgery, and Orthopedics…” I keep taking notes. I have no clue what is she talking about, but what I see looks definitely impressive. Ana continues: “Thoracic and Vascular Surgeons are available at the Hospital. We have neurosurgeons on call…”
After the tour I am invited to drink coffee with Dr Vivek Solanki, owner of the hospital.
“I should not be speaking about the competition”, he smiles, “but in Harare we have plenty of operational hospitals, with decent to excellent operation theatres. It is all propaganda, about the medical care in this country. Of course, there was a very short and tough period around 2008, but it did not last long.”
I ask doctor Solanki whether this super modern and efficient hospital is only for the richest of the rich.
“I have introduced a new concept here”, he explains, passionately. “Of course this is a private hospital, but we are determined to serve the Zimbabwean people. So, in contrast to what happens in the US, here, when the ambulance, taxi or the relatives bring a patient to us, a patient who needs emergency treatment… no matter how complicated the case is, we treat the patient, regardless whether he or she has money or insurance. We never ask, and never check whether he or she can pay. We stabilize the patient first, and only after he or she is out of danger, the choice is given: if he or she chooses to pay, we keep the patient. If not, we transfer him or her to a state hospital, and charge nothing for saving their life. We also treat babies under 6 months, as well as elderly over 70, for free.”
“We lose money”, whispers Ana, expressing outrage, half-jokingly. “But he owns the place, and there is nothing we can do about it.”
“I became a doctor thanks to the President”, volunteers Doctor Solanki. “The education in this country is free. I am Zimbabwean, a third generation Indian. I received help when I needed it. Now I have to give back to my country. I build hospitals. I am a doctor. I know how to cure people, save lives. That’s what I have to do.”
In the car, as I am driving towards the city center, I receive a text message from Nairobi: “Life expectancy in Zimbabwe for women is 34 and for men it is 37 – incorrect. Even according to the CIA Factbook 2012, the life expectancy at birth in Zimbabwe was 51.82 est., higher than South Africa, where it stands at 49.41 est.”.
“It is all because of AIDS”, sights my driver. “That nosedived our life expectancy. But you know, things are getting much better here, lately, and everyone who is honest would tell you that, no matter what they think about the President. For instance, we get all that anti-retroviral treatment for free here. We also get free condoms, as well as plenty of information from the government.”
“They also get help from China”, I am told later, by one of the UN staffers working in Harare. “China provides doctors and free medicine. It helped this country a lot.”
Your correspondent in the 'big operation theatre' at Harare Trauma Centre.
Your correspondent in the ‘big operation theatre’ at Harare Trauma Centre.
Suffering from Western sanctions, the Zimbabwean economy collapsed. Since then it has been undergoing slow but steady recovery.
I am sorry, again; we said ‘no politics’. We said ‘let’s just go for a walk’. So here is my arm. Let’s resume our slowly stroll through the city.
Right next to my hotel is the entrance to a magnificent swimming complex, Les Brown Municipal Pool. I don’t know whether it is public or not, and I forgot to ask, but it appears to be. Right next to it are Harare Gardens, a beautiful English-style park with people resting on the grass, enjoying picnics, reading.
To have such public and ‘open’ areas like parks is unthinkable in Jakarta, where there is only one public green area of substantial size, MONAS. And Jakarta is a monster with 12 million inhabitants, while Harare has a population of only two million. Two million that are enjoying several magnificent parks and gardens, wide sidewalks and art exhibited in public areas, all over the city.
But let’s not forget – Harare is a ‘defiant’ nation, a country that refuses to fall on its knees and to salute its tormentors. While Jakarta and Phnom Penh are the capitals of two market fundamentalist countries. They are choking on their own fumes, they have almost nothing that could be defined as public left, but in the eyes of Western regime, they can’t be as bad as Harare, Caracas, Havana or Beijing! They are enjoying great immunity from uncomfortable questions; as well as full, hearty support from business-religion publications like The Economist.
There are also almost no public spaces in other African capitals that have been serving as Western client states for year and decades, like Kampala, Kigali, Addis Ababa and Cairo, although, in the latter, at least, people are able to gather on the city’s bridges.
But Harare, we are told, is the worst city on earth!
There seems to be no crime in the city, and there are no disagreements about this. Black Zimbabweans and White Zimbabweans, foreign experts, cops and doctors – I spoke to all those groups – they all say that Harare is one of the safest cities on African continent. In Nairobi or Tegucigalpa, in Port-au-Prince, you cannot walk down the street because of fear of violent crime. The level of danger for Indian women in New Delhi and other cities of the Sub-Continent is almost as high as it is in war zones.
But it is Harare – one of the safest cities in sub-Saharan Africa – that is depicted as the ‘least livable’ city on earth.
I look around and I notice that the people lying on the grass, or, at least, many of them, are reading newspapers and magazines. Why do they do it? First of all, because they are literate; because this is the most literate nation on the entire continent, from Suez to the Cape of Good Hope. According to All Africa from 14 July 2010:
Zimbabwe has been ranked as the country with the highest literacy rate in Africa taking over from Tunisia, the latest UNDP Statistical Digest shows. Tunisia has held pole position for years with Zimbabwe second best and number one in Sub-Saharan Africa. Zimbabwe’s literacy level currently stands at 92 percent, up from 85 percent while Tunisia remains on 87 percent.
“It shows how literate, how educated is Zimbabwe”, I am told by a senior UN official working for the UNEP in Nairobi, who for obvious reasons does not want to be identified. “When you work with Zimbabweans, things get done. Things are working there. It is real tragedy that so many top professionals had to leave for South Africa during the crises. Zimbabwe is a victim of defamation campaign conducted by Western media outlets. The same could be said about President Jacob Zuma of South Africa.”
Harare National Library at sunset.
Harare National Library at sunset.
* * *
Could it be that things are not so bad in Harare? There are several decent hospitals, preventive medical care, the highest literacy rate, some of the lowest crime rates on the continent, and public spaces all around.
Of course there are recurring electric blackouts in Harare, but not more frequent than in Nairobi, Kampala, Kigali, Lagos, Addis Ababa, Jakarta, Dhaka, Colombo, to mention just a few places. Water supply desires to be better, but it could be hardly defined as a tragedy as it definitely is in Indonesia, Sub-Continent and most of Africa. Government is short of cash, and it has serious problems with garbage collection and recycling. But despite that, Harare still looks very clean by Africa standards and more at par with much wealthier Kuala Lumpur than with the cities like Manila or Surabaya.
Not influenced by horrible reports coming from the UK and the US, left to my own impartial judgment, I could easily believe that this is one of the most livable towns in the Southern Hemisphere.
But that’s exactly the point: I am not supposed to be left to my own judgment. I am not supposed to evaluate, objectively, what my eyes are seeing and what my ears are hearing. I am supposed to be pre-conditioned, told how to see things and even how to analyze what I see.

Mbare Township - as bad as it gets in Harare.
Mbare Township – as bad as it gets in Harare.
Mr. Hezekiel Dlamini, Advisor for Communication and Information at UNESCO Office in Harare, is originally from Swaziland, but he was based for many years in Ghana, France and Kenya, before accepting post in Zimbabwe. He blends in well with this country, which he finds ‘beautiful’ and ‘comfortable’:
“It is much quieter here than in Nairobi,” he explains. “In Harare, culture is very important and very diverse and interesting. You can get true, vibrant and traditional local culture in the center and in other parts of the city, or you can drive to Borrowdale just a few miles away, as well as to other suburbs, and there you get what is common in the South African white suburbs or in Cape Town – all those luxury malls, movie theatres showing latest releases, posh cafes.”
We are sitting in a simple but comfortable café, near the glass wall of the National Art Gallery. It is quiet, almost serene here. Several impressive art exhibitions are taking place inside the institution, while vast sculpture park is dotted with dating couples dressed in their best attire, sitting on the grass. Like in Nicaraguan parks, young people come here to hold hands and whisper intimate confessions in the shade of impressive artwork, instead of sitting in some stereotypical chain cafe in the middle of depressing and dull shopping malls, listening to banal music or loud announcements.
“You can eat local food, you can eat in several Chinese places, and there are Indian restaurants, Portuguese restaurants, even few sushi places.”
“Are whites really suffering here, as we are told by Western media?” I ask.
“Of course not!” Hezekiel is laughing. “Just drive to any of their suburbs. Go to Sam Levy’s Village or to any other big mall. You will see – things are still segregated, not because of the government, but because of the white minority. They have all they want in their suburbs; their managed to create their own universe. If I bring my daughters to a white school, they will say ‘no’. They will not tell me that it is because I am black African; they will argue that the school is full. And the government can do nothing about the situation.”
I drive to posh suburbs equipped with golf courses, sports clubs, beautiful pedestrian malls, supermarkets stuffed with the most exquisite food products imported from South Africa and Europe, with elegant cafes and designer stores selling Hermes and LV garments.
It is all here. By then, I understand nothing.
Harare has everything! How could anyone think for one second that this is a hell on earth?
I said ‘no politics’; not this time… But let me at least ask couple of rhetoric questions: is there any reason why this country is suffering from sanctions and humiliation, from vicious propaganda and demonization, other than because it has decided to re-distribute its land; or, because it made an attempt to stop Rwanda from performing yet another coup in DR Congo on behalf of Western companies and governments; or because it co-operates with China in the mining of diamonds; or because it is firmly rejecting Western imperialism?
What about misery, what about slums?” I ask my friend Hezekiel, few hours later.
“There is Mbare slum”, he explains. “But it is not as terrible as Kibera or Matare in Nairobi.”
I drive there. Mbare is not a friendly suburb, but it is small, at most one-kilometer square but probably much smaller. It looks more like South Bronx than Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince. It has basic infrastructure, including sport facilities. While places like Kibera slum in Nairobi are housing hundreds of thousands, some say one million people, crammed in inhuman conditions; the population of Mbare must be at most ten or twenty thousand.
Historic Harare Mountain and Fort Salisbury are just five minutes drive from Mbare. There is yet another public park there and a commanding view of the historic city center and the impressive city skyline.
There is an old, British commemorative sign, which refers to settlers as ‘pioneers’.
“Pioneers!” laughs my driver, sarcastically. “Some pioneers!”
Few young men are busy doing push-ups. It is all very tranquil, and somehow comforting. I have no idea why, but it feels like being back in South America, in some part of it.
“No security issues?” I smile.
“Look”, my driver gets started. He has critical mind and wonderful sensed of humor. “In South Africa, if you pull out a 100 Rand banknote in some public place, you could get killed. There, that amount of money can fill a few shopping bags, easily. In Zimbabwe, you pull out 100 Rand note, people would laugh at you, because it is worth nothing. Things are so expensive.” Group of athletes stops their push-ups and begins to laugh.
“You are right”, one of them says. “You are so right.”
Soon, a small circle is formed and people plunge passionately into discussion about the food prices, security and upcoming elections. There is no fear like in Rwanda or Uganda, no tension like in Djibouti, Kenya or Ethiopia; all those Western client states.
Nobody calls me names, nobody points fingers at me; I am included in their conversation.
They love their country. Dollarization made prizes high, and Western embargos crippled the economy. But people are resilient and tough, and very kind at the same time.
“Why have you come?” Asks one of the athletes.
“Because they keep writing, in the West, that Harare is the worst city on earth”, I reply. “And I know it is a lie. So I came to write about it – to say that it is a lie.”
“Why? What do you care? We all know it is a lie. This is a very nice city, isn’t it? But we feel powerless. They write those slanderous things about us, and as a result, nobody comes… Tourism collapsed. Our great ancient cities, our national parks – all are empty now. Who wants to come to the country with such a horrible reputation?”
“Why did you come to dispute those lies?” Asks the second athlete.
I think for a while, I am silent. Then I tell them: “In Venezuela, far away from here, President Hugo Chavez died… Or he was murdered. We still don’t know. When it happened, I was in Nairobi, but Nairobi is the Western outpost and to be there did not feel right. I needed to fight – to fight against so many things, especially against the propaganda that comes from the West. South America is very far, and I decided to come to Zimbabwe. At least for a few days.”
There was a silence, long and deep. And then one of the athletes comes close to me, hugs me and says: “Good you are here. I understand. Thank you for coming.”
Book Cafe night club with traditional Zimbabwen dances.
Book Cafe night club with traditional Zimbabwen dances.
At night I go to ‘Book Café’ to hear traditional Zimbabwean music. And close to Midnight I manage to get into the immense Harare International Convention Center (HICC), where more than 6.000 people are awaiting appearance of one of the greatest South African artists – Zahara – a musician, songwriter and a poet.
In this ‘most terrible city on earth’, those thousands of people are roaring and dancing to Zahara’s rhythms, whispering her lyrics; while there are no fights, no skirmishes, no littering, no rapes, no violence.
I walk back to my hotel, in the middle of the night, alone, safe, endlessly impressed, suddenly in-love with the city that has been standing tall despite embargos, intrigues, and slander coming from the old and new colonial masters of the world.
As I am strolling, briskly, through the wide and well-lit sidewalks of Zimbabwean capital city, I am thinking about the Cuban medical brigades. These people – brilliant and selfless doctors and medics – have been deployed wherever the need for internationalist help arises, be it due to a conflict or a natural disaster.
This is exactly what we – writers, filmmakers, and journalists – need to create, to encourage, to staff: International Investigative Brigades, units that could uncover the outrageous lies and propaganda and nihilism, those appalling byproducts of the regime and the Empire.
We needed to form them very soon, before it gets too late.
Meanwhile, although I was walking alone, I did not feel lonely.
In my mind, I kept repeating to some abstract reader of mine: “Thank you for joining me; for taking this long and wonderful walk. Not everything is lost, yet. Not everyone is sold. There are millions of people, many countries that are still resisting, upright, not on their knees.”
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Interview Africandela

Student tries on new shoes
We recently attended an extraordinary shona sculpture exhibit and fundraiser in Brooklyn, New York.  The exhibit was by Spirits And Stone, a Zimbabwean owned exhibition of Shona sculptures ,who shared the proceeds with  Africandela -- a non profit organisation engaged in educational programmes in Zimbabwe.   The event was co-hosted by From The Source, a company which sells organic handmade and custom furnishings.  The featured shona stone sculptures were created by world renowned sculptors such as Nicholas Benhura and Colleen Madamombe.  A number of the sculptures were on sale, with the proceeds contributing to Africandela.

To learn more about Africandela read the interview below:
Tell us how the organization was founded and the inspiration behind it.
The organization’s existence is an expression of the urge within the Zimbabweans diaspora to do more to help people in hardship back home. Like minded professionls, each with a desire to start their own projects but too busy to work alone, pooled their resources and Africdandela was spawned.

What is your vision for the organization?
The Africandela first comes to mind when Zimbabweans and friends consider relief and development for the country.

What are your annual goals, needs, and results?
We currently sponsor 10 children at $2000 per month

Are you collaborating with similar organizations to fulfill your mission?
Joint fundraisers with Mwanandimai, a NY based Zimbabwean NGO reaching out to children who lost their parents to AIDS.

How many children benefit from the organization and how are they selected?
10 children. The headmaster of St. Michaels school selected them based on need.

Students In Class
What is the size of the schools you support? Or – what percentage of those in need (at the schools) do you support?
School size approx. 500.

Do you maintain a blog where donors, volunteers and other interested parties can follow and get to know the organization and its beneficiaries better?

Why did you decide to specifically sponsor St. Michael’s Primary School and Ndieme Primary School? Is there a story behind it or were they randomly selected?
Before Africadela, the founders/board members were going to separately start their own projects to support these institutions within their respective communities. Africandela is a result of them pooling resources and passion.

Tell us more about the scholarship program since inception.  
Over 100 st. michaels pupils and staff benefited from our clothes program from 2007 to 2008. We scrapped it because it was too labour intensive on our end.  The school has a small reading library and a computer lab of 8 computer as a result of our IT program.  Ndieme is a new program, but there no results yet. 

What are the main obstacles that inhibit the fulfillment of your overall mission? How are you planning to overcome them?
We are all busy professionals and making time is a challenge.

Tell us more about your fundraising efforts and how volunteers can get more involved.
From 2007 to 2009 we help several fundarising parties. ASince then we have been primarily supported by gifts from individuals.

 Volunteers can email to get involved

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

SOS Children's Village

Hi Everyone,

I was doing some research on Zimbabwean orphanages and came across this video I was compelled to share with you all.  Some of you may have seen it already and if not, please watch.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Podcasting In Rural Zimbabwe

Here is an example of how Practical Action is providing rural chicken farmers with information on disease and disease prevention.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Practical Action

Hi Everyone,
If you live or work in a developing country and you are looking for innovative, low cost ways to improve lives and help others generate income for themselves, Practical Action is a fabulous organization.  I came across this video which gives a good overview of who they are and what they are about.  Theur website also offers a wealth of resources from free reading materials to tutorials on for example How To make Candles, or How To Make Fruit Candy.  This information can be shared with one person or many.  Either way, you can make a difference in someone's life.
The video below demonstrates their work in action around the world, including Zimbabwe.  Simple solutions, from micro-hydro power in Kenya to flood-protection in Nepal, and smoke hoods to reduce indoor air pollution. They also have Spanish-language videos at, and Practical Answers videos on using technology to reduce poverty at

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Women of Minyore - Earning school fees from garbage

Here is an interesting video recently posted by Afrigadget:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Binga Craft Centre Zimbabwe - African Baskets

In South Africa today, poverty and unemployment levels are high and xenophobic attacks have sparked a new conversation across the continent amonst the media, advocacy groups and other interested parties.  Xenophobia is described by Wikipedia as "an unreasonable fear of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange".  In South Africa, Xenophobic attacks have occured mainly in the townships by indigenous South Africans against other indigenous Africans. 

I spent 6 months in South Africa this year and had plenty of time to watch the news, documentaries and television debates on the issue of Xenophobia.  What disappointed me most was the lack of solutions presented by the parties on opposing sides of the issue.  Some South Africans felt their own people were lazy, therefore immigrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other African nations should be allowed to remain while others argued that all foreign owned businesses should be boycotted!!  I couldn't believe what I heard.

If you are wondering how the Binga Craft Centre of Zimbabwe and the issue of Xenophobia are connected, let me explain....  I walked into a Mr Price Home store at Cape Town's prestigious shopping mall (Canal Walk) and there I saw an entire section of laundry baskets and other hand woven basket containers for the home.  They looked vaguely familiar - very much the same quality you would find in a Walmart, or Target or Bed Bath and Beyond store in the USA...  I turned over the label and yes, you guessed it, the woven baskets were all made in China. 

What was wrong with this picture? I'll spell it out.  Right next door in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Botswana, Lesotho etc... there are thousands upon thousands of unemployed basketweavers barely eeking out a living selling a quality far more superior than what I saw in Mr Price Home.  Why is South Africa importing all the way from China when they could send the business to its neighboring countries?

If South Africa, as an African economic powerhouse, were to create employment on the continent of Africa, the foreigners in their land would follow those opportunities and go home.  It's a common fact that most crafts sold in South Africa are brought in by cross border traders from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Congo, Malawi etc... and many have now settled there to make a living selling their products. 

Binga is located in a remote part of Northern Zimbabwe close to Zambia but it is not impossible to get there.  It is certainly easier than going to China.  Conditions are harsh and most people live below the poverty line, but at the same time, Binga is renown for its hand woven basketry which has found itself on display in top notch New York stores such as Anthropologie.  In fact South Africa sets a bit of a double standard really, because the Binga Baskets I saw on display in Anthropologie were labelled and marketed as a "South African" product and not Zimbabwean.  Not that it matters to me to be honest, I am more concerned about the bigger issues such has crafters being able to earn a living than the country of origin on the label. 

The Marketing Manager of Binga Craft Centre, kindly provided the photos used in this blog.  They are anxious for business and not hand outs. They don't want to relocate to South Africa to find markets for their products but unfortunately that is what is happening today.  I hope this article will motivate us to push for locally produced products regardless of where we live, especially if the raw materials for those products are locally available.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bees in War Against Poverty

The Herald - August 11, 2011
By Ruth Bataumochoh

Thirty-eight-year-old Judith Rutsito of Nyajese village in Nyanga was devastated when her husband died in 2002, leaving her with three children to fend for.

With no pension, nor any formal education that she could use to look for employment to sustain the family, her only option was to brew beer for sale, which she did vehemently for a good one year.
However, a visit to one of her brother-in-laws' homestead, Mr Andrew Nyandoro, turned out to be a life-changing experience that was also to improve her ebbing lifestyle and that of her children, who introduced her to beekeeping as a source of livelihood.
Reminiscing over the trying times she went through the first two years following her husband's death, Mrs Rutsito who is known in the neighbourhood as Mai Chifamba believes her fortunes could have turned around overnight.
Beekeeping, which is centuries old in Zimbabwe, has become a well-recognised entrepreneurial activity among small holder farmers with an estimated 50 000 beekeepers engaged in the activity.
The beauty of it all is that the bee farming industry, together with the horticulture industry and the safari businesses, once the preserve of white commercial farmers, is now open to the small-scale farmers, following the agrarian reforms.
And small- scale farmers have found beekeeping as a viable income- generating activity considering that it is done on a part-time basis, allowing farmers to concentrate on other agricultural activities, while waiting to "harvest".
With no heavy capital injection needed to kick-start the project as is the case with a litany of income-generating projects, smallholder farmers can afford to make a financial projection premised on the diverse plant species as well as the ecological and climatic conditions.
Like other beekeepers sprouted around the country, farmers in the Nyajese's Village 14, have witnessed a dramatic and positive change in their lifestyle, since they started beekeeping in the area.
Although most of them inherited the beehives from past generations that relied mainly on traditional technologies, they have been able to upgrade them to hives from timber, used pots and baskets.
Use of brown sugar, beeswax and propolis as baits has resulted in increased yields, undoubtedly doubling farmers' incomes.
Nyandoro (52), who has been involved in beekeeping for the past 19 years, says his flirtation with bees has paid dividends, adding that his lifestyle bears testimony of benefits he has to date accrued since a neighbour introduced him to apiculture.
"I come from a humble background and for 20 years, I slept in a traditional granary until I managed to build a three-bedroomed house from the proceeds of honey," he said.
Nyandoro who started off with 20 hives, now has over 100, a feat he has achieved owing to patience, persistence and determination. Nyanga
"I now have a regular source of income and I am able to plan and buy inputs for my farming projects, while paying fees for my children," he gushed.
Realising that the numerous spin-offs from beekeeping, villagers have since adopted "busy bee attitude" towards honey production.
So intense are their efforts to make money from honey that they have since formed a co-operative made up of more than 50 people - all beekeepers, though in various stages.
They say the co-operative is one of the mechanism they are using to collectively market their produce, and in the process benefit from schemes that are being introduced by players keen on investing in the beekeeping sector.
Already their synergies have yielded results after a private company Savanna Delights entered into a partnership with them that will see the latter training them on beekeeping and later buying their produce.
Savanna Delights is a private company that supplies honey to retailers as well as honey as a raw material to the pharmaceutical and other industries.
The company is not a novice in the industry having trained small-scale farmers in Mutoko, Nyanga, Chimanimani, Hurungwe, Raffingora, Zvishavane, Chipinge, Buhera, where more than 1 000 households have since benefited from the initiative, which Savanna did in partnership with the Swedish Organisation for Individual Relief.
Savanna Delights is already working on an initiative to empower communities in Shurugwi and Makoni in beekeeping.
Executive director for Savanna Delights Mrs Selina Mercy Chitapi said the company was born out of the need to eradicate poverty by empowering communities with special focus on beekeeping as an intervention strategy.
"It was also born out of the realisation that the apiculture industry in the country was underdeveloped, despite the vast marketing opportunities available not only in Zimbabwe but in the region as well," she said.
Mrs Chitapi, however, said although beekeeping was slowly taking shape in Zimbabwe, individuals and organisations involved in the initiative were still not able to service the growing market.
She added that the huge deficit of honey in the country had resulted in Zimbabwe becoming a net importer of honey, despite the competitive advantage it has in producing the product at minimum cost.
"The country produces in excess of 100 tonnes of honey for the formal market, a figure which is way below the market expectations.
"As a result, a lot of people who use honey in production of say pharmaceutical products are now importing from South Africa.
"Demand for honey worldwide stands in excess of 909 million kilogrammes per annum, with Brazil and China being the major producers," she said.
She called on the Government and the private sector to support honey production, as a long-term poverty eradication strategy.
"If support is extended to the beekeeping community the country has the potential to produce three million kilo- grammes of honey from rural communities alone."
However, despite the low production level of honey in Zimbabwe, the activity is quite robust in neighbouring countries like Zambia and South Africa.
In the North-Western Province of Zambia, beekeeping has since expanded from an informal activity to a booming source of revenue, where more than 10 000 beekeepers own 500 000 hives, producing 1 000 metric tonnes of honey per year.
Half of the honey and other bee products are exported mainly to Europe, earning the country the much-needed foreign currency.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Candle Making and Goats in Zimbabwe

Open Air Candle Making Class
After a tree planting ceremony in Chiweshe the village Chief expressed a need for help with income generating project ideas. 
A month later, we had partnered with a local micro finance organization and travelled to Chiweshe to support candle making training and the beginnings of a very promising goat  rearing project.

The Chairman of the committee shares their plans for the goat project and enclosure

 Together with 2 university iterns from the micro finance organization, we came up with a plan to start 2 projects – one for candle making and another for goat rearing (a world away from New York city for sure).   Tashanda did the research on the different types of candles and candle making techniques around the globe and also researched income generating ideas for goat projects.    

During our visit to Zimbabwe we took alaptop and shared Youtube videos on candle making with the villagers.   The purpose of the video demonstration was to encourage them to think beyond what they imagined was possible (in this case, thinking beyond residential candles for domestic lighting).     It was our hope that after they had mastered the candle making technique they would begin to experiment further. 

The in-progress goat enclosure

We were also given a tour of the new enclosure built for the goat project.   The villagers organized themselves into groups of 11 and 20 for candle making and goats respectively.  Each group has a chairman, a vice chairman and a secretary.  The secretary took notes throughout the day!  A candle making project for 11 villagers costs $600. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The house that books built - Petina Gappah, The Africa Report

Courtesy of Kubatana

Award-winning writer Petina Gappah is working to revive Harare City Library. She explains the importance of the library to the city's cultural life and launches The Africa Report's campaign to help support it.

To get to my office on the second floor of Harare City Library requires a strong stomach. You walk through the main doors of the library, then up the back stairs. There is no lift to the second floor. There was a book hoist once, but it doesn't work anymore. The binding room has been converted into a storeroom that houses exam scripts for Zimbabwe Open University. Next to the book hoist are toilets that no longer work: it is to walk past these that you need the strong stomach - and a clothes peg for your nose.

The library was established in 1902 as the Queen Victoria Memorial Library and Museum - a lending and reference library for the colony's first settlers. It soon built branches in the suburbs of Greendale, Hatfield, Highlands, Mabelreign and Mount Pleasant. Effectively, the City of Salisbury had two racially separated library systems: the Queen Victoria Memorial Library and its satellite branches for whites, and a system of libraries for blacks in the townships, run from the proceeds of Salisbury's beer gardens.

In 1982, the Queen Victoria Memorial Library and Museum separated, and the library portion of it became Harare City Library with its five branches. It still has only the five branches; there has been no expansion. Instead, there has been decay.

The library wears the hardship of the past decade in every torn and broken piece of furniture and in the mismatched curtains hanging askew at the windows. The collection in some of the branch libraries seems made up entirely of large-print books from the '60s and '70s. Some books have not been taken out since 1978. It is not a library for the asthmatic - the dust of years has settled into the books and all the fittings.

Worst of all, the roof is leaking. Above the reference library at Rotten Row are dirty splotches and what look like little white stalactites. There is not a single computer for use in the entire library. An enterprising soul has drilled a light bulb onto a fitting for fluorescent lamps. The telephone has been cut because of a bill that has not been paid for two years. The electricity bill too, has not been paid: like many institutions, the library is making part-monthly payments to keep the lights on.

On the bright side, the electricity is working, and I suspect this is partly because the library shares a grid with the headquarters of the ruling ZANU-PF party - the president's wailing motorcade occasionally silences the traffic on Rotten Row. Indeed, the library exemplifies the extent to which Harare, and Zimbabwe, has fallen in just 11 years, and the mammoth task required just to get things barely running again.

The decline of the library is particularly shocking to me because it is deeply associated with the happiest part of my childhood. When my family moved from the township of Glen Norah to Mabelreign, a modest suburb, I joined the Queen Victoria Memorial Library. Almost all my classmates at Alfred Beit School were members.

There I gorged on Enid Blytons and Malcolm Savilles, on Agatha Christies and on the Moses books by Barbara Kimenye. I became obsessed with exploration and wanted to go to Antarctica. The world came alive for me through that library, an experience that I shared with my friends and the many children who swarmed in and out. Throw a stone into the northern suburbs of Harare and you will hit an adult of 30-plus who was once a child member of the Harare City Library.

Its decline is thus not only a grievous wound to my memories, but also a shocking reminder of how much today's children are missing. I have decided to do something about it. I am currently in Zimbabwe on sabbatical leave from my job as a lawyer in Geneva. I have an office at the library because I now chair the committee that runs it.

The committee's vision for the library is as grandiose as it is simple: to make the library once again a central part of the cultural and spiritual life of the city. We want new books, computers, DVDs. A digital library. Most of all, we want a library that can sustain itself without handouts.

The reality, though, is that the immediate term, we will need such handouts. The library has been fortunate to attract attention of the A-Z Trust, a UK-based charity that recently hosted a fundraiser. The money will go towards restoring the building and repairing the roof. The main library building, built in 1962, is worth preserving for its architectural integrity: in 1964, its architects, Montgomerie and Oldfield, received a Royal Institute of British Architects Bronze Medal Award. If all goes according to plan, the building will be completed refurbished and functional by the time of its golden jubilee in 2012.

The committee has also started its own fundraising drive. We have asked some of the most profitable Zimbabwean businesses to consider the library in their corporate social responsibility schemes. We are lobbying the ministry of finance to remove duties and tariffs on imported books. We have also applied for a grant from the City of Harare - the Mayr is one of our Trustees, but considering the amount of monet that Harare needs to restore clinics, roads and schools, this is tantamount to grasping at straw.

We have already initiated an outreach programme. I have talked to school children to get them excited about reading, and my message has been simple: switch off the TV, pick up a book. We intend to take our outreach to the townships too, and, when the money allows, to invest in a mobile library that will bring books to outlying schools, hospitals and prisons. We have already entered into an agreement with an organisation sponsored by USAID to donate 2,000 books for poor children who could not otherwise access them.

The library has launched a dialogue that goes beyond the tedium of politics and focuses on other issues that matter to people. The first event in April addresses the notion of literacy and asked: what exactly does it mean that Zimbabwe has the high literacy rate in Africa? I have a fantasy that the library will be one of the spaces in which Harare interrogates the many stories of witchcraft that are reported without questioning in the newspapers. It will be the space in which people debate issues around foreign policy, around religion, around science, a space in which people discuss their responsibilities to the environment, where citizens ask just how well served are they by the press, a space in which individuals come alive as their horizons expand.

Information, education and knowledge: these are the three key tools to building a better-informed people, better decision-makers, better citizens, happier citizens.

Socrates is supposed to have said that a library is the delivery room for the birth of ideas: that is my persona vision of the library. I see it as a space that will get Harare reading and get people talking. With the hard work of my committee, the support of the people of Harare and the many friends we are gaining around the world, I am confident the day will come when I can walk to my office without having to hold my breath.

Do you have books to donate to Harare City Library? Contact us here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How to Carry A Baby on Your Back - African Style

Here's a fun/interesting blog.....Have you ever wondered how an African woman puts a baby on her back without the use of fancy baby carriers? The young lady in the video below, Kudzai Kachingwe, shows how easy it is. Make sure the baby is secured around the arms first, then wrap the legs. All you need is a towel - $10 bucks at Target, lol!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Volunteers travel to Zimbabwe to help children orphaned by AIDS

By Leslie Perales of Herndon PatchThe Heart4Kids Dec. 2010/Jan. 2011 trip.

After doing a Google search for missionary trips to Africa, Shaun Shugart, who lives in Oklahoma, came across Heart4Kids.

Shugart said after reading about the organization he was convinced it was where he wanted to go.

The Herndon organization, founded by local resident Sandra Denenga, collects toys and other items for children in Zimbabwe. With the help of volunteers and donors, each year a Heart4Kids group travels to the country to visit villages and help take care of children in need.

Volunteers with Heart4Kids travel to Zimbabwe shortly after Christmas, staying for about 10 days. In addition to bringing toys to the children around the holiday season, Heart4Kids also gathers funds to help provide food, clothing and other necessities.

This was Shugart’s first trip with the organization, and his first trip to Africa. He said being a Christian, he felt it was something God wanted him to do. “He has commanded us [Christians] through his word that we are to care for his people who are in need regardless of where they are from,” he said.

Shugart said one of the highlights of the trip was seeing how happy the children and those in need in Zimbabwe were. “They were extremely grateful for what little we gave them and they immediately praised God for what they had received,” he said.

“One of the specific things that really touched our hearts was when we returned to the orphanage the following days,” Shugart said. “When we rolled up in the van the kids would come running out to the parking lot jumping up and down in excitement to see us.”

Shugart said it wasn’t because the volunteers were great and amazing people, but because they were thankful that God would provide them the joy of playing and spending some time with a few caring strangers. “The small amount of time and money invested in these children was very well spent and appreciated,” he said.

Denenga said for this past trip they were able to bring quite a few toys and goods with them. She said they brought five large suitcases full of items, and the volunteers brought two additional suitcases.

One of the highlights of the trip for Denenga was committing to do more. “We took over the sponsorship of an orphanage home,” she said. The orphanage houses 10 children who will get food, medical care, an education and the things they need because of Heart4Kids. “It’s a huge commitment,” she said.

Denenga said the cost of living in Zimbabwe is high and things like fuel, food, medicine and home repairs can be very costly. She said anything brought in from outside the country is expensive because of government sanctions. She said she feels the need to continue on though, “because otherwise these kids are going to be stranded.”

“The kids were very happy,” Denenga said. She said they recognized the Heart4Kids group and were happy to see them back. She said they spent a lot of time playing with the children and had brought soccer balls and musical instruments. She said they held a party for the children with pizza and cake and the children loved it.

Denenga said she spent time listening to the concerns of the children’s caregivers. She said many grandmothers are taking care of young children because their parents have died of diseases such as AIDS. They are becoming near homeless because they don’t have enough support, she said.

On one of Heart4Kids’ next trips Denenga hopes to bring volunteers with home repair skills that can help these caregivers who don’t have the means to do the repairs themselves, she said. She said otherwise, if they can raise enough money, they can hire local workers to make the repairs needed.

Meeting with the children that Heart4Kids helps makes a huge impact on Denenga and the volunteers, she said. “They just want to go to school,” she said. “They still have so much faith and trust in God in spite of their hardships.

Denenga left for Zimbabwe about a week before the volunteers joined her. While she was there she was able to reconnect with her 10-year-old niece, whose parents had died and was living with a family member in another village.

The family member who was caring for her niece was caring for other children as well and was having a difficult time taking care of all the children, Denenga said. She said they would often go nights without food.

Denenga said children like her own niece are the very children whose lives she wants to make better, and now that she has found her niece she can help her. She also brought her niece to her father’s grave to help provide her with closure. “It was difficult,” she said.

The next step for Denenga is to be able to increase the number of children Heart4Kids is providing care for, she said. She said people can help make a difference with the organization with very little effort and sacrifice, just by helping spread the word. To learn how to help, visit