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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Zimbabwe: Superwoman Found

This blog was posted by Nicole Johnston Oxfam's Regional Media and Communications Officer for Southern Africa:

Women Baking Bread
For women in rural Zimbabwe, unceasing toil is no guarantee that their children will eat tomorrow. Nicole Johnston interviews these incredibly hard-working and resourceful women.

Florence Manzu speaks at a women's meeting in Gutu [All photo credits: Nicole Johnston]At a tiny village in Gutu, Zimbabwe, Florence Manzu (21) questions why she works all day but has nothing to show for her efforts. “I am a hard worker. I get up and plough the fields and I work all day. All I need is fairness. I want to buy seeds at a fair price and I want to sell my goods at a fair price.”
Instead, Florence faces the problem many poor people experience: the less money you have, the more expensive services are. The nearest bus stop is a 16km walk, and bus fare to the small town of Gutu costs $US5 each way. But shops in the village charge way over the odds for basic necessities, in a country where prices are already high. “A bar of laundry soap costs US$2.50 here, but in town it is 80c…But what can I do? I don’t have $10 to get to town.”
As we speak, a crowd of women gathers round, all keen to make their voices heard.
“We have no water to drink. We can walk 20 kms looking for water, and it is a job for women.”
“We have no toilets so we are very much afraid of cholera.”
“The clinics have no water or medicine and sometimes no qualified staff. They tell us to bring candles but how can we?”
“Schools are deteriorating but we have to pay more.”
“There is no market where we can sell our goods, so we have to barter on unfavourable terms.”

Women turn their problems into song in Gutu A lack of access to hard currency after the collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar and adoption of the US dollar has meant that most people in the rural areas are forced to barter precious livestock and their meagre harvests to pay for basic fees and services.
Children are expected to pay up to $10 each per month to their teachers, and parents tell of endless demands from teachers, from money for food to bus fare. Some parents sell their livestock to raise the cash. Parents will starve themselves to ensure children go to school.
At the next village we met Emilia and Eustina Nyamandi, waiting for their turn at the grinding mill. Eustina (26) is a subsistence farmer who grows maize, pearl millet and peanuts. But a third of her maize harvest will go to the owner of the mill.
“The food from the last harvest will last until about September, then we will have to buy food or barter our goats and chickens,” explains Eustina. “Sometimes you don’t get much…Last year I had to sell everything.” Eustina painstakingly rebuilt her livestock, but will probably have to sell it all by the end of the year once the “hungry season” hits.
“The rain is getting less and less each year. If we have two bad seasons in a row, it will be too difficult for us to live.”
Emilia and Eustina’s families survived last year because the grain marketing board sold them maize at a reduced price and they received food aid from NGOs. But neither woman is expecting a handout. “We need projects, like sewing affordable school uniforms or knitting jerseys,” says Emilia. “We need to earn money for our families.”
In the neighbouring district of Chirumanzu an innovative project run from the Saint Theresa’s mission aims to address many of these concerns. The mission hospital not only cares for orphans and vulnerable children, and offers voluntary counselling and testing, it also runs an outreach project for people living with HIV which provides home visits, psychosocial support and income generating schemes.

Sister Andrea gives her comments on a women's weaving project in ChirumanzuSister Andrea is deputy matron of the hospital and definitely the coolest nun I have ever met. She takes us to visit one of the women’s support groups, and as we arrive they burst into vigorous song and dance. Without missing a beat, Sister Andrea joins in. She then admires the baskets they have woven and gives advice on pricing, while explaining to me how the women extract fibre from sisal, and use tree bark to dye the sisal in various colours.
Sister Andrea explains that the biggest obstacle the women face is that they have nowhere to sell their products, and no way to get them to the big cities where buyers with ready cash might be found.
At the Takashinga support group in Chengwena, the women proudly display their baking project. Sister Andrea samples freshly baked buns and bread, served with delicious wild melon jam.

Women baking bread at the Takashinga support group in ChengwenaAs the women drum and dance joyously a woman beckons me over to a small fire. I am astounded to realise she is making shoe polish. The women dry pieces of black rubber and grind it into a fine powder, add paraffin and candle wax and cook it up before pouring it into old shoe polish tins.

The group plans to sell the bread and jam at schools “because it is hard for the children to get something to eat at break” and the shoe polish to people who can’t afford to buy it in town. Mary Ngoya (26) explains that even if they can’t shift all of their stock, “we sell to each other. It is cheaper than the shops.”