A week ago today I was in Zimbabwe having just performed a version of Genet’s The Maids at the Harare International Festival of the Arts. The play had gone down a storm – the idea of maids trying on their ‘madame’s’ clothes while plotting her murder rang nervously true in a country in which the class system is still very much alive and kicking. I played the Madame, and funnily it is a term one hears too frequently in Harare, except accented as ‘Medem’. “Please medem, asking for help. Asking for help, medem.”
You couldn’t enter the festival without brushing past street kids begging for money. If you’re carrying food, they will ask for it, or anything that is in your hands, including your half drunk bottle of water. The most heartbreaking is a four year old’s hungry eyes and dirty hands at my window as my car stops in traffic, “Please medem, asking for help!” I can’t take her home with me. I have to drive off.
I’ve always known that I am more privileged than others; you can’t deny it when you grow up in a developing country. Some people can’t stomach to live in Africa, but I believe witnessing is important. Choosing to ignore the conditions in the developing world, thousands of miles away, does not make them not exist. In fact it is even more obscene. So I am glad to be home to bear witness.
I’ve arranged to visit one of Envision Zimbabwe Women’s Trust’s projects in the high-density suburb of Mbare. Envision is directly supported by Peace Direct. My mother is one of the founders and so I have had a close relationship with the project since its inception in 2009. We have managed, through Peace Direct’s introduction to Virgin Unite, to acquire six high quality sewing machines for a group of grassroots women who we have been supporting as peacebuilders in their community. They are a group of grandmothers who joined our workshops in 2009. They started a Clean Up Campaign in their community with the aim of stopping the spread of disease after a cholera brake out in 2008 which killed thousands.
It is one of the things that makes me angriest about Zimbabwe – the fact that water is a basic human right, and people are forced to live without it – they cannot wash their hands, their bodies, or drink water freely. I was filled with admiration when I visited them four years ago and watched these respected elders in the dirt, with the rank smell of faeces, collecting rubbish and organising for the City Council to collect it.
Entering the little room they had rented for their machines was a very different experience. Looking back, I think they were all in their Sunday best, and I was overwhelmed by their industry, energy and busyness. They told me how much they appreciated our support, that the Clean Ups had created a real change in their community, and that ‘even the government knows that there is a group of women in Mbare who, if they say they are coming to clean up, you have to help them!’
They talked about a home-gardening project Envision had started, trying to help them become self-sufficient in growing their own food. And then of their plans to pool together to buy fabric, now that they had the investment of the sewing machines, so that they could start to make a small profit and become a co-operative factory.
They told me that most of them were currently making money as vegetable vendors, selling tomatoes. If they were lucky they could make $2 a day. They therefore could not afford the school fees for their children, which cost at least $50 a term. When I told them that part of the funds from my Live Below the Line challenge would be invested in their much needed fabric, in true African fashion, they all burst in to song and dance! The oldest grandmother said a prayer and, rather sweetly, it was for the supporters; myself, Envision, Peace Direct and everyone who gives to the campaign.
This was the heart-warming part of my visit, a celebration. I then asked if a few of the women would mind being interviewed one-on-one. I picked a few of the most outspoken, but they also pushed forward a younger woman called Lucy, who they had invited into the group. All of them were so open in their interviews, but their smiling faces and Sunday Best belied a life full of genuine struggle. It isn’t just struggle for themselves, each of them is supporting eight to 12 other family members, most of them children.
Traditionally Zimbabwean families depend on a primary bread-winner, perhaps someone lucky enough to have a job as a domestic worker. But these unemployed women, trying to get by, are the breadwinners in their families. The USD2 (£1) a day that they make expects to feed another 10. My heart broke when Lucy described how some days she has so little that she buys the children a sugared ice cube from a street vendor, perhaps it costs 5pm, “so at least the children can eat that for the day and play.” She obviously goes with nothing those days. Lucy wept.
I heard from Envision’s administrator Niki, that while I was interviewing Lucy, the other women were corralling her, “Please can you invest in Lucy. $60 will help her to buy a supply of rice, which she can start selling by the cupful.” She’s found selling tomatoes a difficult investment because they perish so quickly. Of course, I said to Niki, “We must. It is so little but can make such a huge difference.”
I was moved that the grandmothers have taken Lucy on and are looking after her, that they didn’t ask for anything for themselves, but for their adopted daughter. She’s a twenty-five year old responsible for twelve other children, and the stress is breaking and depressing her. But at least she has this group of aunties and grandmothers to give her emotional support.
“God has answered our prayers!” they had sung to me in thanks for the offer of support through the Live Below the Line Challenge. How easy it is to play God in a world that is so unnecessarily unjust! As I look back on the video footage of the day’s visit, I cringe at my privilege in the face of such desperation, determination, and resilience. It is truly humbling, and challenging.
I start my challenge on Monday 12 May and, it’s personal now – by Living Below the Line, I will be helping Lucy and all these women. I’ll be posting a video blog every day of the challenge, including footage of my visit, so you can meet the women who will be supported. Please help me in my challenge by making a donation. No one can get through hard times alone. And everyone can make a difference. We are one world and we share one love.
Or if you’d like to join Chipo in taking the challenge sign up here.