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Working with women in Zimbabwe

  • Published

    12 March 2010

Mbuya Mambiro has seen a lot in her long life in Zimbabwe. But the last two years have been the hardest. Since the elections of 2008, she has lived with the daily fear of political violence and the collapse of local services.

As a mother living in a sprawling township, her worst fear has been cholera. In 2008, as political chaos spread, her town council cut off the water supply to people’s homes and schools. She and her neighbours crowded round boreholes and streetside taps to gather water for their cooking and washing. Others drew it straight from the river, though the waters were contaminated with sewage.

Two years on, the streets of her town are still awash with sewage from rusting pipes that burst with sickening regularity. The health risks are obvious to residents who must jump across mounds of uncollected rubbish to reach their own front doors. And there still isn’t enough water: Harare needs 13 million tonnes of water a month, but only receives seven.

Into this situation stepped local peacebuilding organisation Envision Zimbabwe which held a township meeting with 30 local women, to see what they could do for themselves about water, waste and public hygiene.

The women came from all walks of life and all political groupings – women split apart by the violence of the times. Working together was unusual. Uniting on a common issue, they began to rebuild bridges between their communities. One woman, Mai Kanoyerera, spoke out: “There is a lot we can do as women to help our communities help ourselves.”

They decided to organise a clean-up of the township, and to set out ways for the town to keep itself clean – by small things like not scrubbing pots with sand in the sink, or fixing central collection points for everybody’s rubbish. And they asked Envision to help them to meet the city council.

Chipo Chung from Envision was there on the day the clean-up began:

I was in awe of these women, equipped with donated protective gear - gumboots, gloves, face masks - enthusiastically throwing themselves into gutters that were knee-high in human waste, sewage and rubbish, and clearing it out by hand. The stench was gut-wrenching, I was gagging because it smelt so bad. But these women, some old enough to be my grandmother, worked without stopping for four hours!

Mai Kanoyerera adds: “We were surprised to hear from Envision that we can actually make money from recycling rubbish that we usually just throw away. For example, we can melt down plastics to make paraffin or floor polish. We can make compost from all the vegetable matter we discard, to grow more food for our families around our homesteads. So we decided to get bins to sort the rubbish that can be recycled.”

For Mbuya the fear of recent years is beginning to subside:

We needed to show ourselves and our neighbours that we have the power to do much to clean up our neighbourhoods, to create healthy places for our children to play, to restore the dignity of our living spaces.

Once we piled up the rubbish in specified locations, we did get the council to come and collect it. Now, with the help of two engineers, found through Envision, we will solve our water and sewage problems. And we are looking at how we can earn income by turning our waste into ‘gold’.

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