Disaster at Huwana: Hunger, confusion and desperation in Zimbabwe

By Janet Smith
Each blanket weighs about 3kg, each plate 300g, each cup about 120mg. But to the villagers of Huwana, in Zimbabwe’s Bulilimamangwe district – thrown into fear by their community’s tragedy two weeks back ago – each will be cherished beyond price.
Four young men from Yeoville, Johannesburg have gathered this humbling stash for love. They are this week behind a convoy making the journey from Johannesburg to Gaborone, and then into Zimbabwe, to take home 100 blankets, 100 cups and 100 plates, among other supplies.
To those passing them on the R49 from Zeerust, the picture of the minibus and trailer loaded with goods will be a familiar stray phrase in the African story. We’re used to crossing each other’s space, and then disappearing in our separateness.
But to Shannon Sibanda, Mqondisi Zikhali, Lungisani Ncube and Mthobisi Ncube, this is an act of becoming more visible.
Following the tropical storm Dineo, their home village of Huwana is now an improvisation of its former, unassuming self. Downgraded from a cyclone amid widespread anxiety late last month, Dineo has largely destroyed the meek prospects of its community.
No one died, but many mud dwellings and most of their modest possessions were washed away as the Manzamnyama River came sweeping over the lowlands.

100 blankets, 100 cups and 100 plates….among other supplies

Today, Huwana is a state of disarray. Its residents are hungry, confused and frightened.
Down south, over the border in South Africa, rapid response disaster teams had been readied especially in Limpopo in the days before the storm first beat down to the north of Inhambane, Mozambique. Dineo had picked up speed, although it was expected the storm would dissipate, despite the heavy rain.
The Manzamnyama River’s source in Zimbabwe is in the farming area of Sandown, some 50km south-west of Bulawayo. Its delta is on the milky-blue horizon of the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana, the Portugal-sized “dead sea” of the south.
A number of Zimbabwe war veterans moved onto farms in Sandown at the turn of the century when the Zimbabwe government issued Section 8 orders on thousands of white farmers around the country to leave their properties under the Land Acquisition Act. And while it is today an organised and stable community with good grazing lands, further down the river, poverty still claims the chances of making it good.
And it’s that 90km stretch of river, an area that is home to village after village of traditional communal farmers, that yielded to the full force of Dineo.
Shannon Sibanda’s Whatsapp status – “I was the future ones” –  is an abstract of this story. He grew up in Huwana in Bulilimamangwe district in the Plumtree part of Matabeleland. Many Zimbabwean migrants to South Africa call Plumtree home.
Predominantly Ndebele- and Kalanga-speaking, the people of Huwana are used to effectively being surrounded by rivers, as the town of Plumtree itself is on the watershed between the Limpopo to the south and the Zambezi to the north.
The Tati River runs west and then south into the Shashe, giving the area an annual expected rainfall of about 500 millimetres once the long dry season that begins in April ends around October.
Now 34, Sibanda’s on his way home this week at an unusual time of the year. He’s used to travelling back in December, when he and the other members of their Huwana Foundation customarily organise a band and a swoosh of Christmas entertainment for the villagers. For the past few years, this has been something to look forward to; to boost positivity and energy as the maize unfurls to knee-height and turns a sturdy green, beans run wild and pumpkins start to swell.
The delicious, fluffy millet, a more serious crop, is only harvested around July when the fields are drier.
These crops must feed Huwana’s families; its cows, goats and donkeys are expected to work just as hard for their hay and straw. There’s no social grant. A village of mostly old people, mothers and children, many of its men and women of working age leave every year to conjure up a means in South Africa.
Sibanda says when he was growing up, this was understood: that he would one day make the migration to South Africa. In some families, it is indeed what’s expected. But in the village, while the scale of the harvests may change, the farming pattern must  – by faith, by memory – remain the same.
Not this time.
No one died, but many mud dwellings and most of their modest possessions were washed away as the Manzamnyama River came sweeping over the lowlands.

“We’re controlled by the weather there,” Sibanda explains

Rain had been steady since October, falling at least once a week, promising the bounty that would keep Huwana’s tables warm. But by the end of December, it was becoming relentless, and so it went on through January. Villagers were having to repair their mostly mud huts, bolstering them with grass as the soil was too wet to use. Walls were getting weaker.
They watched as the water soaked deep into the ground, leaving the leaves dripping on the maize and the crop uncertain in squalls that quivered the land day after day.
Then, after the 16th of February, it all went mad. Sibanda, Zikhali and others from Huwana started getting frantic Whatsapps from home.
“We’re controlled by the weather there,” Sibanda explains. “And we don’t have trucks and cars to move our assets or our animals, so once the water really started to move, our families were stuck.”
He and a small group of Huwana expats had already formed the Huwana Foundation to buy exercise books, pens and other educational sundries for the children of the village. Huwana Primary School is the only building there. There’s no clinic, no hall, no library. And so the focus has long been on the 500-odd Grade 1s to 7s who keep up the morale.
“Our mentality growing up was that we must come to South Africa,” says Sibanda, “and that was all about the conditions, even though when I got to Joburg, I was just average, just trying to maintain, to find some employment so I could be a bread-winner for my family.”
Those “conditions” signified fear and loss the instant Dineo hit, dragging the river with it at a terrifying pace.
“We understood people were waking up, some houses were washing away. They were screaming for help. There was so much confusion. Even the kraals where the cows and goats are kept, were swept away. This all symbolises money and lives. People didn’t know how to fend for themselves.”
Such is the trauma in the wake of Dineo, that Sibanda and other members of the Huwana Foundation have organised a community meeting for Saturday (March 4) in the village, to try and draw people back together, and to properly understand the impact that the storm has had on their childhood home.
When they started the Huwana Foundation, each member gave R1000 to get it going, and has continued to contribute where they can.
“We had to remember,” says Sibanda, “that for us in South Africa, a R2.50 exercise book is affordable, but back home, people don’t have that R3, so we really wanted to be able to show our sympathy for their need. We wanted every child in our village to at least have a book to write in, and for the teachers to have dusters and chalk.
“We know very well the value those things carry.”

South Africa’s United Nations accolade doesn’t carry the same shine in all South African communities

Now the Huwana Foundation has extended its capacity into an ad hoc grouping called Huwana Disaster Management – just for the time being. It’s gladly received R10, R100.. whatever people can afford to accumulate the blankets, basic utensils and other supplies which will relieve some of the desperation the villagers are experiencing.
Their convoy, which left for the Maitengwe border post out of Botswana into Zimbabwe in thundering rain out of Johannesburg on Thursday night, is boundless with hope.
“I can’t explain it to people really, but doing this is partly for myself,” Sibanda reflects. “Indirectly, I’m doing it because it helps my spirit. It helps my emotions. I don’t want to ask myself: did you waste your time? It’s a thing that helps me come to terms with myself.”
To increasing numbers of South Africans, beset by joblessness, impending chaos in the government’s social grant system and high levels of frustration and violence, Zimbabweans like Sibanda should go home and stay home.
There was so much confusion. Even the kraals where the cows and goats are kept, were swept away. This all symbolises money and lives. People didn’t know how to fend for themselves.”
After all, we know that South Africa is the only African country on the United Nations’ list of 20 countries which host 67% of the international migrant population. Yet this accolade doesn’t carry the same shine in all South African communities.
As our country now threatens to again be the site of a cataclysmic, synchronous xenophobic recoil, it’s more important than ever to see how indispensable many Zimbabwean migrants are to their families embattled at home. The troubles of Huwana and its people play like an erratic rhythm in the heart, so much an index of what is wrong with us if we lose our sense of solidarity.
For Sibanda – one of the “future ones” – the storm which ripped the soul out of his village, may, however, be an opportunity to set that rhythm right.
* The Zimbabwe Consulate in Johannesburg had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publishing. We will update when it responds.  Huwana Disaster Management will be hosting a meeting at Alexandra Bridge on the Old Pretoria Road in Johannesburg on March 12 from 10am. All assistance will be welcomed. To assist call zimbabwedigitalnews.com at 0834767918.

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