WHATEVER Robert Mugabe may want the world to believe, cholera continues to plague Zimbabwe and especially wretched border town Beitbridge.
The United Nations this week said the cholera death toll in Zimbabwe had risen from 792 to 978 - though many suspect the true total could be more than 2,000.
An undercover Metro visit to the chaotic country found harrowing conditions and aid shortages, even as Mugabe was robustly insisting the illness had been cured.
Anyone passing through southern Africa’s busiest border post, at Beitbridge, may find coffins leaking infection, and a mortuary crammed with unclaimed corpses.
Carefree children splash through open, broke sewers, while homes have gone without tapwater for almost a month - prompting thirsty families to down handfuls from poisonous rain-filled ponds.
Dying bodies have been scattered outside over-stuffed hospital wards, attached to IV drips hanging from the branches of trees.
Struggling and sleepless medics in Beitbridge told Metro the disease is now thought likely to spread even more damagingly beyond the current hotspots, especially into under-resourced rural areas.
Some also fear the spillover into neighbouring South Africa - with more than 600 cases reported already - could lead to the border being closed.
This would be disastrous for Zimbabwe, which now relies on imports from South Africa - and to a lesser extent Botswana - for almost all its food, fuel and medical supplies.
For the moment, South African trucks continue to bring the meagre supplies of treated water, antibiotics and purification chemicals so anxiously needed in Beitbridge.
A senior hospital official admitted: ‘We barely even had a button to sell - we had nothing.
‘Without outside aid, this disaster could have been so much worse.’
Despite foreign journalists being banned from Zimbabwe, Metro gained access to Beitbridge’s hospital, where a depleted staff has been working virtually non-stop for the past month.
The ramshackle wards may be protected by handwashers and decontamination sprays at every entrance and exit.
But the rusty metal hangers from which drips connect to twisted and helpless patients, lying malnourished on hard-backed beds, hardly inspire confidence.
Nor does the makeshift treatment camp just outside the hospital walls, where mothers and babies slump under 30-degree sunshine, reluctant to force down their medicine.
Similar scenes can be found in outlying villages such as Lumamba and Chamungangana, though the hospital’s grimy stone walls are replaced by canvas tents propped up by wooden poles.
These places feel eerily quiet and deserted, with few signs of life outside the field hospital tents or cramped clinics.
Incomprehending and glazed eyes stare up from each bed, young children, young men and women laid low by an illness that can kill within just a few hours of the first symptoms showing.
Pastor Moffat Ndhlovu, of Beitbridge’s World Pentecostal Evangelical Church, recalls with horror the hospital struggling to cope with the first outbreak last month.
He said: ‘When I walked into that place - well, I’ve never seen such humiliation in my life.
‘You’d find one woman lying here naked, and a man naked lying next to her. One would be vomiting, flowing into the next.
‘Others patients’ diarrhoea was flowing into the people next to them. There were so many lying so close because there weren’t enough beds, not even enough space.
‘Doctors ended up taking some of the victims outside - hanging drips from the branches of trees.
‘It got so berserk, they had to close the hospital to anyone who didn’t have cholera.’
‘Oh, it’s been a tough time,’ sighed an assistant at Beitbridge’s hospital morgue, while swinging open three fridge doors to reveal 18 corpses.
Some had lain there unclaimed for at least three weeks, their addresses and families unknown - and local government unwilling or unable to fund any inquiries.
When admissions were highest at the end of last month, the morgue was taking up to 20 new bodies every day.
About ten corpses have been discovered and brought in from dense and desolate bushland outside the town.
Mr Ndhlovu said: ‘Before cholera, I’d go for months without having to conduct a funeral - now it’s five or six a week.
‘There are so many now, every pastor here’s been so busy.’
Some funerals have only added to the danger, with a shortage of body-bags allowing infection to escape at the open-coffin funerals popular with some communities here.
The busy bus terminqals, serving key routes out of town, may also have helped spread infection - as might the thriving sex trade on Beitbridge’s outskirts.
But as Mr Ndhlovu emphasised: ‘The conditions for cholera are endemic in Beitbridge - the lay-out is badly planned, the weather is so humid, it’s dusty and it’s dirty.’
His home in Beitbridge, like many others, has been denied running water for the past month.
While Metro were visting, there were cries of delight when the kitchen taps suddenly began flowing again.
But the smiles quickly turned to frowns of disgust as bottles filled with a brownish gloop - fit only for use in toilets.
‘And this is supposed to be treated water,’ a neighbour remarked. ‘I wouldn’t have liked to see what it looked like beforehand.’
Little wonder the hospital official declares: ‘I can go to any cholera outbreak in the world after this, knowing I can’t see anything worse.’
And little wonder Mr Ndhlovu concedes: ‘We don’t presume the crisis is over. The worst could be still to come.
‘The truth is, the health system in Zimbabwe has completely collapsed.’
*** HUMAN rights activists are being spied upon and even abducted, while elderly grandfathers beaten up and threatened with a bullet live in fear of their lives.
If some had hoped Robert Mugabe was slightly mellowing, during truce talks with oppostion leaders, recent events suggest the Zimbabwe president remains as ruthless as ever.
Much of the country’s infrastructure and public services may be in meltdown.
But Mugabe can still call upon a loyal cadre of well-paid acolytes - eager to keep enforcing a ferocious crackdown on dissent.
Campaigner Jestina Mukoko is the most high-profile of almost two dozen government critics recently abducted by Mugabe’s men.
And while the president was publicly mourning government colleague Elliot Manyika, few ordinary Zimbabweans believe the official explanation of the national political commissar’s death.
Manyika had appeared to be at the centre of bitter Zanu-PF infighting, just weeks before his death in a car accident on Saturday last week.
Many people were surprised to hear that in a country with so few working medics, a government doctor was passing just ten minutes later to take care of Manyika’s body.
Conflicting times of death were later given by state authorities, while the government Mercedes in which he was being driven appears to have gone missing.
Of course, any suspicions have not been aired on tightly-controlled state media - only on South African TV channels, broadcast through the satellite dishes Mugabe wants to ban.
One in five Zimbabweans are believed to be paid informers for the ruling Zanu-PF party - including many posing as activist church pastors.
Police officers are mounting more and more roadblocks, some to enforce state control and some to replace missing wages with braz enly-sought bribes.
Even elderly grandfathers are not immune from being brutally beaten and intimidated by Zanu-PF thugs.
Bernard Haruvishe was abducted from his home, repeatedly punched, and dumped half a kilometre from his home - with a bullet left ominously in his hand.
The 66-year-old’s crime was to stand as a Movement for Democratic Change candidate, in local elections in Maswingo - and beat his Zanu-PF rival.
When his dead-of-night attackers - eleven rifle-wielding soldiers - handed over the bullet, they promised to return some day to finish him off.
But Mr Haruvishe has continued to stand up to his oppressors - collecting not only the names of others attacked, but also those suspected of carrying out the violence.
His lists also catalogue crops destroyed, as well as property, maize and livestock stolen.
The former teacher said: ‘Of course I was scared. But I refused to give the soldiers the names they wanted.
‘I just told them I’m an elected councillor - I won my election. I didn’t force people to vote for me.
‘Not only my grandchildren, but everyone of school age in Zimbabwe - they’re being lost. I can’t see how they’ll ever recover from what Mugabe is doing to this country.
‘I don’t know when Mugabe will go. But I wish it could be today.’
Neighbour Andrew Maziye Sithole, 70, has been beaten up twice, with sticks ma de of cane and matted with thorns.
But he refuses to quit as an MDC official or to stop speaking out against the Mugabe regime’s human rights abuses.
Mr Sithole, who has scars and welts across his neck, back and arms, said: ‘We sleep in fear of being “disappeared”, captured and killed by the Mugabe people.
‘This area has become very dangerous - even the local tribal chief has been giving commands to beat and kill any critics.
‘But even as they were beating me, I told them I wouldn’t resign as an MDC official. I saved my true heart.’
The father-of-18 and grandfather-of-eight added: ‘Zimbabwe is a country with a heart of gold - but the teeth of Mugabe.
‘He’s killing innocent people. Every day they’re dying. Only when he leaves will we see the sun rise.’
But father-of-two Mike Tizirai, 30, fears there will be ‘fighting and burnings’ over Christmas, as people rebel against the bleak midwinter conditions.
He spent three months hiding in mountains immediately after the June election, leaving his children with his Zanu-supporting parents-in-law.
‘They saved my children’s lives,’ he concedes. ‘We just don’t discuss politics.’
Zimbabwe Christian Alliance pastor Wilson Mugabe - no relation, as he has to keep insisting - takes pride in pointing out Zanu-PF plants in church meetings.
He h as been arrested several times for inciting opposition to the government, in his sermons and speeches.
Activist church pastors like himself have often had their phones tapped, prayer sessions infiltrated - and described in detail in anonymous calls - and families threatened.
But Wilson keeps on campaigning, saying: ‘I only become bolder. I want to argue with these people, expose them in meetings.’
Once he was dumped, wearing only shorts and a blindfold, high in the mountains above Masvingo - forced to wander 10km for help and direction.
His uncle Bruno Mugabe was a Zanu-PF supporter - but even he fell foul of the party, when attempting to stand against a favoured candidate.
Bruno was killed by a hired mercenary, injected with poison while driving and dying when the car careered off the road.
Wilson turned down the chance to become an MDC candidate in Masvingo this year - but is considering standing if fresh elections are forced next year.
*** GORDON Brown has been told to keep quiet about Robert Mugabe – by one of the Zimbabwe dictator’s most outspoken critics.
Condemning Mugabe from outside Zimbabwe is counter-productive and only falls into the tyrant’s trap, Wellington Chibhebhe told Metro.
Instead, he demanded, Britain and the US should be putting pressure on those countries allowing Mugabe to stay in power – such as South Africa and China.
Mr Chibhebhe has himself paid a heavy price for opposing Mugabe – at least 20 arrests, and beatings which have left him with a fractured skull, disfigured fingers, a metal plate in his arm.
He is secretary-general of the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions, the successor to Morgan Tsvangirai – who now leads opposition party Movement for Democratic Change.
Despite his organisation’s close ties to the MDC, Mr Chibhebhe accuses some party insiders of losing touch with their grass-roots support – and feels ‘no hope’ that Mugabe can be ousted any time soon.
But he believes attacks on Mugabe by British ministers only gives the president what he wants – allowing him to ‘play the race card’, while indulging in ‘eloquence and acrobatics’.
Mr Brown and foreign secretary David Miliband have both recently called for Mugabe to go.
The Zimbabwean president retaliated last week by accusing Britain of planning to invade – while his Zanu-PF party colleagues have even blamed the UK for the cholera plaguing the country.
Mr Chibhebhe insists Mugabe does not hate, and instead ‘loves’ Britain – especially the Queen and Harrods – but feels shunned by Zimbabwe’s former imperial ruler.
Mr Chibhebhe said: ‘Whoever’s seen to be anti the regime here now is automatically labeled “British”.
‘But this all comes not from Mugabe’s hatred for the British, but his love for the British – he just feels neglected by the country.
‘He’s described himself as the biggest admirer of the queen, and Harrods records show he was one of their best customers.
‘Even if he was traveling to somewhere like China, he’d go through London to do his shopping.
‘Gordon Brown is now making political statements condemning Mugabe, but they may actually be arming him instead.
‘He’s able to use these statements to rally his colleagues around him – suggesting this is Africa being attacked by whites.
‘These attacks just bring the best out of Mugabe, in all his eloquence and verbal acrobatics, and his view will resonate with most African leaders because they’re dictators too, and see him as their leader.
‘The world, including Britain, needs to use other forms of pressure instead.’
He wants similar moves to those which helped topple Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s last white prime minister before Mugabe took power in 1980 and changed the country’s name to Zimbabwe.
Mr Chibhebhe said: ‘South Africa must be pressured – and the world must allow start thinking about how to deal with the likes of China, who have business links in Zimbabwe and always veto sanctions.
‘Pressure was brought to bear on South Africa when they were doing business with Ian Smith – when they stopped, his world started collapsing around him .
‘Now Namibia is one of Mugabe’s lifelines, but the UK doesn’t seem to be doing anything to end its own trade links with Namibia.’
But he is pleased to see British ministers do all they can to avoid one-on-one meetings with Mugabe – even if Jack Straw was manouevred into an unwelcome handshake four years ago.
Unrelated Wilson Mugabe, a vocal Christian activist and opponent of the regime, clapped and cheered when he heard the president was talking of a British invasion.
He was only disappointed when told the claims were probably untrue, insisting a British military offensive would be welcomed by most Zimbabweans.
Mr Chibhebhe is not so hawkish, knowing how intransigent Mugabe and his allies can be – knowing from his own experience that ‘it’s harder to fight an ex-guerilla government than a normal one’.
His personal struggles have borne this out, with about 20 arrests – the most recent on December 3, when detained for protesting against limits on cash withdrawals.
His worst beating came two years ago, leaving him unconscious for two days while held in the notorious Matapi prison in Harare – in filthy cells condemned by the country’s supreme court.
‘I only came to my senses when lawyers were finally allowed to visit and bring some initial medication after two days,’ he recalled.
‘You get used to living in very, very difficult conditions, surrounded by human waste.’
But he insists he will not abandon his risky role opposing the government – fuelled partly by a sense of guilt at his youthful involvement in Mugabe’s 1980 breakthrough.
‘Giving up has never crossed my mind – not at all,’ he claimed.
‘If anything, I’m more persuaded to continue.
‘I was born and bred in the rural areas, participating in the liberation struggle. We were the youngsters responsible for the logistics.
‘Prior to independence, our fathers and mothers – who had relatively nothing in resources – they gave their all as a contribution to the struggle.
‘When I go back and see how they’re suffering and being so abused now, it greatly pains me.
‘And it keeps me going, hoping that one day our people will finally be free – and able to say: “Yes, what we’re fighting for has finally been achieved.”
‘We wanted to bring about independence, democracy and the accompanying freedoms for people.
‘Yes, we’re now independent, but people are not free and therefore there’s no democracy.’
He believes Zimbabwe’s ruined economy could be turned around by redistributing money from the military and security services to health and education instead.
‘More often than not, the military has got the biggest chunk of the budget, even though we’re not at war,’ Mr Chibhebhe said.
But first Zimbabwe needs to resolve the issue of ‘governance’ – putting in place a credible process for free and fair elections, monitored by the international community.
‘The current power-sharing negotiations are dealing with issues of power – who gets what jobs – rather than issues of democracy and people’s freedoms,’ he said.
‘When you look at the political game being played, we’re falling into the same old trap.’
He attacked MDC insiders who were spreading doubts at Mr Tsvangirai’s leadership, especially the taunts that he spends too much time outside Zimbabwe.
Mr Chibhebhe said: ‘Morgan Tsvangirai’s doing the right thing, because we need the global support.
‘We’ve heard the insinuations that he’s not the best leader for the process, but when you look around for leadership when it matters most, quite a good number are nowhere to be found.’
He admits he has ‘no hope’ of Mugabe being overthrown in 2009, however, even if cholera has proved an ‘unexpected disaster’ for the government to deal with.
But he added: ‘We are excited – though suspicious – that for the first time, Mubage has been quoted publicly as saying his people should be preparing for elections within one and a half to two years.
‘He now knows this situation will never come to an end until or unless there’s an election.
‘On the other hand, we’re fearful he could go the other way – say “To hell with any deal”, or go all out on an even more terrible offensive – more abductions and torture, with the aim of totally disintegrating the MDC.’
*** ROBERT Mugabe’s critics are praying for Zimbabwe’s banks to finally, completely crash – and that day may not be far off.
Mugabe’s government may still be trying to apply emergency fixes to the country’s crazy economy – such as the introduction of new notes and cash withdrawal limits.
But even the invention of a finely-crafted $500million note – made from material worth an extravagant eight US dollars – looks like doing little.
After all, that will shortly be the price for just one loaf of bread – if you can find any left on the stripped-bare shop shelves, that is.
At the start of last week, when Metro first arrived in Zimbabwe, a loaf cost $10million, hitting $20million the next and $100million last weekend.
Annual inflation now runs at an estimated 231million per cent.
And the amount of Zimbabwean dollars in the money supply has rocketed from $45billion two years ago to more than $900quadrillion today.
No wonder ordinary Zimbabweans, paid in local dollars, are desperate to get their hands on more valuable foreign currency, or ‘forex’ – primarily American dollars or South African rand.
Until last September, these foreign currencies were formally banned, but are now accepted by virtually all traders – though many workers now find themselves paid in kind instead.
Yet dealing in ‘forex’ outside the banks remains illegal.
Hordes of currency-dealers – many of them young women, some with babies strapped round their backs – still congregate in central Bulawayo, anxious for business, though.
Some try to disguise their true purpose by flourishing lottery tickets or mobile phone ‘Airtime’ vouchers – though others shamelessly count, indeed flaunt, their wads of cash.
Not surprisingly, scams are common – often dealers will use the old trick of stuffing fake cash inside a couple of genuine notes at either end of a pile.
Long queues outside every bank begin forming the afternoon before 8am opening.
The banks only stay open until 11.30am, and often even those who have been waiting for hours will not be able to reach the front door until closing-time has passed – or all that day’s money has run out.
Fractious scenes could be seen at several branches, with bank officials either absent or reluctant to risk their own safety by stepping in.
Outside a branch of Barclays, customers were trying to allocate numbers to those waiting, so they could return home overnight and resume their rightful place the next morning.
But these arrangements seemed doomed to fail, especially with early-morning intruders commonplace – again, bank officials will usually find something else to occupy themselves instead of interfering.
Few people can remember just how many zeroes have been lopped off the Zimbabwean dollar – is it six, nine, ten, 13?
In fact, 13 have gone since 2006 – with rule-changes almost as frequent as the exchange rate changes that must keep all Zimbabweans’ calculating minds constantly whirring over.
Last Friday’s queues were waiting for their first chance to get their hands on new $200million and $500million notes – and to access a new weekly withdrawal limit worth $500million, rather than $100million.
That is, about $12.50 in US money – unheard-of amounts of money for many, in a country where the average wage across the countryside amounts to about one US dollar per week.
Those new $500million dollar notes are made from an unusual cotton material, supposedly to encourage consumers and traders to value the money more.
But with prices continuing to soar – and the country dependent for food and fuel on neighbouring South Africa and Botswana – that feels like little more than a futile hope.
Starving 72-year-old Emily Nkomo scrimped together a handful of cash for a 2 0km walk to her nearest miller’s store in the town of Nkayi – only to be told, on arrival, the notes were all worthless.
Even more worthless than most Zimbabwean dollars, that is – for these carried dates, showing they expired last June.
Mrs Nkomo, raising five orphaned grandchildren, had to beg among neighbours for a measly bag containing a couple of scoops of barley grain – enough to just about survive on for two days at most.
Part of that miller’s warehouse is shared by church project ZOE, but their section devoted to food aid supplies now stands empty – a victim of raising prices and falling availability.
Shops stand virtually empty by 9am – except for some products such as bottles of red and white wine, with Zimbabweans unab le to even afford drowning their sorrows.
Yet some instinct towards basic survival survives, both among individuals and the country itself.
Gold and chrome mines near the – relatively - affluent city of Gweru remain in action, close to the former ranch of white prime minister Ian Smith – the man overthrown by Mugabe in 1980.
Agape Missions church pastor Lyton Moyo admitted: ‘At times, you do wonder how people make it. What they earn, and the cost of living, just don’t tally.’
Some have family or friends sending packages from South Africa or Botswana – hence the fears about that would happen if the cholera outbreak in Beitbridge leads to the nearby South African border being closed.
Others survive on church hand-outs, though these are diminishing by the day – or the work of aid agencies such as Tearfund, or the World Food Programme which estimates 5million people are in need.
An estimated 90 per cent of the population are now unemployed, especially noticeable in public services as schools and hospitals shut down for lack of staff.
Teachers who earned $40million a month are quitting in droves, some in favour of positions as maids – who earn slightly more. Enough to pay for a loaf of bread, anyway.
For now, at least – as hyper-inflation wrecks day-to-day financial planning, as well as efforts by aid organisations to help.
The Churches In Bulawayo charity was alarmed, when buying some helpful sewerage equipment, to see their quote rise from US$13 per unit, to US$65 – in just 24 hours.
They decided it would be cheaper to buy the same kit from Botswana instead, even factoring in transport costs and import duties.
Christmas promises to be miserable indeed – but Zimbabwe’s very bleakness encourages some to believe 2009 can only be better, if utter chaos finally tips Mugabe out of office.
One leading human rights activist told Metro: ‘I’m excited about the new year. I feel the change is about to come. We’ve just about reached rock bottom.
‘Look at it all - first the schools closed, and then the universities, and they won’t reopen.
‘Hospitals are now shutting down, one by one.
‘Police officers are only surviving on the bribes they take at roadblocks, which is why there are so many on the roads now - they’ll just ask straight out, “What have you got for me?”, without bothering to search your car.
‘In fact, the only thing now - I just pray for the banks collapse.
For one day, the bankers to decide they’ll stay at home from now on. And then, when there’s no money at all, that really will be the end.’
*** FAMINE in Zimbabwe has become so severe, starving families have been feeding on the skin of a cow - slaughtered six years ago.
One man has died since starting to eat the hide, which had been used as a grime-ridden rug in a village near Bulawayo.
Children as young as two have also been eating the skin, in an area not only hit by starvation and cholera fears - but also a cattle anthrax outbreak.
They have also been eating potentially poisonous creeper plants, after failing to get hold of even the most basic supplies of grain.
During an undercover Metro visit to the chaotic country, sick villagers explained how hyper-inflation, drought and widespread food and seed shortages were forcing them into dangerous and desperate measures.
Grandmother-of-seven Ellinah, 66, said: ‘Since the summer, we’ve had no harvest.
‘People used to help by giving us food, but everything’s dried up now.
‘We had nothing to do but eat the unthinkable.
‘Our ancestors used to keep the skin of their beasts, in case of drought or famine.
‘We just didn’t know what else we could eat anymore. Whatever we can get our hands on these days, that goes down.’
One of her sons, 43-year-old Dumisan, died a fortnight ago, leaving three children.
His relatives insist he was killed by hunger, rather than by eating the cow-skin - though admit all feeling unwell, including fortnight-long bouts of diarrhoea.
The hide has been sliced around the edges and boiled in salted water for the past three months, shared by families living in several neighbouring mudhuts.
Two separate shreds still remain - though church aid workers have been trying to persuade the villagers to give them up.
The creeper plants are more often used by poor Zimbabwean families in crushed form, as shampoo.
Church group Zimbabwe Orphans through Extended hands (ZOE) has a warehouse in the nearby town of Nkayi - but it now stands empty.
Tearfund-backed ZOE workers have seen a feeding programme for 35,000 families rise in costs from £1million this year to £2million next year.
They now struggle to get hold of food and fuel in a country which now depends largely for supplies on expensive imports from South Africa and Botswana.
The World Food Programme estimates 5million Zimbabweans are in danger of starvation, in a country where many families must survive on earnings worth one US dollar per week.
*** HUNGER and deprivation may be sapping the strength, but not the spirit to go on, of starving families across Zimbabwe.
Some 35,000 families around Bulawayo look like missing out on much-needed supplies because Tearfund’s partner agency ZOE’s food aid programme has seen costs soar from £1million to £2million next year.
That kind of plight is replicated across the country, as hyper-inflation, corruption and harvest failures deny people access to help.
Gideon Chishamba’s church on the outskirts of Bulawayo cares for 69 children left orphaned by Aids, though he suspects many more are living in the area without support.
His church has had to cut, since September, their daily food hand-outs for the orphans – switching instead to weekly deliveries only.
Their partners in Harare were unable to afford – or get hold of – enough food anymore.
‘It was difficult to make that decision,’ Mr Chishamba said, with some under-statement.
The youngest orphan they support is a two-and-a-half-year-old boy, whose mother died eight months after giving birth and who is now brought up by his grandmother.
If grandparents are being forced to stay somehow younger than their years, by quasi-parental duties, then youths are having to mature unusually early.
Benevolence Mlotshua patiently, impassively scrubs his family’s rags in a foaming pail when visitors arrive at the isolated shack they tend in the village of Gumtree, near Bulawayo.
His seven-year-old sister Sinikiwe is even gloomier, barely raising even the glimmer of a smile, any signs of live-spirit at all, while trying her best to keep covered a protruding bellybutton that alarmingly resembles an old man’s hernia.
Benevolence, 19, comes across as authentically distraught – and disappointed in himself, somehow – to have left school at 13, following his builder father’s death from TB.
He has held down jobs, briefly, in gardening and carpentry, while his mother Sifisompofu takes ‘piece-work’ farming other people’s fields – whenever available.
Somehow this family of six – two other siblings have gone looking for better prospects in South Africa – survive on earnings worth about one US dollar per week.
That means only porridge for breakfast and sometimes supper too – or, occasionally, sadza, a foul-sounding concoction of thickened maize and boiled water.
‘I’d like to back to school and study carpentry or building,’ Benevolence said.
‘But at the moment, the priority is food – and whatever we can get’.
He does, however, express touching sadness at his sister being unable to buy herself a new dress – perhaps that might have perked her up a little. Perhaps.
‘Life’s tough right now,’ he added.
‘But we mustn’t just sit on our hands. We must try to find jobs.’
While traipsing towards their spartan, grimy mudhut, local pastor Lyton Moyo had mournfully noted: ‘To live in Zimbabwe at this hour, we need more than the grace of God.’
His church, Agape Missions, supports more than 100 families, however they can, but he admitted: ‘At times, you do wonder how people make it. What they earn, and the cost of living, just don’t tally.’
The chances of improvement in the New Year look dim – although there were patchy downpours that afternoon, the so-called rainy season as a whole has been extremely arid instead.
Not only is little likely to flourish in such scrubbed conditions, but hardly any seed has been planted anyway due to high prices and widespread shortages – not to mention corruption within local grain marketing boards, which control supply.
The large grain silos looming bulkily over Bulawayo have been almost entirely empty for most of the season, only occasionally taking delivery of enough to fill a single truck.
January, February and March are meant to be the growing months , but April looks set to bring the onset of an even more devastating famine than current conditions.
Mr Moyo said: ‘It’s very dry. In the normal season at this time, there should’ve been a lot of rain by now, but it’s been all dryness – and the most vulnerable people will suffer.
‘These starving families will ask our volunteers to scratch around for anything to help, but often they’re struggling to find food themselves.
‘I’ve taken food from my home, vegetables from my garden.
‘But we’ve not really had any food for hand-outs for the past three or four months.
‘The World Food Programme says they’re offering aid to 4million vulnerable people – but this doesn’t seem to be happening.
‘Cases which we think are deserving – which we know are deserving – are missing out.
‘People may not be dying directly as a result. But the people who are ill already are not surviving. Starvation is speeding up the process of dying.’
Even when volunteers do stop by with aid, they can often find no one at home – the inhabitants instead out and about, some hunting, some desperately searching for work or food.
Instead of real currency – whether the worthless Zimbabwe dollar, the US dollar, or South African rand – many farmers are paying employees in kind, with perhaps 2kg bags of maize.
Mr Moyo confesses to feeling ‘helpless, hopeless’, as he ponders the likelihood of families like Benevolence’s next tucking into boiled pumpkin leaves.
‘It’s very difficult to refer to “the nation”,’ he added.
‘We have no leadership at the moment. We’re in very, very bad books with the international community.
‘People talk about problems in Zimbabwe – above all, these are problems that hit hardest in the family, in the home.
‘When you want to sleep, and there’s no blanket.
‘When you want to cook, and there’s no food.
‘When you want to send your child to school, and you’ve no money for the fees or they’ve all closed down.
‘In Zimbabwe, you’re much more worse off in the home than in the street.’ *
*** ‘HE’S a devil, a devil. He’s killing people. He’s killing his own people.’
Grace Nyamayaro has no doubt Robert Mugabe has the blood on his hands of millions of Zimbabweans – including her husband and her son.
She shares an age – 84 – with the Zimbabwean dictator, but little else.
While Mugabe enjoys living in a 25-bedroom palace, within 44-acre grounds, she starves in her Bulawayo home, somehow summoning up just enough strength to raise her two orphaned grandchildren.
One of those, six-year-old granddaughter Tanyarandzwa, has been HIV+ since birth and needs regular visits to hospital.
On those occasions, Mrs Nyamayaro has no option but to carry the girl on her shoulders and make the 40km round trip on foot.
Quite a task for even the healthiest of young men, let alone a frail old lady often forced to go without even the most basic food, due to hyper-inflation, crop failures and shop shortages.
Yet she not only manages it at least fortnightly, she comes dynamically alive when asked who she blames for her – and her country’s – miserable plight.
8 0The president, he’s a devil,’ she rasped.
‘We’re struggling all the time he remains. He’s not doing anything.
‘I’m not going to vote, I’m so bitter about him.
‘My husband was killed by his men, and so was my son.’
She lost both these loved ones about five years ago, not long after Tanyarandzwa was born to parents who died within days of each other.
Her husband Jonnas was an anti-ZANU PF activist arrested by police and detained in prison.
He died mysteriously in his cell, something Grace only discovered when abruptly told to come in and identify his body.
Her son Douglas has not actually been confirmed dead – but is one of Zimbabwe’s ‘disappeared’ – missing, suspected abducted and murdered.
‘I don’t even know where my own son’s grave is,’ Mrs Nyamayaro wept.
‘I’ve tried everywhere to get answers – or compensation – but they just push me from city to city, office to office.
‘That’s why I really feel now that the president must step down.
‘He must somehow leave his post because of the trouble he’s caused, particularly here.
‘I’ve lived a miserable life. People are suffering. He20has failed.’
This is an opinion not only shared by more and more ordinary Zimbabweans – but voiced by them too, confident or reckless enough to state their views despite ever-present intimidation and threats.
Clearly those who do speak out put themselves at excruciating risk – as the recent kidnap of missing activist Jestina Mukoko has highlighted, along with the scars and bruises shown Metro by union leader Wellington Chibhebhe and persecuted grandfathers Bernard Haruzivishe and Andrew Maziye Sithole.
But still Bernard and Andrew are too proud not to keep battling their Zanu-PF oppressors – and too human not to whoop with delight even when simply discussing the day Mugabe finally leaves office.
Grace cannot punch, or leap into, the air the way those two gentlemen insist they will do, but her physical durability in the face of such relentless hardship is incredible still.
The name Tanyarandzwa translates as ‘We have been consoled’, though the youngster’s sombre expression shows just how little solace there is in her life.
And in one poignant moment, committed Christian Mrs Nyamayaro admitted: ‘I blame God. All things used to be okay – but now they’re not.
‘I also blame the government – we used to receive some help, but no more.’
She has to survive most days on a meagre evening meal, often simply a bowl of porridge – made from small bags of ‘mealie-meal’, or maize, scrimped from neighbours or church volunteers.
Most of the sparse food she does possess have come from another son, who splits what food he gets hold of between her and his own immediate family.
The same dish gets served up in the mornings, but for Tanyarandzwa only – not for her grandmother or her 12-year-old brother Tinashe.
‘It’s so she can take her medication,’ said Grace, referring to the anti-retroviral drugs to treat Tanyaranzwa’s HIV – and which it took four lengthy hospital visits to eventually secure.
‘The doctors say she should be eating well when she takes them, to try to keep her strength up.
‘But she still cries a lot during the day, out of hunger.
‘I have to ask her to be quiet because there’s really virtually nothing I can do about it. It hurts, because I’m so helpless.
‘It’s very difficult for me to be knocking on the neighbours’ doors for food.’