The capital is home to thousands of street people, many of them children – the victims of poverty and harsh government policies.
By Josephine Gwara in Harare (AR No. 115, 5-June-07)
Chipo Sithole turns 16 towards the end of this year. Her birthday will mark the end of her career as a beggar and, very likely, the beginning of a new life as a prostitute.
“I cannot continue begging because of my age,” she explained. “What normally happens is that girls of my age graduate from begging to prostitution.”
Chipo lives on the streets of Harare, sleeping in an open-air market. She is among more than 12,000 street people in the Zimbabwe capital, according to City of Harare estimates. Deepening poverty and the effects of Operation Murambatsvina (clear out the rubbish) continue to haunt Zimbabwe two years after Robert Mugabe’s government bulldozed the dwellings of the urban poor in a military-style operation condemned worldwide.
The situation is similar in other urban centres. People have run away from the settlements they were forced into after the destruction of their homes in the cities, where districts that voted overwhelmingly for the opposition were razed to the ground.
Thousands are also fleeing their drought-stricken rural homes where government has restricted the distribution of relief aid by non-governmental organisations.
The ripple effects of Operation Murambatsvina are there for all to see. Those who had no rural homes to go to were forced into camps, where the government refused NGOs the right to provide tents and food. Those who’ve escaped accuse government agencies of ill-treating them, distributing donor food on partisan lines and denying them access to government-built houses.
The youngest amongst them – street kids – hustle motorists, offering to guard their cars for a fee. They form a class of their own and have well-defined territories, which they fiercely guard. Many have lost one or both parents, mainly as a result of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which claims 3,000 people in Zimbabwe weekly.
The youngest street kids sleep anywhere they can find space, while many of the older ones head for the suburb of Mbare, where they stay the night at the local bus terminus, pretending to be travellers waiting to resume their journey the following day.
One of the latter is Fungisai Murape, a victim of Operation Murambatsvina. She shows receipts, which she guards like treasured possessions, for the rent she paid for a two-roomed cabin where she lived before it was destroyed by a bulldozer.
“I have nowhere to go,” she said. “When I was evicted I moved from one relative to the next but as you know due to the economic hardships, there is a breakdown of extended families.
“Some were honest enough to tell me that it was impossible to live with them. There is a shortage of accommodation in Harare and where it is available, I can’t afford it. So I have resigned myself to living in the street.”
The street kids endure freezing cold nights in the sleeping areas they refer to as “bases”. Chipo Sithole shares hers in Mbare with six other children, whose ages range between seven and ten years.
She offers them protection, for a fee. The children surrender their begging earnings to her, and she buys the food they eat at night, which depends on the amounts made that day.
She is not looking forward to becoming a prostitute. However, the only other choice, she says, is to continue exploiting her young charges, who need her protection, mostly from sexual abuse by older street kids and adults.
“It is even tougher for the younger ones, both boys and girls, because they also have to deal with rape from fellow street kids and then also these older men. Some of the kids are picked up while begging at street corners by men in cars and others are raped where we sleep,” she said.
“But because we have no rights in this country, when we go and report to the police, they chase us away and don’t take our cases seriously. They first ask where the child lives and when she says on the streets, they sneer at us and tell us not to bother them because we are from the streets.”
Asked where “her kids” came from, she said four were orphans and the others ran away from abusive stepparents.
The government has failed to deal with the issue of street people and all their interventions have failed. Some street people have been rounded up more than five times, but they still find their way back on to the streets of Harare.
Josephine Gwara is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.