They say the heavy burden of the world is carried on the woman’s shoulder, a heart-breaking truth in the on-going crisis faced by the Zimbabwean community, while the future that has been declared to be in the hands of the children seems to be seeping through their fingers. Although the people of Zimbabwe as a whole have been affected, women and children are mostly on the receiving end of the harsh punishment that the economic situation is administering.
A woman carrying 2 buckets of water, while she carries a baby on her back, sounds fictitious. It is, however, the reality on the ground for many women in the high-density suburbs of Zimbabwe, and in this particular case, women in the town of Chitungwiza, where we, as Digital Spaces Lab, did our first immersion experience. Of the problems that have been affecting Zimbabweans in the past few years, we take a closer look at the effects of water shortages.
Mrs Makanda is a 33 year old woman, who between spending most of her daily life looking for and fetching water at the boreholes and local wells, has to endure verbal, physical, and sexual abuse while waiting in queues. She gave us an account of how the water crisis has dramatically affected her life.
The Zimbabwe water situation is not new. For over ten years, Chitungwiza residents have faced water rationing, with the worst cases being recorded in 2019 where some parts of the town have not had running water for over 7 months.
Outbreaks of Cholera and Typhoid have been occurring for years, with the worst case recorded in 2008, resulting in the declaration of a state of emergency by the government and a request for international aid. The first cases of the outbreak are believed to have surfaced in Chitungwiza. The United Nations sent aid, and with the help of the government, it was contained.
The water situation has not improved since then, with a water rationing schedule being released and maintained for over five years. ‘What helped us is that we adapted and started looking for water containers to store our water in, and even that was not enough since we needed more containers, and that needs money. We have no money and we are already struggling as it is,” said Mrs Makanda.
Her daily routine seems to be monotonous. She wakes up at 3 am, leaving her children behind, and heads out to look for water. She scouts the areas where water is available and chooses the least populated, the water source with the shortest queue. The shortest queue is a kilometre away from her home so she makes her way and lines her buckets with the rest of the people who got there before her.
‘Some of these people have been here since yesterday and some, since midnight. I cannot spend most of the night away from home since I have a small child and another who goes to school,' she said as she sat on one of her containers, waiting.
She stares into oblivion for a few minutes before she turns and speaks about how she is worried about the children she left at home, how she needs to clean, cook, and how hurt she is that she has to let her eight year old get herself ready for school in her absence.
Speaking to a few more ladies at the borehole, it is clear that most of them have been affected by these routines mentally and physically. Having to manually use the borehole and carry 100 litres of water almost every day is weighing down on them heavily, and yet that is not the only work that they have to do as housewives. They wish life could be different, and that they could spend more time with their families and do productive work for themselves.
“I am a vendor. I make fries and samoosas to sell. The business was going quite well when there were water rations but now I cannot afford to sell anything. Ndihwo watova hupenyu hwangu (This is my life now),” the last words coming out almost a mumble.
Since March 2019, most areas in Chitungwiza like Unit M where Mrs Makanda stays, have not received a drop of the resource. As a result, boreholes have been crowded from morning to night, with everyone hoping to get a chance to acquire at least 20 litres of water. However, more problems are emerging from this new assembly point.
“A lot of things happen here at the borehole. Some of the men and boys who come before us secure at least 5 places individually. When we get here, we are already at number 50 to 70 in the queue behind them. When they have secured their spots they sell numbers, and if you do not buy a spot from them, others will, and you have to sit and watch while people who come later than you get access to water,” she said angrily.
Disappointment sweeps through her face before she speaks again. "Most of us here are women, wives, and we have to conduct ourselves in an honourable manner. The ones who try to stand up for themselves end up being involved in fights with men, and many left this place with wounds and scars after police came to control the noise.”
There have been reports of sexual harassment from women who have had their buttocks grabbed by men while they stood in the queues or when they have been caught up in the struggles that occur at water sources.
“Tinobatwa kuno and hapana wekuudza because ana baba vemba tinovatya (We are always sexually harassed here and there is nobody to report to because we are afraid of what our husbands will say)" she added.
Having finally fetched her water at 3 in the afternoon, Mrs Makanda puts her child on her back. Her son has been brought to her by her sister some time in the morning. She makes her way back home where she finds her grade 2 daughter already back from school.
It has been a long day of waiting in the sun and the heat has taken a toll on her. She delegates her 13 year old sister and 8 year old daughter to help her fetch the remaining buckets from the borehole where she left them, full of water.
Although she might have been willing to fetch the water on her own, she is tired and her sister and daughter are ready to help. “Every time I send them to the borehole, I do not feel settled because cases of rape have been reported here. We are not sure if it is rape or vana vanenge vaita musikanzwa (or children who get up to mischief),” she added.
Speaking to some of the people at the borehole, they confirmed a few borehole-related pregnancies with only one of them reported as rape. It is alleged that young women and men have used the late hours to venture into sexual activities while some have actually been raped in areas surrounding the water sources. This prompted most parents to stop sending children to the borehole after hours and committees to stop borehole operations at 10 pm and opening at 3 am.
While children are willing to help their parents to fetch water, it has affected them physically and mentally as well. Before and after school, children as young as ten have to look for water for home use and for bathing. It has affected their schedule at school, as some are often late. Some actually end up missing lessons while they wait in queues.
At one of the boreholes, we spoke to a young man doing his form 4 in Chitungwiza, and he complained that this is affecting his studies as he sometimes has to miss classes, and when he does attend, he usually falls asleep during the lessons.
“You see, now I have missed classes. I came here yesterday at 7 pm to secure my spot in the queue. It is one o’clock and I still have not fetched water. I sleep during classes because I have to finish chores as my mother at home suffers from heart problems,” said the young man.
Minors, as young as grade 5, have become accustomed to carrying twenty litres of water on their heads and are reportedly expected to bring water to school.
On the flip side, the women have formed a small community at the boreholes where they interact, build relations and promote businesses amongst each other.
Women and children of Chitungwiza have pleaded with the council to improve services in the water supply sector, as they were promised water in the past month after Morton Jaffray Water Works was closed and reopened.
Speaking to the Mayor of Chitungwiza, Cllr Lovemore Maiko, the water distribution issue is out of their hands as they can only deal with the supply that they are availed by the Harare City Council.
“We need about seventy mega litres of water supply daily but we have only been getting twenty percent of our daily needs in a week. Meaning that we have to ration twenty percent of a daily supply and stretch it over a week, which is why you will see most parts of the town not receiving water over long periods of time,” he said.
He went on to explain how the council is trying to resuscitate some idle boreholes to help ease the burden on some overused boreholes in the town.
Cllr Maiko also addressed the issue of sewerage saying that the council has been trying its level best to deal with the worst issues in the town but it has been difficult as the council itself is incapacitated.
Lastly, he touched on an issue raised about the abuse of wetlands in most parts of Chitungwiza saying that part of it is political and the council finds itself powerless. However, they have been trying to deal with illegal structures that are built on wetlands to prevent further disruptions to sources of the resource.
In the meantime, women and children continue with this lifestyle, hoping that sometime soon things will turn out for the better.