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Ignorance, apathy, misplaced priorities and climate change

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Wednesday, January 5th, 2011 by Natasha Msonza

Hatcliffe Extension is a bustling shantytown that developed over the years just on the outskirts of Harare. Here, a lot of the victims (read survivors) of 2005′s Operation Murambatsvina are still trying to rebuild their lives. The community has remarkably made a semblance of a decent urban life with well-outlined dust roads and strategically positioned boreholes. A Roman Catholic Church populated by uniformed women and manifested in the form of a neat wooden cabin defiantly stands in a corner. Opposite and across it are a crèche and an enterprising coffin shop. HIV and AIDS related deaths are still rife and a visible reality.

On a recent humanitarian reporting tour in that area, colleagues from the media went around looking for story ideas or took interest in exploring life in this semi-urban-semi-rural area. Personally I was struck by the plainness of the terrain around us, though this was interestingly not an issue of concern to any of the families I interviewed.

Madhuve, who is a social worker in that area proudly explained how the community had depleted the trees gradually and systematically over the years. At that point, we had been touring the modest little house that she managed to erect with the assistance of a local humanitarian assistance organization.

In a country that’s struggling to provide adequate electricity for industry and household use alike – let alone basic services like street lighting, communities find themselves with little alternatives outside cutting down trees in order to cook and keep warm. The elusive US dollar that has practically become the country’s official currency also does little to help.

“At first council had these silly regulations in place, but we went by night and in the wee hours of the morning to cut those trees. How were we supposed to cook for our families?” she said.

Gesturing with her arm widely in the distance, she punctuates boldly: “Takachenesa mese umu vakasarenda, ikozvino tavakugobora midzi yacho (we cleared all the trees until they (council) gave up, now we are even going for the tree roots!”

The few trees still standing are mostly the fruit trees littered across the small compounds of individuals. They survive because they don’t burn well, smoke too much or just do not make good cooking fuel.

Nowadays, Madhuve and the other residents of Hatcliffe Extension dig deep to buy firewood from vendors whom only God knows where they get it. A $3 bundle lasts barely two days for a family the size of Madhuve’s.

Asked whether she or the rest of the community have ever thought of exploring alternative sources of fuel like gas or the paraffin gel stoves, Madhuve gives me a look that silently labels me a crass idiot.

“And cook for how many on that small fire? Besides, can gas and paraffin be taken out of the garbage pit?” she asked. Obviously for her family of 12, it is impossible to cook a 5litre pot of sadza daily using these means.

Even though aware that the planting season has somehow shifted and temperatures somehow hotter than usual, climate change means nothing to Madhuve – not only because in her mother tongue there is no term for it, but also because she could not care less about the environment when trying to keep body and soul together is hard enough for ‘her kind’ in this economy. She was not about to be lectured on the importance of trees as natural carbon sinks, or that stripping the ground would run-off the rains when they did come.

Madhuve’s mindset is reflective of that of a lot of Zimbabweans: neither understanding nor caring about this climate change thing that journalists and other professionals are going on about. With little or no overtly deliberate public education, at the moment the subject evidently occupies the bottom-most rung of the government’s pecking order of priorities. Which begs the question; to what extent can developing countries (not in the category of China) be able to effectively play their part in combating, let alone adapting to this global phenomenon?

While civil society will go all out to train and re-train media professionals, do they stop to consider whether or not key decision and policy makers themselves understand this ‘thing’?

While the ongoing debates about climate change (now currently in Cancun, Mexico) and the need to preserve the environment continue, it has not occurred to a lot of green activists that as long as no practical solutions are being devised for ordinary people in Africa, this will continue to be a losing battle.

On a much lower scale, it takes very little for humanitarian assistance organizations to mainstream the culture of tree planting among the communities they work in, even if it means starting by upholding the previously tokenistic national tree planting day. This year has been unique because there has more noise in the media concerning how many trees have been planted. Some private initiatives have also set huge targets to support national tree planting. Lets keep the momentum.

Steps to becoming a good commuter omnibus driver

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Tuesday, December 7th, 2010 by Natasha Msonza
  1. Put on your turning indicator light and keep going straight when you reach the turn. Better yet, when you are actually going to turn ahead, do NOT indicate, just turn suddenly.
  2. When you reach the red traffic lights at an intersection, stop briefly but keep inching the omnibus nose forward. Somehow this makes the lights turn green faster.
  3. There is always an extra lane. And don’t buy that crap that you can’t overtake on the left. Zvinokushayisa shura.
  4. Play the music extra loud and maintain a constancy of between 100 – 120kph. You will need this for your own peace of mind and to drown the voices of annoying passengers (who often ask for needless change too). They lack business sense and appreciation for adrenalin.
  5. Any vehicle moving slower than yours should not be on the road at all. You can make sure this doesn’t happen by closely tailgating the car in front of you. But just be careful with the Mercs, you’d spend a lifetime paying for a dent.
  6. Keep loose small change on you at all times. Makes it easier with the cops. Always remember to call them ‘Chef’ and ‘Baas’ whenever you speak to them.
  7. You can stop and pick/drop a passenger anywhere and don’t even bother about the hazards. What do you mean ‘what if there is no stop sign?’
  8. When you pick up a passenger, the moment they lift a foot to get in, step on the gas. And remember, the benches are all designed to fit four passengers each, whatever their size. In extremely tight situations, you may situate one passenger paKadoma.
  9. Remember, the best public transport drivers are ones that learned on the job. Don’t bother about driving school, just start off as a Hwindi and occasionally hob nob with seasoned transporters especially those based on Harare, Chinhoyi and Kaguvi streets. If you can drive in that jungle, you can drive anywhere in the world.
  10. In the extremely rare and unlikely event that you get involved in an accident, jump out and RUN!

If you think you cant do all the above, get another day job, you are a loser.

City of Harare must just cut its losses

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Friday, October 22nd, 2010 by Natasha Msonza

The City of Harare has recently been issuing public notices in the press informing residents of flats and apartments about its intentions to phase out the bulk meter billing system. This, I am certain – is a welcome and noble development among most tenants especially in view of the chaos caused by the Zim dollar – US dollar changeover. Tactless estimates were made and coupled with the new currency being beyond the majority’s reach – this saw tenants accrue and inherit impossible water and rates bills. The state department claims it is currently being owed close to $130 million.

What threatens to derail the process of people acquiring individualized water meters is the rigid precondition that all candidates first clear outstanding accounts of bills accrued on the bulk water meters before submitting their applications.

Meanwhile, last Tuesday Herald’s headlines screamed – Water disconnections loom – with City of Harare promising to soon embark on a massive water disconnection exercise. Flats have been encouraged to defray this by entering into some kind of payment plan with the department, to settle their arrears. The payment plan still includes putting in hefty down payments first before having your arrears staggered. Surely, if people had the thousands demanded by City of Harare, they would have simply paid in the beginning rather than live with this burden hanging over their heads and feeding off their peace of mind.

A lot of households in some of Harare’s most populous suburbs like Mbare, Mabvuku, Tafara, Chizhanje and Kuwadzana were disconnected a long time ago. Is this the best City of Harare can do? It is not as if this will solve the problem. If anything, one would imagine that the 2008-2009 cholera outbreaks left a lasting impression enough to disqualify the option of disconnecting water from the masses. Soon, most of Harare is going to be without running water, and then what? We know they badly need the money, but this cost recovery exercise is as good as futile as it is doomed to fail. People simply do not have that kind of money.

For a country once ravished and traumatized by cholera, I think holding us at ransom with this threat is not the wisest thing to do. City fathers really need to find lasting solutions other than allowing COH to hold the cholera noose above our heads. Essentially that is what they are saying; pay or get ready to die.

I think it is high time the COH cut its losses, calls it quits and moves on. Letting go of all that money would certainly be hard, but that does not dismiss the necessity of doing it. There are times in life when it is more logical to stop doing something that is already failing in order to reduce the amount of time and money being wasted on it.

As a state department, COH has a lot of leeway to exercise that kind of ‘leniency’. I mean, besides the fact that it might be the smartest thing to do, I think it is only fair because these debts were especially a result of circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Everybody knows that the country’s general economic downturn with the subsequent dollarization contributed immensely to these problems, and this is so widespread to the extent that what you can count on one hand, is those who actually do not owe anything to COH.

Much as the COH is insisting on going on like someone who has been grievously wronged, they must remember that we have all had to cut our losses. For instance, imagine what would happen if all former Zim dollar account holders started hectoring the banks about conversion and compensation for all the trillions they lost.

My other submission is, just how legal is the exercise of using estimates (which greatly contributed the huge debts people accrued in the first place). If it is, I think citizens deserve a chance to challenge the validity of charging people what they did not consume. A good way forward is for COH to put good billing systems in place, then start charging reasonably for actual usage. They would be amazed how much people would be motivated and willing to cooperate when given a chance to start on a fresh slate.

Moreover, if COH simply writes off what it is supposedly owed, psychologically this is enabling and good for the ratepayer because their contributions become more meaningful when no longer pitted against an impossible debt that they will never be in a position to offset in this lifetime. Picture this, say someone owes COH an interest- accruing debt of $4000, paying $25 in a month against this is like a drop in the ocean, which does not do much to motivate anyone to pay any more. It is like trying to squeeze water out of a rock, literally. Let’s get real; the majority of citizens either do not have regular sources of income or are civil servants, earning less than $300 per month. With issues of rent, school fees and basic existence, you do the math.

Munya’s compensation for depression

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Friday, October 22nd, 2010 by Natasha Msonza

I had told myself I was not going to comment on the Zimbabwe Big Brother candidate – Munyaradzi Chidzonga’s loss conundrum. I mean, enough criticism already. However, for someone who supported the state’s parting with $1.8 million for the Warriors-Samba Boys friendly, I have recently been accused of hypocrisy for not supporting the Munya (as he is affectionately known) money initiative by some close friends. I have defended the former by saying; at least over 40 thousand people were involved, versus just one person. But that is fodder for another post.

When I watched the unprecedented meet with the president on the news yesterday, I was motivated to highlight that the kerfuffle around Munya and his subsequent reception of 300 thousand USD in ‘compensation fees to cushion him against depression’ served at least one good purpose for me; the opportunity to witness our leaders demonstrate their ability to raise big funds in a considerably short space of time.

One word from a flaky professor and another from an obscure land tycoon and just like that, on a whim, thousands were raised in less than a week. If this were to be done on a sustained basis for more meaningful things, imagine what that would do for our country’s development. Imagine what 300 thousand can do for the non-working traffic lights and potholes littering Harare’s streets; hundreds of needless deaths would be avoided. Imagine what a similar initiative would add to the lives of the displaced folk living and scavenging like animals at Borrowdale race course…

Hopefully none of that money was donated from the collective taxpayers’ pocket.

As I watched the news, I vaguely couldn’t help drawing thin parallels between the big rush for the ‘Diamond boy’ and the diesel n’anga circus. Quite an embarrassment to see such big men getting caught up in such silly things. As someone I know would say it, it just somehow feels super-stupid.

When the First Spin Crowd set to work, the Munya fundraising campaign seemed to suddenly precipitate into something of a publicity gimmick masquerading under the guise of wish granting, with Munya in the centre as the oblivious pawn. Words like youth empowerment, sovereignty, and son of the soil interestingly found their way into the President’s speech at the colourful reception at state house. Talk about grabbing slight opportunities.

And who would have thought Gushungo was a fan or even had the time to watch Big Brother. Perhaps we can put this down to the work of an excellent briefing by the First Spin Crowd, who are we kidding? But one thing is for certain, they conveniently neglected to inform the president that the son of the soil had just come back from a house that harboured totemless, nicotine addicted youths among which were women who often kissed each other full on the mouth. The First Homophobe would have rather died than be remotely associated with such.

For the icing on the cake; asked (Big Brother style) what he was going to do with all that cash, the ever grinning young man looked into the camera and said, “I’m going to use the bulk of it to market and promote my movie,” referring to some obscure production in which he featured, that we are yet to know the full details of. Let’s just say it was a relief to know that speech was going to end and that he was courteous enough not to abuse the redundant and clichéd charity card. Now that would have defeated the whole idea, wouldn’t it?

Urban accommodation woes

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Wednesday, September 29th, 2010 by Natasha Msonza

Landlords, I will be most reliable when it comes to paying rent. I promise to pay rentals on or before the 26th of every month. I am looking for a one/two bed flat in the avenues and would want to pay $250-$300. So please just text me I will call you back if you have one. I will be very reliable and smart and will make sure your flat is kept nicely. Also note that my family is too small it’s just me and my beautiful, smart wife.

Dips please help me, Eddie.

No joke, the above is an advert that appeared on Dipleague Vol 27, Issue 123 of yesterday. For those who are not on it or do not know it, it is an email based community platform, originally tailored for those in the ‘Diplomatic’ and NGO community to post adverts for goods and services offered or requested, among other things.

When I saw the advert above, I couldn’t control my laughter for at least 2 minutes. That’s because I have been at that level of desperation where you’ll say anything, including the ridiculous – to make your case stand out among the throngs of other desperate home seekers mushrooming in Zimbabwe’s capital. After moving into a beautiful flat in April this year, I was gutted when a few weeks later I discovered that the ceiling has cracks that frequently leak water onto my floor and property from the flat above. It is such a nightmare because both my neighbor upstairs and absentee landlord does not seem to give a rat’s ass about it.

I found Eddie’s email particularly fascinating because it symbolizes the desperation of the condition of those of us who are home seeking, are of no fixed abode and not yet at a stage of affording one’s own property. Trying to capture the sympathy of prospective landlords is the one thing we all have in common and many a times, I have come across things like: young married couple with no children, looking for accommodation…or, mature white lady seeks flat to rent in town or Avondale, or young single man working for NGO seeking flat.

It is that bad, and what it means is that this has astronomically pushed up rentals, which is likely to worsen the urban accommodation crisis. What also contributes significantly to the problem is that today’s young working class prefer to live in areas closer to the central business district for the convenience they offer in terms of transport and availability of utilities like water and electricity.

Although the dollarized economy has created a new caliber of noveau riche, this is also ironically a time when the young middle and working class earn the greenback but cannot build homes for themselves because just getting a stand (and in the right area) is next to impossible; the banks simply aren’t up to lending (especially without collateral outside one’s salary) or it is just too expensive to build. The only other option is to rent and this has ultimately left tenants at the mercy of landlords.

Those who have been fortunate enough to own property at a very young age I guess will just never know what it feels like to live a nomadic life.

Being among this working class, I have constantly found myself thinking about the future and wondering if, like my parents, I will ever own a place of my own. Seeking to understand what is different now from the time they were young and home seeking too reveals that if anything, they earned far less than what we earn today. I realize now that it was about systems that worked; banks that lent, with low interest rates and gave you many years to pay back and most importantly – a government preoccupied with and committed to alleviating the housing problems faced by its citizens. That is what changed.

Paying for what is yours

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Monday, September 6th, 2010 by Natasha Msonza

This weekend I read one Jonathan Kadzura’s article in the Sunday Mail titled: Time to reclaim what is ours. He was rightfully bemoaning the fact that opportunities for growth of local businesses by local people were increasingly shrinking because of “petty so-called international investors” who have invaded our retail industry. According to Kadzura, we are in a really pathetic situation where this has seen foreigners sell our very own orange crush (Mazoe) to us at astronomical prices. I agreed with him until a few paragraphs later he started waxing lyrical about the nobleness of the indigenization drive that our “educated but colonized minds” don’t seem to be interested in upholding, but that is another story. Talk about having one’s own stuff sold to you at astronomical prices, I was reminded of an incident that happened with my cell phone last Friday.

I was on my way to a popular lodge in Glen Lorne for a meeting when I stopped briefly at Town and Country supermarket for a few supplies. Flustered and in a major hurry because I was already 15 minutes late, I never realised that I didn’t have my cell phone only until I was getting ready to settle for the meeting.  I searched everywhere, from my laptop bag to the car until that panicked feeling you seem to get especially when you can’t find your phone set in. I immediately borrowed a phone and dialled my number; meanwhile I was listening hard for it in the car. For a long time, it alternately rang continuously, was engaged or the call was rejected. I started to really panic, but I kept dialling.

Eventually, a man’s voice came on the phone and my mind suddenly went blank. What do you say to someone who evidently picked up your phone? Did I drop it or he nicked it off me? In that same moment, I managed to squeeze in a thought that this was probably just one of those annoying cross-lines that have recently become a regular accompaniment to dialling Econet numbers. Somehow I managed to mumble that I was looking for my phone and I would like it back please.

What followed was a conversation I am bound to remember for a long time. He acknowledged that yes he had my phone, provided his name and address and said I should know he was just an honest man, simple man – a security man at that and he had done me a huge favour. He was therefore requesting that I bring a monetary reward for it. Nothing less than $20, he said.

Cleary, the man underestimated my ability and capability to thank him sufficiently and therefore sought to lay out terms well in advance. My next thought was; what kind of a Good Samaritan was this who demands ransom for the return of my phone?

Initially, I didn’t know how to react. Obviously, my phone – a Sony Ericson W350 was worth a whole lot more than $20 and certainly, I was grateful that the man had been honest enough to give it up. But for him to demand payment for it was just something else. I mean, I think if one has been humble enough to recover somebody’s property, they can extend that humility to waiting for that person to offer a reward as and when they feel like, and for an amount they are comfortable with. In the end I just thought to give him the money and get it over with. However, because I couldn’t leave my meeting, I gave the details to my partner and asked him to go and get the phone, and of course, remember to carry $20. Less than an hour later, the police had somehow been involved and I found myself in a position where I had to provide evidence that the man had indeed demanded payment. Knowing men and their big egos, a dispute had somehow erupted between my partner and the Good Samaritan, with the former insisting that he shouldn’t have demanded any specific payment but should have just waited to be rewarded accordingly. The police had it that according to the law, if one picks up valuable property like a phone; they are supposed to hand it in at the nearest police station. It is also illegal to demand a reward for recovering lost property. They called it solicitation. The police were particularly interested in this case because, from their reasoning, it was important to discourage such behaviour to avoid situations where people nick valuables off others only to demand payment for their safe return. By this time the man had realised the folly of what he had done and handed over my phone, claiming that he had just been joking. Clearly in bad taste.

Later on I went back to my meeting and left the police dealing with the issue. No sooner had I started settling back in did I receive a text message from someone claiming they were the phone-picker’s employer. They were essentially accusing me of being an ingrate who let the police loose on an innocent old man who had jocularly asked for money for a drink. Well, first of all I had nothing to do with his ending up at the police and secondly, the man had demanded payment and prescribed an exact amount too. However, I just texted back and told her she could go to hell for judging me and that next, the police would be coming for her for harassment. But then again, under any circumstances, does it make any sense to pay heavily for what is already yours to someone else who somehow managed to get their hands on it?