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Plight of the disabled needs attention in Zimbabwe

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Tuesday, July 27th, 2010 by Natasha Msonza

18 year old Grace

Grace Nezandoi from Mucheke village in Bikita is no ordinary eighteen year-old girl. She was born third in a family of five. Her two elder brothers aged 20 and 22 alternately change her underwear and sanitary wear even when she is menstruating. They do everything from bathing her to washing soiled underwear and blankets.

Grace has advanced mental retardation, cannot talk, moves with the aid of a wheelchair and has never seen the door of a school. What is devastating about her situation is, her two younger siblings aged 15 and 5 are also in a similar mental and physical predicament. Her parents both live but are hardly ever there. Her father is a soldier while her mother joined the rest of the bandwagon of Zimbabweans trying to make ends meet in South Africa.

Although the Nezandoi family is regularly visited and assisted by a voluntary care-giver, the three disabled siblings need more attention than what they are currently getting. However, Grace is the most affected. According to the care-giver escorting us on this assignment, it is in the best interest of Grace for her uterus to be removed so that she stops menstruating. Grace’s mother has strongly objected to the idea.

According to the Zimbabwean law, 18 is the legal age of majority and Grace should be in a position to make certain bodily decisions for herself. However, because of her multiple disabilities – her guardians are mandated by law to make any such decisions on her behalf.

The fact that her able-bodied brothers have to physically handle her sanitary issues must not only be devastating and traumatizing for them; it also means Grace is potentially exposed to abuse and has to endure the indignity of having her soiled underwear handled by men. It also emerged that Grace shares her bed with her 15-year-old disabled brother.

I had the privilege of meeting Grace’s unique family on a recent UNICEF sponsored initiative for journalists and other media professionals. I tagged along with the group of journalists assigned to finding new humanitarian angles to living with disability. As the scribes struggled to ask questions and clicked away on their cameras, Grace silently sat in a corner with a blank stare; grinning often and completely oblivious to what was taking place.

I interviewed 20 year-old Duet, the forlorn second eldest brother. The eldest seemed pretty annoyed at our presence and clearly did not want to talk. I could only imagine what this was doing to them, the stigma surrounding having three disabled siblings, relatives that distance themselves and girlfriends that bolt the moment they know about this family, fearing tainted genes.

Duet is a student at the Midlands State of University and has had to miss some of his lectures in order to take care of his three disabled siblings. He appears to have accepted his situation, but only God knows what goes on deep inside him. He voiced that his biggest wish is for his three siblings to be able to attend Chiratidzo – a nearby school for the disabled. He felt that it was important for them to mingle with other children in a similar state so that they feel they are not alone. However, the biggest challenge is transport, apart from the fact that the family will not be in a position to afford school fees.

In a country once referred to as “one of the most disability-accessible countries in Africa”, with supposedly greater availability of friendly disability legislation, free public transport and eligibility for government disability allowance – one tends to wonder what hope exists for a family such as Grace’s as systems continue to deteriorate in Zimbabwe. The country’s social welfare department is probably at its most impoverished and demoralised at this stage as it can hardly afford to offer any assistance to disabled and disadvantaged children. In the not so long ago past, the ministry has paid out monthly pittance per disabled child. Now, even that has not been forthcoming, and in the face of this – local minibus services are unwilling to take the time and trouble to load up children in wheelchairs.

While the constitutional outreach programme is underway, these are some of the issues that need serious attention. Children in these circumstances are scattered all over the country; a number of them hidden from society while many will never have a shot at normal life because of prohibitive socio – economic and policy factors.

For the Nezondoi family, some local NGOs have given aid in the form of food, wheel chairs and other non-food items. However, the care giver expressed disappointment in the fact that the aid has been piecemeal while the situation calls for more sustained assistance.

Back at the workshop venue, I listened to journalists debating the ethical considerations encountered in covering this unusual story. One colleague from a popular local tabloid thought there was a much bigger story and sought to explore the bizarreness of three children all born with multiple disabilities in a family where their older siblings are ‘normal’. Another colleague thought it would be interesting to investigate how this might be affecting the social lives of the brothers.

Personally, I was numbed by my inability to do anything that would make a difference in this family’s life. Most of all, I found myself battling over and over in my head, what I would do if I ever found myself in such a situation? Would stopping Grace from menstruating be tantamount to denying her her rights? Was it correct to assume that she would someday live a normal life? That one day someone will love her and want to marry her? Would she ever have her own children and be able to fend for them?

In the end we were all just journalists. Intrigued by the unusual and wanting to be the first to tell it. However, I always value such encounters, because they serve as another opportunity to remind me to be thankful each day for who I am and what I have as well as appreciate the little things we take for granted.

Just a FIFA moment

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Monday, June 7th, 2010 by Natasha Msonza

Last week, Kubatana sent out a text message asking Zimbabweans what they thought about the state parting with $1.8 million as payment for Brazil’s Samba boys to come in for a friendly with our national team, the Warriors. They also sought to influence our conscience by reminding us that this was being done in the face of our civil servants getting peanut salaries. I don’t know how far true this business of paying $1.8 million is since ZIFA has been denying ‘such allegations’, but I remember looking at Kaka that day and thinking that clearly, Kubatanas are not soccer fanatics.

I was among the 40 thousand plus crowd that thronged the national sports stadium for the friendly and I must say; it was an electrifying experience .The atmosphere was just eclectic with cars everywhere and momentarily, all paths leading to the stadium turned into one-way streets. The excitement was infectiousness and previously at the office, we had all been having a hard time concentrating on what we were doing, watching the clock like eagles for the half-day knock off.

Like at all football matches, people saw this as an opportunity to flaunt their different ‘jerseys’ depicting the international teams they supported. Among them were the bright yellow Brasil T-shirts that I think somehow just look better on women. Inside the stadium, vuvuzelas did most of the talking and the crowd did not seem to mind the noise or the fact that uncle Bob turned up – as is usual when the national team plays – to jinx the match. Only this time, credit clearly could not be pinned on the geriatric leader.  That Zim would lose to Brazil was predetermined. But we didn’t care. If anything, Zimbabweans in the stadium that day struggled with the true test of loyalty and patriotism tugging at their consciences and had a hard time trying not to support both teams. At the end of the day it didn’t matter which team one supported. It was enough just being there.

Seeing Kaka and Juan in flesh and bone was our Fifa moment, and the Zimbabweans in that place could not give a flying fart whether $1.8 million was paid for it or not.

Moreover, it’s not like that money would have been put to better use anyway, we all know that. And if it’s any consolation to know, by FIFA standards, $1.8 million is nothing compared to what some of these players are paid internationally. Recently, Real Madrid reportedly parted with an obscene € 8m to get one of the world’s most prestigious coaches, Jose Mourinho. Kaka is currently the highest paid soccer player in the world, with an annual salary pegged at $12.87 million. This tells me that for Brazil, it wasn’t about the money.

Nobody was ‘bussed-in’ to come and watch that match. Zimbabweans from all corners of the country willingly drove their cars or walked to the stadium and paid their hard earned money to watch the game. For those 90 minutes, 40 thousand Zimbabweans momentarily forgot they had problems. Men smuggled in vodka and made merry, for the match provided an excuse to drown their sorrows. Some were already vomiting, way before kick-off. Women clad in tight leggings and boots danced sele like crazies. It was sheer craziness.  At kick-off, the stadium steps shook and reverberated with feet stomping excitedly on the terraces. It was like being 10 again for most of us. Apart from the lousy sound system supporting the big screen and the visibly smitten mousy woman behind me who annoyingly kept screaming, ‘come on Kaka’ each time the player had the ball at his feet, this promised to be a good match. At the end of 90 minutes we had of course lost the game, but we did not go home unhappy people. If anything, the only thing that dampened our spirits was the cold and long hours spent in the slow-moving traffic negotiating our way out of stadium grounds.

So to answer the question, what do I think about paying $1.8 million (that easily would otherwise have been used for some obscure purpose like shopping in Malaysia by you know who) – if it meant seeing the five-time world cup champion team playing live on our soil; if it meant experiencing 90 minutes of hectic action and excitement and momentarily forgetting how some people are everyday screwing up this beautiful country for us and lastly, to see 40 thousand Zimbabweans laugh out loud for once with great abandon despite all their problems; the answer is I’d have that again, any day.

The death penalty

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Friday, April 23rd, 2010 by Natasha Msonza

I found it rather ironic recently that just after reading in the Mail & Guardian of this week that Zimbabwe’s Chikurubi prison has for the past 5 years been struggling to find a hangman; I encountered the Fingaz’s opinion by CZ bemoaning the death sentence in Zimbabwe. He was especially bemoaning the fact that opponents of the death penalty are amazingly silent at a time they should be making a lot of noise while the constitution is currently being debated. According to the M&G, the absence of an executioner has meant that some 50+ men on death row have been leading traumatized lives awaiting execution.  Others have gone as far as 10 years on the waiting list, living in isolation and at real risk of losing their sanity. If these reports are anything to go by, it means for the past five years or so there have been no legal executions in the country (if that’s any consolation to CZ), thanks to the job nobody wants notwithstanding the 94% unemployment rate in Zimbabwe as observed by M&G.

Because CZ was extremely impassioned about the issue of capital punishment to the extent of expending three quarters of the Notebook – where there are usually numerous brief paragraphs of other stories, I started to interrogate my own feelings about the death penalty. While I appreciate the observations CZ made concerning wrongful execution and the irreversibility of death, I could not help but think (and this is a very personal opinion) that I wouldn’t want complete abolishment of the practice in view of the fact that in some situations, only the death of an offender will give other people peace of mind.

Most of my colleagues are completely opposed to the idea of any human being taking it upon themselves to kill another asking where anyone obtains the moral high ground to play god. Well, the very same ground from whence criminals obtain the impetus to commit heinous crimes against humanity I have said.

The declaration of rights says everyone (including rapists and murderers) has the right to life and security of person, and that our exercising our rights shouldn’t impinge on the rights of others. The declaration is ofcourse silent on what should happen in the event of impingement of rights.

CZ in his article intelligently observes that the death sentence ‘…serves no particular use…unless one argues that they derive satisfaction from people being dead!’ I would like to point out that people sometimes do derive something valuable; namely peace, closure and a sense of retribution! Remember Stephen Chidhumo and Edward Masendeke  – the notorious armed robbers and murderers who in 1995 escaped death row and relentlessly terrorized citizens.  Did not the collective exhale of society happen only after their respective executions? Sometimes snuffing out undesirables is the only way of preventing the needless deaths of others.

The question that probably begs an answer is – how does any society determine which crimes warrant the death penalty? In Zimbabwe, I know treason tops the list on the list that includes murder, mutiny, drug trafficking and any such crimes that may be sentenced by the court.  Like in Egypt, I think rape, especially of minors should also form part of that core list.

Some say that killing serial criminals is too easy, and to a certain extent I agree. But until such a time they devise a higher form of punishment more severe than just a lifetime’s detention for heinous crimes, the death sentence might be the ultimate pain to be inflicted on those who cause the pain and anguish of others. Take child rapists for example. The only way I wouldn’t oppose their execution is if their prescribed punishment is castration or subjection to daily torture that probably entails cutting off a body part each day until they die from the agony of it.

I take you back to an issue I raised not long ago, about the rapist who attempted to molest my cousin and only God knows whose child else he previously managed to subdue. While justice still has not been obtained for my cousin (yes the hurdles continue), the man is traumatizing my aunt (who is a defenseless single parent by the way) and her children day and night. Sometimes he knocks repeatedly on her door at night like a mad man, and nobody will touch him because Labor has conveniently stepped in. May I hasten to add that the guy paid admission of guilt.

It is people like him whose necks I wouldn’t mind if the hangman (if he gets found) tightens the noose around. Hell, if I had the guts, I’d do it myself. Capital punishment should be a preserve for malcontents like him, who are guilty of heinous crimes like violating defenseless little girls, admit to such and yet show no remorse and have the nerve to continue traumatizing their victim just because the flawed arms of the law allow scum like him to slip through the clutches of justice. No sir, may capital punishment carry on especially for such because when they depart the earth, only then will peace prevail in our lives.

Capital punishment – is a legal and effective form of punishment. And if only one potential murderer, assassin or terrorist is deterred from committing a capital crime because he or she fears the death penalty, then that single act of deterrence has effectively reduced the loss of lives.
- T. Max Beer Jr, Liberia

Life in Zimbabwe in the time of measles

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Thursday, April 15th, 2010 by Natasha Msonza

A few weeks ago I got a rare opportunity to go on a field trip with an international humanitarian assistance organization working in Buhera, Murambinda. This is one place that has hit the headlines because of a measles outbreak wreaking havoc in that area. A few kilometers off the main road, health centres are accessible only by travelling along uneven dust paths that field vehicles have, over time, carved out. Travelling like this in the back of a 4X4 Landcruiser is a lot like being in an army squad-car; an experience so jarringly bumpy that by the time you reach your destination, your insides feel like they have haphazardly re-arranged themselves along your internal torso. But this is nothing compared to the kilometers that women and children in Buhera have to walk barefoot in the parched plains under the baking sun to reach the nearest health facility.

The fields are pitifully without any maize; a few sorghum stalks litter most of the space.

Day two on an active measles case finding mission, we took to the dust road on our way to Muzokomba  – one of the villages where several outbreaks had been reported. We passed an extraordinary figure of an old woman who at a distance looked like a scarecrow perched precariously on a tree. As we drew closer, I noticed that the old woman was dressed mostly in rags. She had made a makeshift shaded seat – something akin to a hammock, only not as comfortable. The makeshift shelter is called rindiro or watchtower. Her thin frame was sitting alertly upright, and cross-legged, her eyes blankly staring into the distance. Pathetic pieces of crockery lay underneath her seat, and a small pot was cooking something foul smelling a few meters away. She was watching over her meager sorghum crop, protecting it from baboons. You could literally count the number of stalks littering her small field. The field workers explained that this was common practice; villagers just have to do this or else starve.

And I thought I had problems.

Apart from watermelons, sorghum is about the only crop that thrives in the harsh Buhera climate. As we drove further, two small boys sat in their own rindiro, at a time when they should be in school. I wondered if they stood a real chance of intimidating an adult baboon…

At the end of this tour I came to the conclusion that if for any reason organizations like MSF, Goal and Red Cross offering various forms of humanitarian assistance in Buhera decided to cease operations in Murambinda today, they would be responsible for thousands of deaths in that area. I also found the devotion and hardwork of the field personnel touchingly dedicated. Active case findings mean following the grapevine for leads on where the disease is resident. It is about coaxing the largely indifferent women at the clinics for more information and leads. It is about driving for many kilometers following the leads supplied and when you find sick children, you seek permission from their guardians after which if granted, means bundling mothers and children in the back of the truck and taking them back to the nearest measles clinic.

Certain sects of the Vapostori religion are the most uncooperative. As soon as they spotted the measles medical team vehicles approaching their homesteads, women literally scurried for the hills to hide their children therein. Field workers have recently been forced to carry out physical inspections of huts and under beds as religious parents go out of their way to avoid ‘sinning’.  They have to use a variety of tactics ranging from coercion and intimidation to begging in order to obtain the cooperation of guardians to get sick children treated for measles. The team I travelled with had a directive they moved around with – which had been written by one of the chiefs, demanding that all villagers get their children immunized and treated for measles and that those refusing to do so will be committing a crime prosecutable under the law as a criminal offence. The directive also highlighted that any parent who denies a child treatment, resulting in that child’s death would be charged for murder and incarcerated.

On average, seeking permission to treat measles patients takes anything between 30minutes to an hour per household – of first making small talk, coaxing and sometimes begging. This is the kind of work that is the preserve for really patient fieldworkers. I kept thinking to myself, damn stupid people – this disease is claiming the lives of their children in droves, and yet someone has to drive all the way just make that realization apparent to them and convince them to seek treatment for their children. The dynamics of religious hegemony are something we will never understand. At one homestead, the head was adamant that no child of his would be immunized or receive ‘Western’ medical treatment. In such cases, field workers have no choice but to leave medication behind and hope against hope that the parents would administer it to their sick children. A lot of the times, teams have returned days later to check on the children and found funerals in progress. That is just the way it has been.

I managed to speak informally to some of the mothers detained at a clinic in Muzokomba, and they intimated that sometimes, they really want to seek treatment for their kids but their husbands just won’t have it. One or two were clearly not happy to be at the clinic because it went against the grain and spirit of their religion, which believes strongly that if God created people, only he should then be responsible for treating the sick among humankind. Moreover, the insurmountable distances villagers have to travel on foot to reach the nearest clinic greatly contributes to the disinclination to seek medical attention.

Where’s the justice for abused kids in Zimbabwe?

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Friday, February 26th, 2010 by Natasha Msonza

My aunt’s 12 year-old daughter was recently cornered in a secluded little room by the caretaker of their block of flats where they stay in Avondale. He tried to rape her. Thankfully she managed to escape unscathed, but she is still reeling from the effects of the trauma associated with that experience.

My family has gone through a frustrating episode over this and probably writing about it is my way of dealing with it. Attempted rape in my book and the book of our law is a criminal offence that is (or should be) punishable by long imprisonment. The mother reported the case to the police who at the time swiftly acted and condemned the caretaker to the cells. Less than 48 hours later, the man was back in the yard, going about his business and acting like all was normal. This was quite baffling and it soon became apparent that a few palms had probably been greased.

Realizing the danger of having this man lurking around his victim and the other children, the residents committee unanimously decided to relieve him of his duties as caretaker. But at the moment, the man is not only carrying on as if nothing has changed, he has also harassed the chairperson of the residents committee and slashed her maize crop after she served him with a letter of dismissal. He has also threatened my aunt with unspecified action. In short, the man is a dangerously loose canon and I shudder to think of what he is capable of doing. My aunt has tried going back to the police who have informed her that the assailant paid an admission of guilt fine and could not be detained outside certain ‘specific’ charges. I know it must be devastatingly traumatic for her because the man who fondled and groped her child is still around perhaps promising more, and nobody seems interested in doing anything about it, especially the police.

In a desperate move, my aunt has approached numerous local child protection organizations; a lot of whom have not been able to do anything much for her either because they claim to be overwhelmed.  While I appreciate that obtaining justice for an abused child is not an automatic process in Zimbabwe, it is still quite disheartening that none of these organizations have taken a real interest in dealing with this particular case. My relatives have literally been tossed from one organization to the other and the kid has probably suffered even more trauma from having her case rejected from all sides. Meanwhile she lives in real fear of the moron that tried to rape her.

A few weeks ago, a dejected father whose daughter was raped by a school’s grounds man attended one of our monthly thematic discussions, which focused on abuse in schools. His story was also very sad because the grounds man was being permitted to continue working as normal, lurking around all the small children as the case was still being deliberated on. The father could not obtain justice for his child too, thanks to a lot of red tape and the perennial bureaucratic processes one has to go through to get closure in such cases. His daughter was also denied a place at a nearby school in Marimba because the headmistress said she did not want any ‘problems’. I have heard of several more cases like these – where the perpetrator gets off scot free. It is sad to note that a lot of the organizations representing children’s rights in Zimbabwe are toothless bulldogs who really aren’t doing much on the ground except justifying their existence sufficiently enough to extract rent from the next donor. I know that sounds really accusatory, but people like my aunt and the man whose child was molested by a grounds man and the children themselves, are meant to be amongst the intended beneficiaries justifying the existence of such organizations and their programming.

So if organizations that purportedly work to represent children’s rights are constantly too busy and keep referring cases to each other to no avail, then I guess they are not doing enough. And I don’t know what’s even sadder – that they are too overwhelmed (which says a lot about the levels of child abuse in the country) to pay attention to some cases or that for most of them, they feel that their hands are tied and they cannot actually do much outside what our callous police dictate.

It is my hope that one day, our social services, child protection civic society and the court system may actually work and function to protection our most valuable asset as a country – the children. Probably there is a need for a coordinated response that achieves real impact among these organizations so that the constituents they serve are clear of where to go when in need. In other countries, when a child tells an adult that he or she has been sexually abused, it is taken seriously and a lot is done to protect that child from even seeing the person while the case is being investigated.

I look forward to the day when no matter how complex a case is, or how busy they are, no abused child will ever be turned away from a child protection organization.

Sometimes the women are the bigger fools

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Friday, February 5th, 2010 by Natasha Msonza

The constant hoopla around Zuma’s polygamy really is getting exhausting; with journos shifting attention to what he is up to each time they are suffering the diary draught. It has become nothing short of selling tabloid headlines. Can’t they get it through their thick heads? The man said it loud and clear – much to the indignation of feminists and gender activists – it is his (Zulu) culture, and the problem with most of us is indeed “thinking that our cultures are far more superior to those of others”. What Zuma is doing is to be expected, those are some of the hazards of having a clown for a president.

My bone of contention is; are the women involved in all this being oppressed? Have any of them been forced into marriage by this lunatic? Are not the majority of them young, pretty and educated but found jostling amongst themselves to be the next best lady? Do they not make public appearances next to the imposing Zulu President all smiley and beaming with self-importance and contentment?  Why are they being made to look like the victims? I mean so what if he has just fathered his 20th child and married his umpteenth wife? Though old-fashioned, the man can afford it for Pete’s sake and it is clearly not illegal in his country? In any case, those children are lucky at all to be born of the President of the most powerful country in Sub Saharan Africa.

I agree the man has a strangely colossal libido, is possibly a paraphiliac, a fool and whatever else the media choose to label him, but I think the fascination with Zuma’s polygamy deserves nothing more than the attention of National Geographic to ‘Africa’s Strangest’. The media are having a field day and the feminists have developed a serious bone to chew, yet the Swazi King Mswati leaves the most polygamous green with envy and for him, marrying is an annual exploit. His father before him had 70 wives by the time of his death too.

If anything, the only sad thing I find about Zuma’s actions is the fact that he claims he loves all his women equally. I feel a certain amount of pity for his first wife, the rotund (read solid) MaKhumalo – who clearly looked unhappy alongside her husband during his inauguration as President of South Africa. It is common knowledge that this woman rarely appears in public, let alone at the arm of her husband. One could almost guess what was going through her mind – probably that her being taken along for this auspicious occasion was just for show: Zuma, the family man who respects his first wife. God only knows he would have preferred to make that grand appearance with one of the younger ‘trophies’ as the young men here would say it.

This – my colleagues is the battle of the ” Desperate First Wives”, and they are all vying for the title of first lady. From the South African Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma to the youngest (and currently prettiest) wife Nompumelelo Ntuli, I can tell you, none of then went kicking and screaming to their Umshado wesiZulu (Zulu wedding). New word on the street has it that Zuma has impreganted another youngling, and she is none other than businessman Irvin Khoza’s daughter! I daresay the media spotlight must beam on these women; they are the bigger fools for embarrassing themselves and allowing themselves to be treated in this way. Who are they, what makes them tick, what made powerful people like themselves fall for this man? Just what was it for each one of them – wealth, fame? Trust me; that would make interesting reading and ‘news’ for a change.

The way Investigative Zim sees it is that; either South Africa is reinventing the concept of political morality and public responsibility among its leaders, or something is seriously wrong with the presidency and the nation just hasn’t woken up to it yet. I shant say more.