Like untamed animals they live out cold in the open, in the tall dry grass that shields their existence from the rest of the world. An eternal stench of a combination of urine, feces and sweat hangs like a halo over their small compound. There are no toilets or water taps in sight. It is a miracle they survived the cholera. In the middle of winter, half-naked kids from anything between ages 2 to 16 loiter listlessly with blank expressions and mucus running freely from their noses. A few metres outside the compound are the posh mansions of the leafy Borrowdale and Gunhill suburbs. Obscene opulence overlooks dire poverty; it is hard to imagine you are in the same neighborhood. Just opposite the main entrance to the compound stands the renowned Celebration Church. Borrowdale road is abuzz with posh cars zooming past at high speed oblivious to the mushrooming squatter camp amidst the tall dry grass. Sirens wail off in the distance, grow closer, and then fade away as the presidential motorcade zooms past. What the dwellers of this veld call home are two-meter high shelters made of highly flammable materials like grass, cardboard, plastic, and if you are extremely privileged, pieces of asbestos and scrap metal. Running water is a luxury that cannot be envisioned in this lifetime and bathing is an achievement. Some of the residents have lived here for many years; some were born here.
Amidst the shrieks and laughter of playing children, the soft moans of an old man in pain can be heard. After a hit and run accident on the busy Borrowdale road, he was lucky enough to be taken to hospital by kind passersby. His leg was put in a cast. It’s been about six months now and the old man cannot afford to have the cast removed. Just inside the race course a few metres away, corpulent women in their expensive spandex tracksuits take their vigorous health walk along the tracks that are sometimes graced by majestic racehorses. They often walk in groups of three as a precautionary measure, lest one of the squatters attempts to have a go at them. The squatters call the wealthy rotund women horse-pipes.
Yes the city council knows about the squatters, although they would like to pretend they do not exist. In fact, it is pretty obvious that the city council is behind the constant ‘police-raids’ that often happen at night. They have tried on many occasions to evict these homeless people. Evictions are now part of life for most of them, for that’s how they got here in the first place. After the government blitz of 2005 dubbed Operation Murambatsvina that destroyed illegal settlements, a lot of helpless people found themselves without a roof over their heads and trekked north to Borrowdale, where the open space next to the racecourse provided temporary haven, till Operation Garikai gave them the promised new homes. It has been five years. Now anyone who has lost his or her job or simply cannot cope with the dollarized lifestyle of Harare simply gravitates towards the camp. But that’s not all. The founders of the squatter camp were originally women married to the racecourse laborers. They were kicked out of the servants’ quarters because, whenever they did their washing, their children’s white nappies ‘panicked’ the donkeys. Living in mud huts turned out a convenient and cheaper option. Now over 200 men, women and children live there.
The police have a fetish for coming at night. At one time they started a fire that engulfed the decrepit little homes. The camp dwellers ran away momentarily, but soon returned to the only place they could have a modicum of quiet. The police have come again on and off, and last time, they bundled everyone into lorries and went and dumped them at the Pomona dumpsite. They are destined to be trash for the rest of their lives. What the government can’t deal with, it attempts to hide under piles of garbage. Only these are human beings we are talking about, see.
Because they are poor and homeless, they are automatically regarded as criminals. Anyone who has had a break-in immediately suspects them. Then the police have reason to celebrate a baton-throwing head-bashing field day.
When you are dressed in rags, smelling of sweat and are of no fixed abode, it is next to impossible to find a job. So they live mostly on handouts and rubbish bins. Very few kids go to school and those who do, it is just a meaningless routine that can be constantly broken to sell wares or beg for alms on the roadside. When you pay them a visit, they all gather around, anticipating you have probably brought them their meal for the day. If not, you are still received with warm, friendly smiles. They are grateful for anyone who cares to listen or bring their little ones some sweets. All they want is a roof over their heads and a decent meal. They are the victims of a dysfunctional economy and a government that has failed to repair the damage it inflicted on the poor in its botched urban clean-up operation. This is not fiction. Next time you are driving down Borrowdale road, or horse piping along the racetracks of Borrowdale racecourse, just take a moment to have a look among the tall grass and think twice about the kind of government you would like; one that reduces some human beings to nothing but trash or one that takes responsibility for its actions.
Most importantly, what are you going to do about it is the question?