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Ignorance, apathy, misplaced priorities and climate change

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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.

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