Impressions of Zimbabwe

So I’ve been neglectful in my writing about Zimbabwe. Completely MIA, and flying out in an hour. Such is life. I’ll give a few snippets of what my impressions are, just so you have a flavor of the place.

First impression, wow, paved roads. Will have to get used to driving on the left. High rises in Africa, this is new to me. Incredible flamboyant trees (flame red canopy) in peak season. This is our office? You’ve got to be kidding me, this place is gorgeous.

What a minute, you mean there is a pool at the guest house?! And we are paying what?, that is sooo cheap. We pay double that price in Liberia for a place with no electricity or running water!

What are all these white people doing here? They aren’t even expats, they just live here. Kids, babies, grannies, the works. This is just life for them. A new reality for me in Africa. I’m used to white people automatically being aid workers.

Hearing stories from colleagues about what it was like here during the times of massive inflation. The exchange rate changed by the hour and you had to estimate what you were going to spend in the next couple of hours or you would loose money. The gas pumps still reflect the recent state of inflation, with the signboard posting “yes” next to gas, rather than the price.

Out in the field things change dramatically. The roads are still better than most places I’ve been in Africa, but they are surprised to hear this. The communities are very different. I’m used to the traditional African village where there is a central community, large expanse of land, and then another community. Zim is much different in that it has a small house compound, and then another one, all along the roadside with their farms right next to their houses. My guess is that this has to do with land distribution and better mobility and relative security to other places in Africa.

While it is very much a modern city in Harare, out in the communities, you still have a lack of basic hygiene and infrastructure. The cholera epidemic last year was a result of this. Our projects are working to prevent and respond to cholera season, which is starting right now.

Many communities, both large and small, have no continuous access to water or sanitation facilities. The water table is deep and means that bore holes often come up dry, after thousands of dollars to install, or they run dry without the rains. Other places have open wells, which are significant in the spread of disease.

We’ve started one project in communities that do have year round access to water, but that is not clean water. It is a bio sand filter that uses local materials to filter the water. The great thing is that a filter can be used by an entire extended family complex for 5-10 years depending on the quality of the water that is being filtered. At that point the filter can be refreshed and start providing potable water again for years. It is extremely low cost and the community members love them. The old woman who showed us hers was beaming.

I also got to see projects that don’t work, such as an attempt to cover a well with what they call a rope and washer technology. The issue is that if someone turns the rope the wrong way, the thing busts and must be completely redone to work again. It’s good to learn from both the things that work, and those that don’t

Another display of the state of the country was in a small district capital with about five thousand people who haven’t had running water or bathroom facilities for the last five months. This community is already piped for water and sewage, but without a functional government is left without access to water. This means that community members have to walk several kilometers to neighboring villages to get water and that open defecation is now all too common.

Of course this doesn’t mean we are always welcome partners. We have to report to the intelligence office of the President nearly daily about our activities. When we distribute bicycles to community health workers, so they can go to investigate possible cases of cholera, the government thinks we are providing bikes to the opposition.

Back in Harare, the city closes down by about 7 and the streets are quiet. There are also no traffic jams as their are in most other cities in Africa. The streets are tree lined, though the flamboyant trees have already lost most of their red with the week of rain that we’ve had.

It has been a great visit and really excellent to meet with partners, hear from local officials how we are doing, and get to know the team better. Unfortunately it appears that Zimbabwe will still be needing our assistance for some time to come.

Now I’m headed back stateside with bags full of goodies for the holidays. I won’t have to step foot into a mall. Much more fun to haggle at the market for treats for friends and family.



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