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Even the goats are beginning to die

Zimbabweans as a people are not given to complaining. They put up with no end of hardships and difficulties with a dull sense of resignation to the worst. Normally such a stoical attitude would be regarded as a virtue. After all who wants to be known as a whinger? But in Zimbabwe things are very far from normal. The cause of our suffering as a people is not the weather or the stars, nor even Tony Blair (someone please tell Mugabe!) No, the cause of ninety-nine per cent of our suffering can be traced back to bad governance and the appalling mismanagement of the economy. For this reason it is high time we stopped suffering in silence, and let out a roar of disapproval to the authors of our misfortune, who of course are none other than the ZANU PF elite. It is time we demanded our dignity, our God-given freedom and the human rights which were once enshrined in our Constitution - until, that is, the ruling clique decided it was necessary to their continued enjoyment of power and privilege that we be deprived of them.

Because of our tight-lipped silence who for example, apart from those who experience it as their grinding daily routine, are aware of the intense suffering of those who live in the more remote rural areas?

Take the Gogo (grandmother) I spoke to this week who lives in Siabuwa in the Zambezi Valley about a hundred kilometres from Binga. She had to come into Bulawayo a few weeks ago to visit her daughter and to care for the young grandchildren while their mother was in hospital. Now it is time for Gogo to return to her own home in Siabuwa. How would she get there, I asked. My question prompted the most amazing revelations about the incredible difficulties now endured by those who live far from the nearest town.

Normally Gogo would have a choice of travelling either via (the Falls Road) Kamativi and Binga, or via Nkayi and Gokwe. The western or the eastern route as you could say, both of which take one over some difficult terrain and bone-shaking roads at the best of times. However in these grossly abnormal times one does not have these options any more. Because of the acute shortage of fuel across the whole country most rural buses have just stopped running. People may queue for days only to be told that the service has been cancelled. No forex, no fuel, no bus service - leaving thousands of stranded travellers in abject misery. And that was just the start of Gogo's woes …

I enquired further what she was going to do. Could she not get a lift on some vehicle going to Binga? Possibly, replied Gogo (and at considerable cost) but the real problem with that route was how to get from Binga on the shores of Lake Kariba to Siabuwa, a hundred kilometres inland. No buses have run on this road for many weeks now, leaving desperate commuters to make the journey on foot. How long would such a journey take? Two to three days was the reply, depending on one's state of health. Gogo went on to explain that rural people forced to walk this road had to be continually on the lookout for wild animals. (The road passes through forested areas and skirts wildlife safari areas and the Chizarira National Park). For this reason people tend to walk in groups, and they stop walking at 5 in the evening when the elephants are on the move, to or from the water. Walkers set up big bonfires at night to scare off the elephants and other wildlife.

What food did these people have, I enquired. Gogo replied that they live off the wild berries along the road. And was there really no chance of a lift for exhausted commuters? Only the occasional National Parks landrover, I was informed, or the even more rare rural ambulance. Apart from the strict orders given to National Parks drivers not to give lifts along the way, their vehicles are too small anyway and could at best help a few stranded walkers. If there was a particularly old or frail person on the road one of the rare ambulances might provide a lift (at a price), but commuters could not hope for anything more. In a matter-of-fact tone Gogo explained that patients returning to their rural homes from the hospital in Binga would normally try to build up their strength for about a week before starting the journey.

So clearly the western route via Binga was not a realistic possibility for Gogo. Was the eastern route via Gokwe any better, I enquired. Possibly so, because Gogo had heard that the "Shoe Shine" buses did occasionally run the long route to Gokwe via Kwekwe. (The Shoe Shine Company presumably raising some forex for fuel from their Botswana operations) The fare would be something like $ 680,000 - or was that last week's rates? In any event from Gokwe onwards, or for the last 165 kilometres of the journey, she would be on her own. No buses are now running further than Gokwe. So how would Gogo do this stretch of the journey? That is not impossible, she replied because there are lorries travelling that route carrying coal from a nearby mine. However it transpired that the lorry drivers always insist on a premium for a lift, and that could be up to twice the price of the corresponding bus fare - if the buses were running, which they are not, if you understand! And such an inflated price for the doubtful privilege of sitting perched on top of a load of coal on an open-backed truck.

At this point in the conversation I thought I had taxed Gogo enough about the hazards and discomforts of rural travel in the Zimbabwe to which Robert Mugabe has reduced us all. What about the food situation in Siabuwa, I enquired.

For over three years I learnt, the people of that dirt-poor region had been receiving a life-saving monthly food handout from Save the Children UK. Everyone over the age of 55 (and including those below that age who were known to be without food) could then rely upon a generous allocation of mealie-meal, cooking oil and beans. But this was no more, because ever since the ill-fated Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Bill had first been mooted in 2004 the Mugabe regime had banned humanitarian organizations like Save the Children from continuing with their general feeding programmes. Save the Children UK was given permission to continue its developmental work, such as digging wells to provide drinking water, but was ordered to discontinue the feeding. The reason cited by local ZANU PF officials was that these NGOs were engaging in a subversive political programme in support of the opposition MDC - which according to my well-informed Gogo, was absolute nonsense.

The obvious next question was, how the people are surviving. The simple answer, it emerged, is that many are not. Many are succumbing to early deaths as a result of a major food deficiency. Statistics are difficult to come by in the very nature of the situation - a remote location with only rudimentary heath care facilities, and extreme sensitivity on the part of ZANU PF to anything resembling a proper health care study. But said Gogo, people are dying of malnutrition now. A visitor to the area could not help but notice how thin most people are. Anyone in the community believed to possess a significant amount of food, will have a trail of people to the door, virtually begging for help.

My final question to Gogo was how she personally was managing to survive. She paused and a look of quiet resignation crossed her wizened features.

"Aha," she said, "I used to keep chickens, but now there is an outbreak of Newcastle disease - right across Binga, Lupane, Hwange. Many, many chickens have died. Now I have nothing left to sell. The goats have a disease too. Even the goats are beginning to die."

I have to confess I was shocked and appalled by what Gogo told me this week. I had thought I knew about the suffering of the rural people, but in truth I knew nothing. Thank God for Gogo's courage in talking to an unknown reporter. My personal resolve - it's the least I can do - is to tell her story to as many as will listen.

Isn't it time to end the silence about the intense suffering of ordinary Zimbabweans under this grossly incompetent and totally uncaring regime? Why don't we all resolve to tell it the way it is? Let us demand back our stolen freedoms and human rights. Let us consign this ungodly ZANU PF regime to the dustbin of history where it belongs.