NINE-MONTH pregnant Shupikai Phiri (39) eagerly anticipated the birth of her new baby, as she sat under a shade, shielding her from the punishing sun, with her uncle, James Matika.
BY MOSES MATENGA
Discussions of the future dominated the conversation, while her four-year-old daughter listened attentively, as if to learn of the challenges of life and how to overcome them.
Cephas Chimutanda, who operated a small enterprise, was also busy trying to ensure his business remained afloat, while several women fetched water from a nearby borehole.
It was a hive of activity as people went about their daily chores, ready to wind up for the day. What followed immediately, however, was devastating.
Like the biblical rapture as explained in the book of Ecclesiastes where “two women shall be grinding together, (and) one shall be taken away and the other one left and two men shall be in the field and one shall be taken and the other one left”, so it was for Matika, Phiri and the people of Stapleford Farm, also known as Limanda Farm, in Mt Hampden, Zvimba district.
Within 30 minutes, Phiri and her daughter were dead, while Chimutanda’s small shop, his source of livelihood, had been reduced to ashes in a sudden blaze. Property worth thousands of dollars was destroyed.
Phiri and her daughter were buried last Sunday at the farm.
“We buried them on Sunday at the farm,” councillor Baison Mavhuto (Ward 24) said.
He pleaded with well-wishers to continue helping the victims, as most of them continue to sleep in the open as their homes were destroyed by the fire.
“We plead for assistance. We welcome anyone who can help us with anything, because most of the people here will start from scratch. They lost identity documents, kitchenware, property and other goods,” he said.
“The challenge is the structures are a risk and we need intervention urgently. Those thatched houses in such compounds are improper.”
A visit to the farm by NewsDay exposed the unpalatable life the people are leading, with over 4 000 people crammed into a small place with thatched houses built dangerously close to each other.
The calculated distance between houses is less than 5m. In the very small rooms are kitchens and that presents a danger in case of fire.
Residents said the danger of such a disaster was ever present given the living conditions in the area.
“My sister stays here and every time I visit her, I warn her against staying in such a place. If you stay in such a place, everyone has to be cautious, but you can’t monitor everyone,” a man who only identified himself as Misheck said.
On the day in question, Elijah Marimba, the owner of the house where the fire started, left his place locked and went on his errands.
“I don’t know how the fire started. I was only called by people saying there was a fire coming from my place. It was locked,” he said.
Matika, who sat with Phiri, realised a fire had broken out, but by the time they tried to contain it, it was too late.
“We sat here and realised there was fire. She ran into the house to retrieve property like everyone was doing. People were screaming and shouting so we did not immediately realise she and the child were trapped inside. It was only after the fire had died down that we realised she was gone,” he sobbed.
Apart from the high population density, social ills including petty crime and prostitution are prevalent.
“If you hide in such a place, no one will find you. People commit crimes and come to hide here,” said one elderly man.
Most of the people in the area are not formally employed and resort to menial jobs to survive.
Harare mayor Bernard Manyenyeni who visited the place, described the living conditions as uncomfortable, insisting that given the structures of the houses, the possibility of another incident could not be ruled out.
“The worrying thing on the path to recovery is they are likely to put back the same structures that got burnt. We will be back to where we were. Unless proper structures are put in place or they are relocated,” he said.
“The circumstances are not good at all. They are at a farm compound with pole and dagga makeshift accommodation. The fire hazard is and has always been high. It’s an accident that was waiting to happen and it happened.”