Squatters lives built on shifting sand

KUDAKWASHE Chirova awoke to the smell of burning plastic and rubber. Instantly, she knew they were being raided by the police. It was a common feature at the Borrowdale Race Course squatter settlement that played itself over and over again like a broken record.


Scrambling from a reed mat that served as a bed, she only had time to grab a small blanket before bolting out of her shack, dressed only in an old T-shirt, which barely covered her short legs.

Screaming at the top of her voice, she called out to her children, who were sleeping in the next shack.

Opulence in a sea of poverty seen here as squatters stay in their makeshift houses facing mansions built by the rich in the leafy Gunhill area

Ducking burning logs and flying debris, Chirova tore a section of her children’s tent and roused the sleep-stupefied children.

“I half-carried my youngest and dashed outside while the other three followed me,” she recalls.

The whole compound was lit with huge balls of orange flames that licked and consumed everything in their path.

Three quarters of the dwellings were made of plastic and dried straw, which only served the raging inferno.

That was five years ago, but Chirova will always remember that night when all her belongings were razed to the ground.

Typical of Operation Murambatsvina, which rendered more than 700 000 people homeless, families spent the night huddled together in the open, close to their “home”, which had been reduced to smouldering embers.

“We stood guard over our children for the rest of the night,” she says as her eyes narrow at the painful memories.

Like fellow mates at the informal settlement, which has often been juxtaposed to the affluent suburbs of Gunhill, she is no stranger to ridicule.

“I have been a squatter all my life. I have never experienced a ‘normal’ life. It was not by choice, believe me. This is no way to raise children, but what choices did I have,” she asks forlornly.

Chirova has been living here for 15 years and before that, she temporarily stayed at another squatter camp in Hatcliffe.

The shacks are made up of a patchwork of plastic, straw and wood. There are no toilets and many use the bush around the race course. There is no water, they borrow occasionally from the race course.

Most of the children do not go to school and a few, who can afford, travel all the way to Domboshava, where the fees are lower.

Heaps of discarded furniture litter the squalid camp, which is home to many people, who have been robbed of opportunities to realise their full potential.

Some were divorced and thrown out of their matrimonial homes, others were orphaned and abandoned by relatives, while a small number are deviant characters that have chosen not to conform to societal standards and expectations.

“We are fully aware that what we are doing is illegal, but there are no jobs and even in the rural areas, people are starving,” Chirova, who is reluctant to divulge whether she is married or not, says.

“I sell anything from sweets to cigarettes and beer.”

Chirova says they now burrow into the ground to carve out underground rooms.

“We put up the usual plastic tents, but underneath, we dig holes which accommodate a human being,” she explained.

This, she said was so that they could stash some of their belongings and when the police or council personnel came, they would simply cover it with metal sheets.
“After the fires, we remove the metal sheets and salvage what ever would have survived the fire,” she smiles mischievously.

A few metres from her cabin, is a pool table, where some youths are having a game.

The sight of the pool table in the midst of such poverty and filth is almost laughable, but the young people seem relaxed and one or two look intoxicated already.
The youngsters are eager to tell their stories and while each has a touching narration, Tatenda Katukavarimi’s stands out.

He is 20 and has a mean look on his face. His short, scruffy-twisted hair and earrings give him a thuggish demeanour.
However, when he speaks, his voice is soft and gentle.

“Being poor does not make me any less of a human being. We are not animals,” he says, his eyes searching and desperate.

While the other drunk youths demand help in the form of food, clothes and menial jobs, Katukavarimi wants to go back to school and maybe train to be a doctor.

“Many people here are sick and I just want that opportunity to go to school and give back to the community that has been my home all my life,” he sighs heavily.

Katukavarimi is not deterred by that he only went as far as Grade 7. He is hopeful one day he will be able to look after his mother, who is now married to another man.

He does not share openly about his life, but says the death of his father, when he was just seven years old, worsened things.

Instead, he highlights problems of others, especially the elderly and the sick.

“Sekuru (grandfather) lives in that shack and when it rains, he gets soaked. I always wake him up so that he does not catch pneumonia. He is sick and needs medication,” he says affectionately.

Several residents at the informal settlement have no birth certificates.

“Many lost these in the numerous fires and raids,” Katukavarimi says.

Council spokesperson Michael Chideme said once servicing of land is done in Mabvuku, the squatters will be relocated, along with others strewn around the city.

The project is being financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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