By Michelle Chifamba – Harare – A pile of arranged bricks re-inforced by black plastic paper, cardboard boxes and wooden poles with randomly set metal for a roof is home to 59 year old Eunice Vhimbo, her husband Leonard (63) and their four grandchildren.
“This is our home since 2007. I live here with my husband and four grandchildren whose mother passed away. The eldest, a girl, is 14 years old and the youngest is a four-year-old boy.”
My two sons left for South Africa in 2002. We came here after my husband was retrenched from the company he was working for and we could no longer afford paying rent in Chitungwiza where we were staying,” Vhimbo said.
The Vhimbo family lives in Hatcliff Extension, a high density residential area located at least 25 kilometres from the CBD. On their small compound they maintain a small vegetable garden and a sugar cane plantation watered by a nearby shallow well.
“We sometimes sell the vegetables and the sugar cane so that we get money to buy firewood.”
The Vhimbos are but just one of thousands of families living in informal settlement across the country.
According to a UNDP 2014 country report on informal settlements in Zimbabwe, at least 60 percent of urban residents are living in informal settlements in which a majority of the dwellers live in extremely poor conditions.
“As a result of the rapid increase in urban population and the limited capacity by the government to meet the high demand for building plots this has led to the mushrooming of the informal settlements,” read part of the report.
The UNDP 2014 report defined informal settlement as planned or unplanned areas which do not have formal planning approval and in most instances are characterized by the low quality houses and the lack of infrastructure and social services.
The United Nations Human Settlement Programme notes that slum communities comprise of poverty-stricken unemployed people who cannot afford both basic food and non- food essentials.
According to Vhimbo; “Although there are several families who live in this part of the compound, life here is very difficult.”
“We use firewood for cooking and every day before going to school, my eldest grandchild wakes up in the morning and walks more than 10 kilometres in search of the firewood for cooking. We also don’t have our own borehole, so after coming back from her search for firewood she goes on to search for drinking water at nearby boreholes.”
“The makeshift that we live in makes our lives more complicated, since the roof is not properly fitted. No season is better than the other because during the rainy season water leaks inside soaking all the blankets, during winter the biting chilly nights are felt by everyone while the August winds cause a lot of dishevel as they leave everything dusty while they sometimes threaten to lift off the roof,” narrated Vhimbo.
The UNDP report notes that, urbanization is one of the root causes for the spread of informal settlements, while rigid land administration and planning policies have made it difficult for the Local Government to meet the increasing demand for housing by the poor majority.
According to the 2012 Zimbabwe National Housing Policy Report, the country is experiencing a huge housing backlog and an estimated 1 million new units are needed. Notable constraints particularly lack of funding and investment have gradually stalled progress in the supply of new houses for low income earners.
“Urban housing does not match demand and this explains the mushrooming of informal settlements. This has also been exacerbated by failure to adhere to policy and environmental codes in terms of human development and management,” said an official in the Ministry of Housing.
University of Zimbabwe Rural and Urban Town Planner, Innocent Chirisa pointed out that settlements indicate the failure of society and government to provide an adequate environment for human development.
“Despite having a history of physical planning, Harare like any developing city has been experiencing an increasing problem of informal settlements. The amount of squatter housing indicates the extent of housing poverty in a society,” Chirisa said.
The muddy wetlands of Dzivarasekwa Extension is yet another informal settlement in the country. This is home to more other families that have sustained a living in such conditions for close to a decade.
One of those people is 40 year old Emily Godo who lives in a wooden cabin with her two sons for the past seven years.
“I came here after my husband died and I was displaced by the landlord from the house that I was letting because I could no longer afford the rentals. I make a living from tilling other people’s fields and doing small jobs as a house maid,” Godo said.
“This area is currently going through a phase of land allocation so I move across the stands that have not yet been developed by its owners. I will worry when all the stands have been filled because for now the temporary shelter is my home for me and my boys,” she added.
According to the 2014 UNDP report, the growing number of urban dwellers have limited access to acceptable and adequate housing, transportation, water supply, health and education services.
“The manifestation of urban squatting becomes apparent when the rate of in-migration of families is greater than the rate at which a city can absorb or integrate the immigrants into the existing social structure of urban society,” Chirisa noted.
Non- governmental organisations that work with people in these slum communities have established that there is rampant sex networking amongst sexually active people while poverty has been shown to be the main driver of risky sexual behaviour.
Director of Vision HIV/AIDS – an NGO based in Hatcliff Extension, notes that squalid conditions in the community have led to chronic stress and depression among adults in the settlements while the spread of diseases like cholera and tuberculosis and malaria are also become prevalent.
“Communicable disease have slowly become a major problem, among them is tuberculosis, diarrhoea while the transmission of other illnesses is aided by the low resistance due to malnutrition owing to the fact that most families do not afford decent meals because they comprise of children and the elderly who not able to work to provide decent food,” said Justice MbivaVision HIV/ AIDS Director.