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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Makokoba City Warriors

An entire blog would not suffice to describe the myriad challenges of living in sub-saharan Africa, but certainly the daily power outages, struggle to secure transportation, and pervasive government corruption and inefficiencies trivialize the challenges I faced growing up in Massachusetts. More upsetting than these personal inconveniences are the daily struggles of the people of Zimbabwe. Neighbors watch their corn seedlings fail to grow as January still has not brought the rains historically rumbling by October. More than 80% of the population is unemployed, and almost 15% of Zimbabweans are HIV-positive.       

I recently got a pretty special glimpse into life in a township outside of Bulawayo when Ale, Nkosi, and I traveled to Makokoba township for dinner with our Zimbabwean mother, Esnath. On a Sunday afternoon in mid-January, we threw the dog in the car and headed for the lodge to pick up Esnath after work. She knocked off at 2pm and we were headed for the ghetto of Bulawayo to have dinner with her kids and finally meet her extended family. After driving around to nearly every single grocery store in Bulawayo in search of elusive 2-kg bags of frozen chicken pieces, Esnath turned around in the front seat and asked if we would “eat the live ones.” She said, “We can get them there, in Makokoba, at the market.” Ale and I laughed and said that of course we’d eat fresh chicken. Crisis averted, and with the rest of the ingredients for dinner in the car, we turned right onto Herbert Chitepo Ave and left on Fifth, heading for the most densely populated area in the southern half of Zimbabwe.

Makokoba is Bulawayo’s oldest township. Barely out of the city center, it is home to thousands of families who live in crumbling tenements. This housing was built before independence, when black Zimbabweans were largely confined to the "western areas" or townships west of the city. Independence was in 1980, so now the buildings are crumbling and decrepit. They stand two stories tall, and each building contains many units upstairs and down. Laundry lines are festooned between buildings accented by cracked satellite dishes and flaking paint. Graffiti is everywhere, trash fires burn on the side of the road, and everyone walks everywhere; no one can afford a car. The roads haven't been maintained in three decades so they are are eroded and narrow, with giant pot holes. Yet despite the oppressive poverty and lack of sanitation and trash disposal, the townships are some of the liveliest places in Bulawayo. They teem with human life, love, laughter, and family. Neighbors watch out for each other, and music is constantly blaring, echoing off the two-story tenements and sending children into fits of dance, imitating their older siblings or someone they saw on TV. My trips to the townships have made it abundantly clear to me why all Africans can dance. While at Esnath's I saw a baby in a diaper shaking his hips to DJ Cleo next door. It's in their blood.

Often, as is the case with Esnath’s family, an entire family will share just two rooms in these tenements: a kitchen and one bedroom. Esnath’s husband passed away several years ago and she is an incredible mother to her four children. They have one bed and one bed frame, but through her hard work and sacrifice she has managed save enough over the years to purchase a new refrigerator, an old television set, a microwave, several wardrobes, and even some kitchen cabinet sets. The cabinets are made of lightweight metal, white with red trim and marbled faux-formica countertops. Above the television is one of those light-up, electronic scrolling scenes. It depicts the NYC skyline, complete with twin towers, and boats and planes floating and flying past it. They keep it plugged in at all times and it illuminates the room (except when they lose power every day). It struck me as odd that there would be an NYC scene in Esnath’s living room/kitchen/foyer. The odds are stacked monumentally against any members of her family ever seeing the United States.
We spent the afternoon with Esnath’s extended family. First of all, we headed to the Makokoba Market to buy dinner. Two chickens for $7 each. We wandered around the market and back to the house where the women prepared the chicken while the men drank cane alcohol cut with Sprite or Coke. Esnath’s son brought speakers outside and Soul Brothers or house music blared until well after dark. The living room/kitchen turned into a dance party despite the ladies trying to prepare the meal, and the whole neighborhood reverberated with the bass from Zahara or DJ Cleo. The people of Makokoba could not stop talking to us; kiwhas rarely, if ever, visit these townships. As dinner hour approached, Esnath showed me how to mix sadza properly (I’d been trying all year at our house but never really succeeded), and when the chickens were done stewing we had a delicious meal. The family members seemed to never stop coming, but everyone ot a serving of chamolia (spinach-like vegetable fried in oil), sadza, and stewed chicken.
On a Saturday a few weeks later, we helped Esnath’s family move from their two rooms in Makokoba to two new rooms in Mziligazi. The person they rented from in Makokoba decided they wanted to use those two rooms again, so out they went. We spent the day ferrying all the family’s belongings to the new place in Mziligazi. After we’d made a few trips along the same route through the townships, a group of young men in their 20s tried to hail me to stop the overpacked car. Esnath urged me to keep driving: “They’re totsis (thieves),” she said. We succeeded in shifting all the belongings, with the help of the entire extended family of course, just before it started drizzling. We left Esnath and her sisters to organize the kitchen and headed home. Days like these really put into perspective all the things we take for granted in the United States


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