A rusted wire fence divides the old Zimbabwe from the new. On the one side lies Effie Malamba; born in 1901 she was buried beneath a granite headstone 90 years later. On the other is Sylvia Ncube; born in 1974 she was laid to rest just 32 years later. The wire separates Bulawayo’s old Hyde Park cemetery from the extension opened this February. Effie lies amid ordered ranks of stone epitaphs. Sylvia lies in a chaos of churned earth. All around her the mounds of mud and stones, garlanded with plastic flowers, tell the story of the shocking disintegration of Zimbabwe, which now has the lowest life expectancy for women anywhere in the world: 34.
A forest of black metal plates marks the mounting death toll and their hand-painted white numbers record the birth dates of a missing generation. Thulan Sabanda, born 1972; Ozia Moyo in 1971, Lulu Olomo in 1975, are just three of hundreds.
The World Health Organisation has plotted this precipitous fall in women’s mortality in the former British colony from 65, little more than a decade ago, to today’s low. Speaking privately, WHO officials admitted to The Independent that the real number may be as low as 30, as the present figures are based on data collected two years ago.
The reasons for this plunge are several. Zimbabwe has found itself at the nexus of an Aids pandemic, a food crisis and an economic meltdown that is killing an estimated 3,500 people every week. That figure is more than those dying in Iraq, Darfur or Lebanon. In war-torn Afghanistan, where women’s plight has received global attention, life expectancy is still above 40.
This cull is not an act of God. It is a catastrophe aggravated by the ruthless, kleptocratic reign of Robert Mugabe, in power since independence in 1980. The Mugabe regime has succeeded in turning a country once f?ted as the breadbasket of Africa into a famished and demoralised land deserted by its men of working age, with its women left to die a silent death.
With the state in collapse, the evidence of this tragedy is necessarily anecdotal.
At Hyde Park, one of many cemeteries in one of many towns, the grave diggers are tired. They say they are carving up to 25 graves a day from the baked earth, more than double the figure earlier in the year.
Twenty-six-year-old Shenghi, like almost every other Zimbabwean, is a member of a burial society—a kind of morbid Christmas club. These savings associations bring people together to meet the costs of burying their sons, daughters, sisters and brothers at a rate that’s accelerating beyond comprehension. “In the last three months we’ve had to bury 14 of the 50 people in our society,” she says.
Zimbabwe is now a place haunted by incomprehensible numbers: 85 per cent of the population living in poverty; 80 per cent unemployment; 90 per cent HIV infection rates in the army and most unbelievably, 2,000 per cent inflation.
In this man-made chaos it is the women, bottom of the social heap, who are suffering the most. The men have the option of leaving children to jump the border into South Africa. Many return only to be buried but at 37 years, their life expectancy remains marginally higher.
Eighteen months ago the government launched operation Murambatsvina—Drive Out the Trash—a vicious offensive aimed at the poorest sectors of society. Hundreds of thousands of families were made homeless in slum clearances and street vendors were arrested, robbed and driven out of business. Shari Appel, from the NGO Solidarity Peace Trust, says that trauma is killing people before their time: “The stress and misery mean people are keeling over and dying. The health system has totally collapsed. Now access to education is going the same way and girls are the first to miss out. In the overcrowding, domestic violence and sexual abuse are rife.”
Amen is 33 years old. Lying on a stained sheet in an Aids hospice outside the country’s second city, Bulawayo, she is waiting to die. Her body is covered in the tell-tale sores of full-blown Aids. She has three children staying with her sister in Plum Tree. It is only an hour’s drive away but she has not seen them once since checking in four months ago as no one has money for transport.
Anna, 25, gets to see her children. Proud is eight, and out at school, Agrippa, six, is at home along with his sister, 18-month-old Violet. Home is a one-room shack with no running water or electricity. Violet is sitting on the bed that takes up half of the living space. Like her mother and brothers, she is covered in sores, her scalp is ringed with white scabs. There’s no money to get a doctor to tell Anna what she already knows—they all have Aids.
With proper health care and access to anti-retrovirals (ARVs) HIV sufferers can now live with the disease for decades.
But in Zimbabwe the health system is disintegrating. Pledges of free ARVs from the government contrast with the reality of corrupt, incompetent and threadbare health care for those with money—for those without it is completely out of reach.
State hospitals are unofficially charging to see patients, dispensaries are empty and the brain drain has seen almost every qualified nurse or doctor leave. Even dying comes at a cost. Families wanting to collect a relative’s body must provide a coffin in order to claim them. Many simply cannot afford this.
The result is on show at the hospital mortuary in Nkayi in the north of Matabeleland. Its imposing metal fridge has only one working motor, so the bodies are kept just a few degrees below the boiling daytime temperature outside. Its nine berths are home to at least a dozen cadavers. Only a few are fresh enough to be swollen. The others have decomposed inside the clothing that was never taken off them. The stench is appalling.
When asked how long they had been there, the hospital guard shrugs and replies: “More than a year.”
Apart from the funeral parlours the only thing that is booming is the secret police—the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). Its swollen budget, many times higher than health spending, has enabled its network of informers and enforcers to keep a lid on almost all resistance. They have been credited with infiltrating the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which tore itself apart this year, splitting into rival factions. It no longer threatens a repeat of the election win it credibly claims Mr Mugabe stole from it two years ago.
In this climate of fear and despair, it is a women’s group that has consistently defied the regime to go out on to the streets and protest. Women of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza) was set up three years ago and its founder, businesswoman Jenni Williams, has been arrested countless times and had her life threatened on several occasions.
Despite this there are now an estimated 30,000 members, who are demonstrating for basic rights including access to food, education and healthcare. And so far Woza’s strict creed of non-violence has made it hard for authorities to crack down on it too viciously. “It’s very hard for a policeman to intimidate us when his mum, his sister, or his girlfriend is there as one of us. It’s embarrassing for them,” Ms Williams says. “I’m very proud to be a Zimbabwean woman right now. Why should a woman carry all these burdens and be silent?”
Some names have been changed to protect individuals.
4m The amount the population is thought to have fallen since the last census in 2002. Current estimates put it as low as 8 million.
34 Life expectancy for women. It was 65 just over a decade ago. It is much lower than in neighbouring countries: in Zambia, life expectancy for women is 40; in Mozambique, 46; in Botswana, 40; in South Africa, 49.
120/1000 The infant mortality rate. During the 1990s, it was 61/10-00.
7,000 The cost in Zimbabwean dollars of a dose of anti-retroviral drugs to combat Aids.
50% The amount Zimbabwe’s economy has shrunk since 1999.
2000% The rate of inflation in Zimbabwe. In 1980, when the country became independent, the rate was 7 per cent.
73m The size of Zimbabwe’s tobacco output in millions of tonnes. In 2000 it was 734 million.