Many of these people lost homes and livelihoods after the government introduced a land redistribution policy whereby commercial farms were taken from some and given to others – those loyal to the government. At the same time pensions and savings were wiped out as the Zimbabwean dollar reached an annual inflation rate of 231 million per cent (back in 2008).
Having no state support there is little they can do – apart from start a business or find a job, not easy at 70-plus. Enter Hannes Botha, who, along with his brother Attie and volunteers from the Zimbabwe Pensioners Support Fund (ZPSF) non-profit organisation, regularly deliver basic food parcels to 1,650 pensioners.
Most have somewhere to live but even so it is difficult to survive on $19 a month, a typical pension. Some don’t get anything at all. So the ZPSF team source, collate then every 6 to 8 weeks deliver two truck-loads carrying about 20 tons of non-perishable food from Malelane in South Africa to 28 old age homes, private homes and feeding kitchens in Zimbabwe.
Pastor Attie, aged 64, and volunteer driver Boet Holmes, 68, picked me up in Harare in a 16 ton Nissan diesel UD 90 and we headed to Chinhoyi, a town 115 kilometres to the northwest. At Sunningdale Trust in Chinhoyi 36 boxes were off-loaded for pensioners here and in the Karoi and Kariba areas. Each box included small bags of maize meal, rice, sugar and oats; spaghetti, cooking oil, jam, coffee, salt, peanut butter, soup packets, yeast, candles, matches, a tin each of pilchards, baked beans, Vienna sausages, mixed vegetables and corned meat; plus one bar of soap and chocolate. The residents clad in hand-knitted jumpers gathered around the truck and looked for their boxes although some – including two over 80 - had already left for work.
From Chinhoyi we headed south to Kadoma and the Westview Trust Homes where a resident made me a cup of tea and told me about her incurable macular degeneration. We stayed the night at our host’s home, a farmer turned gold miller. The ZPSF has a network of supporters throughout the country who identify those that genuinely need help.
Next morning we deposited 27 parcels at the Lynbrook Homes in Kwe Kwe. The crisp, clear wintery air, the deep blue sky etched with bougainvillea and frangipani brightened the poignant situation. Boet and Attie heaved boxes out of the truck despite the nagging pain in Attie’s knee. He should have an operation soon.
“We lost absolutely everything,” says Sonia, a retired nurse of about 70. “My husband had an ex-railways pension – that went down the tube. It has been reinstated but it’s around $19 a month. We were farming, and sold all of our cattle, I think we ended up with 26 cents for them as they took 14 noughts off the currency at the time, so that was gone, and of course you got nothing for your farm.”
We met Hannes, 58, at the Hubert Lee Cottages in Redcliff, driving the second smaller truck up from Bulawayo. Twenty-five parcels were deposited. I asked Hannes, initiator of the fund, what motivated him. “The majority of these people are in this situation through no fault of their own,” he replied.
Widow Sue, 72, is destitute because the inheritance she was entitled to was not shared by her step-son. She cannot afford either dentist or doctor, and once pulled out her own troublesome tooth and stitched up a dog bite on her own arm. She sells old furniture for cash and looks after 11 other people on her property. “Together we form a 'family’, watching out for each other and doing the best we can to keep going,” she said.
Few appeared bitter. “There is no point in harbouring bitterness,” says a 68 year-old ex-tobacco farmer wearing a broad-rimmed hat and a sleeveless body warmer. “It’ll eat you up if you do.”
The ZPSF supports a small proportion of the needy in the country. “The plight of the real pensioners in Zimbabwe has not improved. Many totally rely on what they receive from donors,” Hannes said.
Last week the government announced it would be establishing a new parliamentary Bill to help the elderly, many of whom had become vulnerable as a result of Aids destroying the traditional family support network.
It’s good to see the food parcels get into the right hands. Each recipient is checked off against a list from the ZPSF database. The town, home and the name of every recipient is taped onto the sides of each cardboard box. There is even a spare box, just in case.
Boet told me about the Malvern Trust Home in Mvurwi, which recommends new elderly residents be measured for their own coffin. The named box is kept in “the coffin room”, and when the time comes the resident gets a service in the chapel followed by a quick burial in the adjacent cemetery - a field donated by a local farmer. “It sounds a terrible thing to do but the reality is that there are no mortuaries or crematoriums that work,” he said.
Hannes and I arrived in his home town of Gweru, where he is welcomed at the Huisvergesig and Boggies Trust Home like a long lost friend. We then met two pensioners in their own run-down houses, one of which had an electricity power cut. These are frequent and frustrating daily occurrences throughout Zimbabwe. Both pensioners are thin, vulnerable, yet feisty – they were overjoyed to meet Hannes for the first time. He has become a legend.
Each round trip costs around US$30,000, provided mostly by South African donors. The trucks cover two routes, parting company after the Beitbridge border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe, one going via Bulawayo to Gweru and the other travelling via Masvingo to Harare. The total distance covered is about 7,500 kilometres.
From Gweru we drove 35 kilometres to Muus Lodge residential home in Shirugwi where we also left boxes for Zvishavane’s destitute with Jack who, having been there for 46 years, knows who they are. The residents gave Hannes some enormous avocado pears, and said: “Everything’s all right here really” or “Can’t complain”. They didn’t want to talk about their problems.
At night we returned to Kwe Kwe, where Hannes’ friends hosted us. Don’t their families do any caring - the question is asked. Many do, but equally, many don’t or can’t. Some may not even know a family member is receiving a food parcel. “There is pride in all of us no matter how down-and-out we are,” one lady admitted quietly.
Others lived with and expected to inherit the family farm from their parents, so now they too are struggling – or have joined the Zimbabwean diaspora.