Welcomes and greetings mean a lot in Zimbabwe. In the rural areas particularly, a smile or a nod never suffices, friendliness is shown by treating everyone as your brother or sister, so it is always customary to ask at the very least about one’s day, how the family is, and how work is going. This applies whether you cross paths with a mother carrying water down the road, or pass by a farmer watering his plot.
Binga is a district about the size of Northern Ireland that borders Lake Kariba to the north and Hwange National Park to the east and is home to the BaTonga people, who have their own unique, drawn out greetings process. Here two questions that are of vital importance: ‘How is the weather?’ and ‘How is your day?’ Our answers are invariably the same: ‘Hot!’ and ‘Busy!’ spoken in shaky local language, though we’re getting better every day.
After an initial day spent meeting the staff and getting to know the programmes and objectives of Basilwizi – our partner organisation for the placement, whose name translates as ‘People of the Great River’ – we went straight to work, attending a two-day workshop and delivering a presentation on Sexual and Reproductive Health to a classroom of youths that in the UK would fall into the category of ‘NEET’ - ‘Not in Employment, Education or Training’.
As we prepared to leave we noticed the temperature: 42C. And to think that it hasn’t rained since March, as a local goat herder warily informed me. Later I checked the weather back home to find that it was fully 30C cooler! I’m not sure I can bring myself to complain about our moderate, rain-soaked climate ever again!
Following the workshop we made introductory visits to two of the media centres that Basilwizi are setting up in the rural areas of Binga. Each media centre has been provided with some computers and receives a weekly delivery of national newspapers by Basilwizi staff. This gives school pupils in particular the chance to become computer literate and connect to the outside world – no mean feat considering that a comprehensive survey conducted in 2010 found that there were only 200 computers in the whole of the Zambezi Valley area, which has a population of over 1 million people.
The newspaper deliveries also provide a vital source of information for the students and public alike, who hitherto had been ignorant of almost all news and events taking place outside their village or community. The students are also encouraged to write stories, which Basilwizi then collates into a quarterly newsletter distributed far and wide across the district (another first for Binga). When asked by the volunteers what motivates the students to write what they do, one secondary school pupil, Matthew Mwembe, answered: “The point of the media club is to be the voice of the voiceless people.”
The following week got a touch cooler (38C), but even busier. Thanks to their support of the Tonga Online ICT and Cultural Promotion Project (TOICULT), which aims to promote traditional Tonga culture, customs and language (because since their relocation away from the Zambezi River by the colonial government to make way for the Kariba Dam in the 1950s, Tonga cultures – and hence their identity – have been diminished or lost completely), Basilwizi had been chosen to host an arts and culture festival to be held on 25th October.
With a crowd of around 3000 people expected to be in attendance, three of the volunteers decided to take advantage of such a rare opportunity to reach out to so many people by delivering a presentation on HIV/AIDS, while the other two volunteers were tasked with filming the day for documentation purposes. Knowing that the local prevalence of HIV is around 15%, we decided to focus on urging people to get tested and to have the confidence and know-how to take responsibility for their sexual health – by abstaining, being faithful to their partners, and/or always using a condom during sex (the ABC approach). We were assisted in the delivery of the presentation by two HIV positive local people, Enia and Jairos, whose stories volunteer Liam has shared in our previous blog .
Afterwards we asked several people for their reaction to the presentation. One was Hope Tshuma, who said “Do not stop what you’ve done today – people need to be aware of their status and if you continue these presentations it will make a difference.” We are determined to do just that.
At the end of this week we are holding an interactive presentation for 400 people as part of a back-to-school campaign designed to encourage children to continue their education, and for parents to help them to do so (rather than putting them to work to boost the family income). As for the heat, we are coping with it. And we’re getting used to the greetings process too, no matter how busy we are.
In fact, I am beginning to understand the wisdom behind an old Zimbabwean’s advice, given in his memoirs about growing up in this country: “It is always important to be patient with those for whom time is unimportant.” To live by any other maxim here just seems crazy.
Daniel McLaren – Group leader of Progressio ICS UK volunteers in Zimbabwe
Photo: UK volunteers, L-R Liam, Rachel and Daniel with Jairos and Enia at the Shangano Arts and Cultural Festival