Volunteering in a remote village in Zimbabwe

I’m in a small concrete room in a remote corner of Zimbabwe. It’s the designated shower room and I’m scooping water over my body from a bucket on the floor. There’s a postcard-sized hole in the wall where I’ve placed my soap and I can see the setting sun which is turning a fiery red colour. The cows are all coming home for the night, their silhouettes moving past the tiny window and there’s a strange noise behind me. The door starts to open as it doesn’t even have a lock and then I see a pig poking it’s head in….and somehow that whole scene became part of everyday life while volunteering with a family in the Eastern Highlands.

Seeing as Southern Africa is turning out to be way more expensive than we expected and we don’t want to do lots of pricey tours we’ve decided to embark on a volunteering position in Zimbabwe so we can at least get a cultural experience and see the true Africa that way. We travelled to our host from Zambia, crossing the border with two different taxis and arriving at the Vic Falls bus station which was surprisingly busy at 9pm. The buses were far from luxury with crumbs everywhere and seats that were broken and didn’t recline anymore. There was a used bottle of water in my footwell so I passed it to Craig to get rid of but he was distracted talking to a man who wanted a tip for directing us to our bus (he worked for the bus company). When Craig finished the conversation he took a swig of water and I suddenly realised it was from the bottle I was telling him to throw away. Eww.

The night bus was very uncomfortable and loud music was playing until about midnight so it was impossible to sleep but at around 5am we arrived at Bulawayo and were dropped off at the correct spot for our next bus to Masvingo which we hopped right on. That journey took another 4 hours and we arrived to a bunch of men trying to encourage us to take their taxi or carry our bags. We quickly said no and made our way to a cafe nearby as we needed to make a phone call to our host to ask him to arrange the taxi with someone he regularly uses. We also desperately needed a coffee and some food so it was a good plan in the end. After some baked beans with chips for breakfast we asked a staff member to call our taxi man. It was about 11.30pm and we didn’t know where the family we were volunteering with actually lived but we were under the impression it would be about 10km away….looking back at this I laugh as we messaged our host once asking for an address and he never provided it which we thought was strange.

The driver didn’t turn up for an hour and a half!! We were actually a bit annoyed as it wasn’t exactly a good start to our experience but hey, they live on African time here. Once we were picked up we soon stopped for a family to hop in and I thought it was odd as I figured it was a private taxi, but it didn’t matter so off we went. But we didn’t drive far, we stopped at this dusty parking area where lots of people were waiting. We didn’t know what was going on but we seemed to be transferring peoples goods onto the roof of the car. It took so long for them to play jenga and fit everything on the roof and then they began yanking on ropes which acted as corsets around our poor backpacks. Soon enough the penny dropped and we realised all these people were waiting to get in our car. My goodness, there were 16 people squeezed inside the car! It was cozy to say the least but at least it was just a short journey…or so we thought. By the time we set off it was 2 and a half hours since we called for the taxi. The driver said something about picking up other tourists from Great Zimbabwe, some popular ruins about 20km away so we thought the farm must be around there.

The tourists were also heading to the farm with us and had been volunteering there for the past 5 days. They were Ozzys and we had a lot of questions to ask about what it’s like where we’re heading. The first information they told us was “buckle up for the 3 hour drive”. I thought they were joking but they were being serious and soon enough we veered onto a dirt track and we were just driving further and further from civilisation.

We were heading through the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe on a dusty red road. We passed a couple of tiny villages on the way where drunk locals came over for a chat when the taxi stopped to let people off and unload goods. The road was seriously rough at times for this basic car and we were driving through streams that crossed the track. We arrived as the sun was going down at around 6pm and I was very grateful that we caught the night bus, otherwise I have no idea what time we’d of arrived or if the share taxis even depart later in the day.

So, we finally arrived and were welcomed by our host and his family with big smiles. There were 11 people living here with ages ranging from an adorable 3 month old baby to a 64 year old aunt. On the property was one main building which was sort of like a concrete bungalow with a tin roof, three bedrooms and a central lounge area. Then there was an additional building for the rest of the family members along with some rondavels which are traditional round huts with thatched roofs. One was a kitchen where a fire was made directly on the floor with a metal rack above to place your pans, and the other rondavel is where we’d be sleeping. It looked a lot better from the outside than the inside which had once-white walls covered in marks and scuffs. The bed sheets hadn’t been washed so I was very glad to be travelling with my silk liner and sleep in a clean little cocoon. On the plus side we had a real mattress which was very comfortable.

The property was totally off grid and without electricity except for the main house where our hosts slept. In there they had solar for lights, a freezer, tv and incubator for chicks…everywhere else was pitch black which meant we had fabulous stars when the moon wasn’t full. They had a farm nearby where they grew nuts and vegetables and at the house they had chickens, pigs, goats, cows, rabbits, cats and dogs.

The ‘bathroom’ was set in a separate little concrete structure with two long-drop toilets and a shower cubicle. For the shower we had to collect a bucket of water from a cart under the mango trees and use a little cup to scoop the water over our body. When we arrived I took a shower with my head torch on as there wasn’t a light inside. There also wasn’t a lock on the door so when the water began pouring out the room and onto the grass the pigs and chickens came to drink it and would accidentally push the door open.

We had a chat with the family, most of them spoke good English or at least some words and we sat outside until dinner time at 8pm which I thought was quite late. Because they cook on an open fire they use black cauldron looking pots so we carried them over to the main house where we ate with the immediate family and the other Australian volunteers. The rest of the family ate in the smoky kitchen hut. Apparently lung cancer is a huge problem in Zimbabwe, mainly in women due to them cooking in such smokey environments.

We were served sadza which is the Zimbabwe staple made from maize meal, it kind of has the texture and look of stiff mashed potato but without much flavour. Anyway, it’s to be eaten with your hands and dipped into something so tonight it was fried green leaf vegetables. Because we were eating with our hands it’s very important to have clean hands before touching the food. They don’t have running water so before each meal someone will walk around the room to each person and pour water from a plastic kettle over their hands with a bowl underneath to collect the dirty water. It’s a good practice but without soap it lacks much effect. While I just pulled off bite size pieces our host grabbed a chunk and rolled it around his hand making it into a neat golf ball size to dip and nibble. We were all shattered so were in bed by 9pm. I shone my torch around the room and spotted a cockroach on the wall and looking on the thatched ceiling was best avoided as it was riddled with big spiders.

We didn’t sleep well that first night. The cockerels sounded like they were inside our room and they began making noise from 2am which climaxed between 4 and 6am will all cockerels taking part with great enthusiasm. We got up at 6:30am and everyone was already awake and starting the first job of the day – water collecting. Before we left we helped making the porridge for breakfast, it was cooking in a cauldron over flames and had to be stirred constantly with a sort of homemade whisk. I could barely stir it, the heat from the fire was burning my arms and the smoke was stinging my eyes. I have no idea how the women get used to this.

Now it was time to collect water! These rural villages don’t have running water so everyone has to collect it from a spring or well. Our nearest spring was about 800m away. It was a Sunday so the whole family came to help as the kids were off school. To collect the water we took the families ox-pulled cart which had about 23 plastic containers on the back which held about 30-40 litres in each one. But before we could use the cart the busted tyre needed pumping up and again once we arrived at the spring. The spring was very small, just a little sandy-floored pool about 3ft wide and only 10cm deep. The sand was bubbling up where the spring was pumping out fresh water and a rustic wooden fence was built around the spring to keep animals out. The water was totally safe for us weak-bellied tourists to drink which was good news. It was a team effort so someone was ‘cleaning’ the water containers further down the spring, using the gravelly sand to scrub them and then two people used a small jug or bucket to scoop water from the spring into the water containers. Then someone passed the container under the fence, the next person had to heave it up a 2ft muddy bank and the last person carried it to the cart. It was tough work. The containers were so heavy to lift and I was really struggling. In comparison the young girls who were about 14 and 15 years old were lifting them with ease! The three dogs followed us down to the spring, I don’t think they’ve been treated well as they were very weary of us. The puppy was impossible to approach but the elder two would just about accept head strokes. They looked quite sad and unwell with bad skin conditions and one had awful wounds on both ears which were raw and bloody with flies all over them, although later in our stay we managed to pour some liquid designed for wounds on the cuts.

Once we’d filled the cart we returned to the house where we had to empty most of the containers into two huge tanks outside the cooking hut…this meant most of the water containers had been emptied so we had to go and do another water run! By the time we got back it was about 8.30am and that porridge we’d been stirring was finally served. It was quite nice actually, slightly sweet and served with a banana. We ate from metal plates and bowls like vintage camping ones with enamel coating and chipped edges. One of them had a hole in it which was the perfect size for porridge to ooze out onto my lap.

After breakfast we were given a big tub of peanuts picked from their farm. We had to de-shell them and put the shell and peanut into another tub. We weren’t really explained what to do so we thought it was just to eat the peanuts as we saw some of the kids doing that but we soon realised we weren’t supposed to be eating them – they were for homemade peanut butter! So we spent most of the day de-shelling them and then aunty showed us how to separate them. We poured the nut and shell combo onto a woven tray and shook them about, then we threw them in the air so all the heavy nuts would sink to the bottom and the shells would be on top which we scooped off and removed. We continued this process until we just had peanuts left and then we sifted through all the shells on the floor searching for any rogue peanuts. It’s funny how we were just picking peanuts off the red-mud floor and then they’d be made into peanut butter without any cleaning process in between. We didn’t actually get shown how the peanut butter was made but the nuts seemed to get crushed and roasted with salt which were delicious and then the next morning the final product appeared for breakfast and it tasted sooo good but we only tried it that once and I would of loved it every morning with the porridge.

At 10:30am we were served another meal which was just two hours after breakfast. They called this meal ‘Tea Time’ and it turned out to be my favourite meal each day. We were served a mug of sugary tea and the meal was the most interesting of the day, usually consisting of some overcooked pasta, rice or bread with a tomato or potato style stew or a soup. It was simple but it was the only meal that really offered any flavour or variety. Then at 2pm lunch was served which was almost identical to dinner with sadza and veg. It seemed so excessive having four meals everyday, to me it would make more sense spreading three meals out throughout the day but hey, that’s just how they live here. I assume by rural Zimbabwe standards our hosts were quite well-off as some families can only afford one meal per day.

Anyway, that afternoon a pig was to be slaughtered for food. There were quite a lot of pigs and goats roaming around our property including a mum who had just given birth to 6 adorable little piglets. The one they wanted for the meal was a juvenile and a dog helped with the chase which was rather brutal to witness. The pig was tied up and carried back to the house where it was placed in a wheelbarrow, the throat was sliced and boiling water was poured over it to help make it easier to remove the fur which they rubbed off with a stone and knife. The head was placed on the fire, the unwanted organs were thrown to the dogs and the rest of the pig was cut up. A little while later we were offered some meat (which me and the ozzy girl declined due to being vegetarian). I think the boys were expecting a nice cut of pork but they were served a liver stew which looked rather repulsive. Weirdly enough that was the only pork Craig had for the week, maybe the good parts of the meat were put in the freezer for a special occasion.

That afternoon we joined a family member on a stroll down to the ‘village’. It was about 300m away and looked like a Wild West town with about 6 flat topped buildings that had corrugated iron roofs over a veranda. Remarkably 3 of the buildings were shops!! They all sold the same thing, the shelves were rather empty in each shop but you could get some basics and they sold local beer which the locals love. The verge opposite the buildings was absolutely riddled with rubbish. It was so sad to see the lack of care and education for rubbish in places like this. Clearly there’s no rubbish collection in the area but the locals could get together and dig a big hole to bury waste. They could collect all the glass and plastic items and use them to make something with but instead they just throw it straight on the floor as that’s all they know. I haven’t even seen a bin at our hosts property so I have no idea where all the babies nappies etc are going. Anyway, the reason for our visit to the village was to take a bag of maize to the mill to have it ground into powdered maize meal. This is what’s used to make sadza and porridge so it’s the main food staple in Zimbabwe. The mill was a very rustic brick building with a metal machine inside and every surface was coated in white powder.

When we left a local lady walked past and said hi to me. The women all slap hands when they meet but this time she slapped my hand and did some sort of gangsta handshake which I just had to go along with. She said “hello, my name is ssyjwkmdnkdksllswwmwgag, what is your name?” And I beamed a smile at her and said “sorry could you repeat that” and she beamed a smile back, roared with laughter and headed off. She probably thinks my name is Sorry Could You Repeat That.

We had an even worse night sleep as it wasn’t just the cockerels keeping us up but a family of goats decided our door was the perfect place to scratch their backs so they were basically banging on our door and pushing against it until it gave way and flew open.

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