Rural life in Zimbabwe | Collecting water and visiting a school

The hard work started today. At 6:45 we were sent down the road to a muddy field where we had to collect rocks. I was sleepy and we weren’t really given instructions so I just grabbed a couple rocks and our host noticed one of them and said “this is a rock?” I picked it up to check and it was in fact a lump of mud. We filled a wheelbarrow with them and moved to a huge flat rock where our job was to smash the rocks into smaller rocks which could be used as hardcore for cement. There were only a couple of hammers but there were four of us volunteers plus aunty so most of us had to use a bigger rock to smash down on the other rocks. I felt like we’d turned back time to the cave man days to be honest. Eventually some more hammers appeared but it was still really tough work. Half the rocks wouldn’t split so the hammers vibrated off them and our hands were quickly covered in blisters. Once we had three wheelbarrows worth of small rocks we headed back to the house. Again we had no instruction but we appeared to me making concrete for a sort of path to go around the house to help prevent erosion and the red soil splashing up and staining the walls during rainfall. The cement was made in a wheelbarrow, using 2 parts cement, 2 parts rocks and 10 parts sand which our Australian friends had the gruelling task of shovelling out the river a few days before. Our host had a cement man come in to lay it properly so we had to wheelbarrow loads of cement over to him while he levelled it out. We did it for hours and hours. Our hands were destroyed, Craig had awful cuts on his knuckles, our backs were killing us and we were doing all of this in the hot 35° sun. By lunch time we were all ready to give up. The general rule for volunteering is 25 hours work in exchange for free room and food. We’d already worked 7 hours and were very much ready to quit. Our host didn’t exactly ask us to keep working but we could tell he wanted us to because he had this cement man in and needed our help for it. We figured we’d just crack on and hope we’d be offered an extra day off….wishful thinking.

We had to use lots of water to make the cement and soon enough we totally ran out of water. It didn’t mean that was the end of the day though, we still needed water for cooking, washing etc so at 5pm we had to head down to the spring and collect water and I was really starting to despise this essential chore. Luckily I managed to get the job of filling up the containers which was the easier option. We didn’t finish working until about 6pm so it ended up being 10 solid hours of work and way too much to ask volunteers to do. We weren’t even thanked.

Throughout the day I’d popped into our room to get our spare bottles of water that I stored in the shade and one time I noticed a chicken laying on our bed!! She was looking ever so comfortable and at home…a little too comfortable so I shooed her away hoping it wouldn’t become a habit. Every time I entered our room after that the chicken was back. After getting shooed off the bed the smart little bugger picked dark corners on the floor where it was almost impossible to spot her.

When I woke up the next day the bloody chicken was laying down at the bottom of our bed between the two of us, and looking rather smug! She must be jumping through the open window so we’ve been trying to push the curtains out a bit to keep her away. Anyway, our Ozzy friends left early this morning, they’d intended to stay two weeks but left after one as the work was too hard and not what the profile suggested and to be honest we were feeling exactly the same.

Today we had to complete the damn cementing job as there wasn’t enough time to finish it yesterday. We made loads more cement and eventually ran out of rocks which meant we had to go and smash some more. Amon the little four year old boy wanted to join us so he hopped in the wheelbarrow and was pushed down the road by Craig. I don’t normally like kids but he was actually really cute and so well behaved. He never moaned or cried, he kept himself entertained and he wasn’t annoying or bothering us for attention. He was also extremely smart for his age, he decided to grab a hammer and try to help us smash rocks and I was thinking he was just going to get in our way but my goodness, he was actually strong enough to successfully smash the rocks!! So he was very helpful and then he used his initiative and collected all of the small rocks and loaded them into the wheelbarrow. We thought we’d be offered a shorter day after yesterdays gruelling job but we still worked five hours and then scurried off under the mango trees to escape anymore work. That afternoon I spotted a load of smoke billowing in the air from a fire on the hills not too far from us. It looked bad and totally out of control. The wind was strong and the flames were visibly raging along the shrub-land towards peoples thatched rondavels. It made me realise how vulnerable people are living in this remote area. If there’s a fire that gets out of hand they have no running water to put it out and no fire service to help. They’re completely at the mercy of the fire and which way the wind is blowing.

The following day we had to wake at 6am and head straight down to a river to collect water which we needed to add to a pool filled with anti tick chemicals designed for cows to jump in. Every ten days villagers will bring their cows down for a dunk in the pool and everyone contributes to adding water to the pool. Today was our day and it involved THREE full carts of water. It was such tiring work but I enjoyed the walk to the river as we followed Gengetto, a ten year old girl in the family on her way to school. As we joined a trail through the forest we ended up in the thick of the school run. Dozens of kids (all with shaven heads I assume to prevent them from catching lice) in green uniforms suddenly spotted us and got very excited. The smaller kids walked behind Craig and the older ones all followed me. They were very calm and cute, if it was India they’d probably all be grabbing my arms and driving me mad but here they were very sweet. I decided to get my iPhone out and video a selfie with them so they could see themselves in the phone and they were all so excited, laughing and waving! After doing the three river runs we then needed drinking water AGAIN! For the third day in a row – this is just normal life out here but boy is it tough work. After tea time I just washed up the dishes and we managed to stop working for the rest of the day. We weren’t being offered a day off and to be honest if we were there wasn’t anything to do in the area. There wasn’t any WiFi which we would of been fine with if we could relax and read but aunty kept a radio playing the whole time which played repetitive music that could almost put you in a trance so we decided to give up on the days off and leave after 6 days.

Ironically our final day of work was much more what we expected the jobs to be like. We had to help herd the cows down to the pool we’d filled yesterday. We had to walk them about 2km and yet again we weren’t given any instruction so the cows had no idea where to go and we had no idea how to guide them. Occasionally they’d veer off the dirt road and start eating in the bushes and our host seemed surprised that things were a little out of control. We grabbed some sticks but I didn’t want to slap the cows so if they slowed down I just gently tapped their bums. Some of the bulls would start fighting out of nowhere and we ran away while or host hit them frantically with a piece of bamboo until they stopped. The cow dunking was quite something – they were corralled into a concrete area and channeled through a gap with nowhere to go but into the pool. I don’t know how deep it was but the cows totally sunk under their heads, creating a huge slash. Some of them really didn’t want to go in the water and they’d really leap in the air to try and over-jump it but that was impossible. I felt sorry for the little calves who really didn’t want to go in but soon enough our 20 or so cows had been dunked and we were ready to leave. Our host decided to take us a kilometre up the road to the primary school. It’s the school where Gengetto was walking this morning, with her she packed a box with some of the overcooked pasta we get served at tea time – just a few weeks ago I came across a women who shared videos of what she put in her kids pack lunch in England and there were about 6 different things inside including olives!!! What a contrast.

The kids all came running over but kept their distance, just following us around and giggling a lot, especially when Craig jokingly poked his head around a corner towards them. We were introduced to a few of the teachers who were very welcoming and excited to talk to us. We learnt that some kids have to walk 6km each way to get to school. I asked if they had a staff room and he just pointed to the head teachers office and said no not really, just this office where we sign in every day. They found it very interesting to hear about what life is like in England, they couldn’t believe that teachers have a big room to relax in between lessons and that they don’t eat with the children. I said they sip tea and eat biscuits in the staff room and his response broke my heart a bit “biscuits….everyday?!” He was very surprised when I said everyday. In contrast to British schools the kids all eat their pack lunch outside with the teachers and there’s no running water here. Outside were rows of concrete rooms where the long-drop toilets were. We asked if the kids were well behaved and they said mostly yes…and apparently they still practice the use of hitting kids with a cane which no doubt would make them all behave well. But I think in general African kids are very appreciative to have the opportunity to learn at school. We said our farewells and then headed back home.

In the afternoon we needed to do some laundry so we asked our host where the river was for washing and he said the kids will show us the way. So we were led by Amon who’s 4 and Vera who is taller but just 3 years old. She was barefoot and led us down a rocky track and didn’t wince once – I took my flip flop off on a smooth rock and it was too hot to step on! The trail led us though the woods and it was so impressive seeing how the kids knew their way around the area. When we followed the main route right they both shouted “NO” and veered us left. We arrived at a shallow stream rolling over a big flat rock so it created a 10cm deep pool that was ideal for laundry. It’s also where locals come to wash themselves and the kids were no exception and just stripped off and splashed in the water. They were asking for some soap so I split one of our bars in half and gave them both a piece which they were very happy about and set out cleaning their legs. Amon then gave his crouch such a good clean and we were laughing so much because I was convinced he was going to lose the bar of soap up his arse. He then cleaned his short Afro hair and covered his face in bubbles until he couldn’t open his eyes and demanded water so Craig squeezed a wet T-shirt over his head and he was giggling with joy and then they both wanted to be showered with a T-shirt so they laid in the stream and said “more wateeeeer!!” And proceeded to giggle every time. I was only halfway through washing my clothes when the kids started washing themselves in the same water so I waited until they were done. Then they both blew out a load of bogies and I could see them floating in the water. To be fair they tried splashing the water to get them down the stream and if ever they spat on the floor they would quickly cover it in gravel or dust so no one stepped in it. Once Amon finished cleaning himself he handed the tiny bar of soap to me which I was very happy to donate to him after the places it had been. He seemed quite adamant for me to keep it but I thought maybe it’s because he didn’t have a way of carrying it home so I found a big leaf and he wrapped the soap up like a little present and joyfully carried it home. When we got back he took it out of the leaf and gave it back to me. I couldn’t say no again so I took it and thanked him, such a sweet boy!

That afternoon two neighbourhood friends came over and the four of them spent hours playing in the dirt. They made ramps and rolled a metal tyre rim from a bike over the bump, it was so wholesome seeing how happy they were. It was a really nice last day actually and it almost made me feel like I could stay longer, but the fear of other construction work, the heat and the repetitive meals put me off. It’s a shame as our original plan was to spend three weeks here but it just wasn’t what we expected. We came for a cultural experience to help a family on their farm and while we got the first part of the deal the job description was completely different to what we’d expected which was helping with the animals and crops.

We did get to see aunty making some string from plants. She scraped the aloe vera looking plant over the edge of a spade and gradually she’d be left with the inner fibres of the plant which she dyed with other plants and plaited to make stronger string. She liked my ankle bracelets so made me some new ones to remind me of Zimbabwe so I have one on each ankle now which was really sweet.

On our final evening I sat outside the kitchen hut with Amon and aunty who scrolled through the videos on my iPhone and watched it like a tv. Then Amon found a car tyre and spent ages rolling it to Craig. He could lift up this car tyre with ease, or at least he made it look easy as it was pretty heavy in my opinion, especially for a kid!

So it was time for us to leave, the shared taxi picked us up at 5am just as the air was filled with the climax of cockadoodaloos. Aunty and some of the girls were already up and sweeping the red mud floor around the property with handmade sweepers from twigs which is surprisingly effective. I just can’t imagine what a 14 year old British kid would say if I told them they had to wake up at 5am to start chores, school is from 7:30am to 4:30pm and walking there in the heat is the only option, when they get home from school they’ll be making dinner for the family and then washing up the dishes. By the time their chores are done it’s about 10pm so they only get 7 hours sleep each night. Boy is that tough. But they all smile and crack on with it because it’s normal life and while some said they love living in this remote countryside area others dream of living in the capitol. I took some final photos of the kids including the ridiculously cute baby Tiara who was usually on someone’s back, held in place with a piece of fabric wrapped around them, and then it was time to say goodbye.

The shared taxi was already quite full yet we continued to pick up more people as we made our way through the villages. When we had 16 people packed into the 5 seater car everyone looked a little shocked when the driver pulled over for two more people, but somehow we squeezed them in. But the driver didn’t stop at 18 passengers, he managed to break some sort of world record and we had a total of 21 people crammed in this tiny car!! In the front were three adults, one kid and the driver who only had half a seat…I have no idea how he accessed the gear stick. The back seats is where we were, to my left was a rather larger women with a baby on her lap who kept kicking me and grabbing my arm but he was quite cute so I’ll let him off. To Craig’s side was another women with her two kids, one on her lap and the poor 8 year old boy awkwardly standing with his head bent down. The boot was where most people were, with 5 adults and 3 kids. It was so limited on space that even shutting the boot was a challenge. At one point the driver stopped again and even the locals were looking around thinking ‘fuck this’. Luckily the person waiting by the road was just collecting some cabbages from the roof and that’s when we realised we had another person on board as we saw their shadow cast across the floor and he was throwing cabbages down to the lady. What a crazy journey that was!

Albeit the jobs weren’t as described on the profile and were much harder than we’d expected we’re still very grateful for the experience we had in that little village in Zimbabwe. I think it’s important for everyone to have an experience like this, to see how other people live and how little they live with. We collect water when we live in a camper van so it’s not new to us but collecting enough water for 15 people, animals, cement-making and filling a whole pool for the cow-dunk was very different! Now we need to figure out where to go next…

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