Rural rondawels dot the hillsides of the Honde Valley. Homesteads are difficult to reach and widespread but the care workers traverse these hillsides daily, walking kms to reach and visit the widows, vulnerable children and patients in Pimaii.
Two of the care workers lead us up a roadway to visit the children and gogos.
A thousand dollar note lies discarded in the grass. The Zimbabwean dollar completely collapsed in 2008. It's worthless. Remote villages like Pimaii had no way to keep up with the changes in currency so bags of worthless money became fire starters in communities like these.
Pimaii is home to several tea plantations, including the Kitayo tea plantation, where we stayed.
This past week, we travelled into rural Zimbabwe and fell back in time. We drove up the Christmas Pass out of Mutare and into the hills of the highlands turning towards Mozambique on the Honde Valley road, some 60 km out of Mutare. We drove through large forestry plots of gum trees and pole trees used for building. Most of the wood is exported to South Africa or Mozambique so the roads are mostly used by large trucks hauling huge loads of logs. Our small van pulls off the side of the narrow roads when one approaches and even so, I find myself leaning to the side to avoid the seemingly inevitable side swipe that looms. As we drive through the forested plots, we catch glimpses of the valleys, seemingly falling away through the hillsides. As we come to the winding roads that take us out over the valley, the view is breathtaking. I don't want to turn this into a vacation monologue of how beautiful the area is, I can't do it justice. What I can say, is that by looking at Zimbabwe on a map, you assume it is a small area. Indeed, in terms of African countries, it is small, just a tiny patch on the quilt of the continent. When the Honde Valley spreads out before us, I realize I have underestimated how wide and deep and vast the land is. It is mountains fading into shades of greens and blues and greys the farther they are from us. It is banana fields and tea plantations and maize growing in impossibly vertical ground. It is a visual morse code of dots and dashes - thatch roofed rondawels are the dots amongst the dashes of red dirt paths that we glimpse between the vegetations. Paths that lead up and down and across the hillsides at such incredible angles it seems only a mountain goat could traverse them safely, not the gogos and children laden with baskets of maize and the heavy, rustic tools they carry to and from the fields each day.
We descend into the valley by twist and turn. The road narrows incrementally until we are brushing the vegetation on the side of the hills on our descent. People walking home from the fields flatten themselves against the hillside or stand knee deep in the grassy side of the road to avoid being hit. Vehicles careen around corners towards us and more than a few times, I'm uttering prayers and trying to stifle sharp intakes of breath. It's exhilarating and terrifying all at once. We drive through a few clusters of shops or market type areas where women and children are selling tomatoes, bananas and oranges in baskets. After an hour or so, we arrive into an area of land that leads into Pimaii, the community we are striving for before dark. We stop at the local police and guard station to report our presence. The next day is Independence Day in Zimbabwe and there will be a large military and police presence in the communities. Our presence, if not reported now, will be reported by village residents with stories to match. Mzungus in the village are rare and our very presence, coinciding with Independence Day, is reason enough for speculative stories that passed around can become wildfire. Farai is cautious with us and reports our presence and reasons for being there to the headman of the village and the chief of police so that they are not caught unaware and suspect us of usurping their authority. After a small delay, we are met in the parking lot by the men. I was expecting someone more "chief-y"...so I was surprised by the large man wearing red sweatpants and a short sleeved dressed shirt open to his belly. He was very friendly and welcoming and we were at ease with him. The Police Chief, though hardly dressed more officially, at least went through the motions of taking our passport numbers and information as well as the dates we would be in the village. He was polite but clearly official in his greeting of us. A few minutes of small talk and we were on our way into Pimaii. It was now dark and we let out Jane and Florence who had travelled with us, at their homes, and then carried on up the mountain to our lodge. It was pitch black and yet there were many people still walking the narrow road that led us 30 km into the mountainside. Our headlights lit up cattle and people on the roadside and while the road became as narrow as a path at points, we could at least see the lights of oncoming traffic, though minimal, and avoid colliding. Bridges over the rivers were one lane and without guard rails. Farai, however, drove confidently, honking his trademark horn at anything and everything. He grew up in the valley and in the morning, we will see the home of his birth. We arrive in the pitch black to a power outage throughout the mountains. Thankfully, the security guard is expecting us and when we arrive, he opens the gate and we arrive to an empty lodge. We are the only guests. Unfortunately, the woman with the keys is across the road at her home and we have to drive up to get the keys. We all pile back in the van, hot and tired, with the security guard as well. We arrive at the gate of the key keeper and honk our arrival. Two torch lights totter down the hillside towards us. We watch them bounce and disappear, reappear and grow closer as two men come out to greet us. One is the manager of the tea plantation on which the lodge stands. He tells us that Jane, the key keeper, is at her grandmother's...down the road about 10 km back. He and his son pile in, the security guard gets out and we are once again travelling at great speed up the road to get the keys. Ah, Africa. We get to the grandmother's house and we are sitting in the van. The two men disembark but we stay in the hot van with windows only cracked as the risk of malaria is high here and we're all wearing short sleeves and shorts or skirts. We hear a gunshot which only makes me giggle with nervousness. I tell Farai that we are doing all the things that travel advisories tell you not to do. We are in a van with two strange men on a road in the bush at night hearing gunshots. Brilliant. We also have no idea which direction is which so we are completely at the mercy of Farai and his knowledge of the area at night. Aidan and I get a case of the giggles as we make up headlines to explain our demise. After about 15 mins., Jane joins us with the keys, the two men and Jane get in the van with us and we head back to the Lodge to our rooms. The rooms are clean and comfortable by African standards. There is a shower in our room which makes all of us giddy with anticipation. By candlelight, we sort out our bag and hang a mosquito net and then head to the dining hall for dinner. All references to the Bates Motel have now run through my brain as we are the only occupants of the lodge and it is seemingly trapped in perpetual disrepair from its heydays in the 1940's. It's dark and what we can't see but can hear only adds to the beauty and mystery of the place.
We sleep very well and rise early, to find that the van battery is dead. Andrew sets out on foot to find the impossible, another vehicle, with jumper cables, willing to come out and jump our van battery. We eat breakfast while he is gone. A steady diet of white bread, cookies and Coke have been sustaining us in Zimbabwe. My teeth feel stripped of enamel and my stomach constantly full from the carb overload but a fat, full belly is a thing of beauty here and so we eat while there is food in front of us, not knowing what will be next.
Andrew returns with a man in a bakkie who graciously jumps our van and gets us on our way. We spend the day walking with care workers through paths and trails all over the mountainsides. Easton spends the day with Farai, taking one of the Headman of the village who is suffering from malaria to a clinic for medication. We've entrusted Easton to find a soccer ball in any of the shops for playing with the kids tomorrow. He returns without one, explaining that they had purchased one, only to have it go flat within minutes of inflating it. So, without the ball, we come up with some games to play with the kids.
Our homes visits are incredible. The people, as friendly and open as their city counterparts, are warm and receptive to us. At one home, we are given a huge avocado and Jason is handed the youngest baby in the family to hold, a precious boy in a family of all girls. He thanks the family for having us in their home and for giving us an avocado and a baby to keep. The family thinks he's hilarious, all but the mother, who still looks a little worried even while laughing. We feel as if each family we spend time with has become friends of our family. We know that the children are timid around us because they don't see white skin very often. Once child, named Tino, upon learning we were coming, called all his buddies to come and hang out at his house in case we tried to take him or something, he wanted back up. He is shy throughout the visit and even the foolproof trick of taking his picture can barely urge eye contact. His friends hang back as if watching their friends' demise. Finally, it seems they are assured we are only there to meet them and they come a bit closer and chatter about us.
The needs of this community are as wide and vast as the valley itself. School fees for children are a seemingly common hurdle. $14 per year, per child is unattainable in a valley where the only source of income is selling avocados, bananas and maize in the cities. Gogos work hard in the years when they should be resting on a pension, raising their children's children and still working in fields as if they were in their early twenties. The resiliency of these women is unbelievable. Each rondawel we enter and sit in is clean and tidy. Small pots and pans, if owned, hang on the walls neatly. The fire pit in the center is raked and ashes piled if not burning. Rondawels are used for cooking and for sitting with family and friends. Most families will build a small square cornered building for sleeping in if they have the money, if not, the rondawel becomes both kitchen and bedroom.
Gogos teach young children to cook over the open fire and there is no electricity in any of the homes we visit. Water comes to the homesteads in pipes that consistently break, forcing children and old women to traverse up to a km or more with large buckets of water daily. Children are consistently hungry, and with a drought year upon them, the forecast doesn't look much brighter this year. The clothing the children wear comes from donations through churches and the care workers we're walking with. Many of the children's clothes are tattered and ill fitting, each seam re-stitched with string to increase its usefulness.
There are many stories that we'll share out of the Honde Valley. We loved our time there, though it was too short. We walked many miles but only a fraction of what the care workers there do on a daily basis. Care workers who started meeting under a mango tree on borrowed property, and in two years have moulded over 25,000 mud bricks by hand and are building their own care center on land bought by pooling resources. It is fenced, the structures have been built and roofed. Doors and windows come next but it is already becoming a place where fifty of the most vulnerable kids in Pimaii receive a meal every day. The care workers here are exceptional in their ability to organize and motivate themselves. They divided themselves, 18 of them, to feed 50 kids daily, each taking turns to cook and prepare the food. They visit 178 kids over the course of a week, often daily walking distances of kilometres up and down the hillsides and valleys, into remote homesteads that don't normally see anyone other than their own families. Children greet the care workers as aunties and uncles and it's apparent that there are deep relationships being forged here. The stories that gogos and children tell us of life before the care workers came and life since are testimony of the beautiful, life giving difference that these care workers are making in the lives of those they visit. As always, we are completely humbled and honoured to be invited to walk amongst them.