Fence fails to stop search for survival

PLUMTREE - Fifty-four year old Nomathemba Dube trudges cautiously towards an
undesignated crossing point along the Zimbabwe-Botswana border.
With a black rucksack strapped to her back, the elderly woman constantly
checks behind her shoulders in case Botswana immigration officers who
n

ormally patrol the area to clamp down on illegal border jumpers pounce.
With the agility of a teenager, Dube scales the two-metre border fence and
heads towards Dagwi village in rural Botswana to sell some earthenware and
dried vegetables.

“I sell each clay pot for Pula10 (about US$1.60). I also have some dried
traditional vegetables in this bag that go for a similar price. People here
like traditional stuff and they are very friendly,” says Dube with a grin on
her face.

Dube, of Mangubo village in Zimbabwe’s poverty-stricken Matabeleland South
province, is among thousands of villagers who have been driven by hunger to
make daring trips across the border into Botswana to sell clay pots and
dried vegetables, which for some reason appear plentiful in one of
Zimbabwe’s most arid regions.

Faced with failed crops and lack of income, Dube who is a widow, says she
has had to play cat-and-mouse with Botswana’s police officers who are
notorious for their brutal treatment of Zimbabweans, to fend for her six
children.

“I no longer have any food provisions remaining at my homestead. The
situation is so bad I accept things like maize-meal and tinned fish in
exchange for these clay pots and dried vegetables. “I have a tiny field at
home but the harvest will not be enough, so I really have to be in this
business for quite some time,” says Dube carefully checking that her
merchandise has not been damaged. And the scene not far from where we stood
with Dube was probably all the confirmation one could need that the widow
will not be alone “in this business”.

There, a group of three young men could be seen assisting each other scale
the fence on the portion where it is not electrified. Unlike Dube, the men
said their “illegal mission” to Botswana was not to sell merchandise but
their labour doing menial jobs at farms and in factories.
“What else can we do? We are starving here,” said Mandla, who appeared the
older of the three men. They all refused to give their full names,
apparently disbelieving our promises that we would not tell on them to the
border authorities.

Community leaders in Mangubo say while harvests appeared to have improved
this year due to the good rains, a lot of villagers are still facing hunger
after they failed to harvest enough as a result of lack of draught power and
inputs.

More of their youths and widows will have to keep jumping the border into
Botswana in search of survival, headman Ndabeni Maseko said.
He said: “The situation has definitely improved from what we experienced
last year, but there are still some people who are going for days without
food. As a result, some of them cross the border to villages like Nkange and
Dagwi to sell clay pots or look for menial jobs that will give them quick
money. While it is illegal, there is nothing they can do because they have
to survive. The situation is really bad here.”

Zimbabwe is in the grip of a severe food and economic crisis which critics
blame on repression and wrong policies by President Robert Mugabe such as
his seizure of white-owned farms for redistribution to landless blacks six
years ago.

The farm disturbances slashed food production by about 60 percent leaving
Zimbabwe, once a regional breadbasket, dependent on food handouts from
international donors.

With inflation pegged at 913.6 percent and still rising, life has become a
real grind for these villagers forcing most of them to trek into Botswana
for survival.

But a trip into Botswana is no stroll in the park as the Gaborone
authorities crack down on illegal Zimbabwean immigrants whom they accuse of
fanning crime in that country. The exodus of hungry Zimbabweans into
Botswana has strained relations between the two neighbours with Harare
accusing Gaborone of targeting its citizens visiting that country for
ill-treatment.

Zimbabwe often cites an electric fence Botswana has erected between the two
countries, which it says is a Gaza-style barrier that could see hundreds of
Zimbabweans trying to jump the frontier being electrocuted. Harare, which
publicly insists relations with Botswana are cordial, also says the electric
fence mirrors Gaborone’s xenophobic treatment of Zimbabwean immigrants.
Botswana, almost alone among Zimbabwe’s southern African neighbours to have
voiced concern over Mugabe’s controversial rule, denies ill-treating
immigrants from its northern neighbour and says the electric fence is meant
to block free movement of wild animals and livestock across the frontier in
order to curb the spread of animal diseases.

But whatever the true purpose of the deadly electric fence, Dube and
hundreds of other villagers along the frontier here say it will not halt
them from doing what they have to do to survive and that is, regularly and
illegally skipping the border to trade their handmade wares or labour in
return for food. – ZimOnline

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