Mbare: from pioneers to overpopulation

The suburb of Mbare, on the outskirts of the capital, is not only the oldest urban settlement in Zimbabwe, but one of the most intriguing.

The overcrowded suburb of Mbare. What will it become?
The overcrowded suburb of Mbare. What will it become?

When the Pioneer Column landed in 1890 and raised the Union Jack to symbolise a takeover by British South African Police at the then Salisbury Kopje, the first settlement they built was in Mbare where the Magaba and Nenyere Flats now stand.

The area used to belong to the Chivero chiefdom, which shared boundaries with Chief Seke’s mini-empire. City council officials estimate that Mbare has a population of about 800 000, which makes it the most densely populated suburb in the country.

Official figures indicate that the whole of Harare has 1,5 million residents, but independent estimates put the figure at as much as four million.

Veteran builder

James Banda, 78, of Malawian origin who resides at Jo’burg Lines in Mbare, participated in the construction of some of the now run-down flats in the suburb from the informal Magaba settlement. These flats include Nenyere, Shawasha, Matapi, Matererini and Mbare hostels.

They were built, he said, in response to the industrialisation of Harare, then called Salisbury, with companies such as Coca Cola, Swift and nearby tobacco firms owning some of the flats to house their employees.

The Mbare settlement, which grew in leaps and bounds, provided business opportunities for people living outside the town.

According to accounts gathered from elderly residents, women would travel from as far afield as Mahusekwa in Beatrice on ox-drawn carts to sell their produce at the open space now known as Mbare Musika.

The now-teeming suburb renowned for as many as five families living in flats designed for single men, is well known for its cut-throat business pursuits that range from scrap metal trading, hawking and drug peddling. The joke is that you can buy anything here, even human body parts.

‘’Here,’’ said a resident, ‘’you can be persuaded to buy your own nose and gladly part with your money.’’

Even though, in terms of per capita income, Mbare is ranked among the poorest suburbs in the capital, a lot of money circulates here, thanks to the wide-ranging retail business that it has become famous for.

“At least $5million dollars circulates here per day,” said another resident.

Before independence, Mbare was called Harare, meaning the place where people do not go to sleep. Many of today’s prominent leaders have at one time or another lived in the suburb, with a good measure of them having been born and bred there.

Political hotbed

During the colonial era, Mbare was a political hotbed. Stodart Hall, now a social activity facility, was used for political gatherings and whenever Zanu (PF) accords a person national hero status, his or her body passes through before burial.

These days, however, Mbare is becoming synonymous with Chipango, a notorious militia gang. Senior Zanu (PF) members took advantage of the poor members of the society who used to ‘’work’’ at Mbare Musika as touts and mobilised them into a group that is now notorious for torture, muggings and extortion.

A Zanu (PF) supporter, Chris Masango, said about Chipangano: “Chipangano means that as Zanu (PF) followers we agreed to be obedient to our President Robert Mugabe and that wherever he goes we will also go. When he dies, we will also die. Chipangano means a covenant,” said Masango.

Development stunted

Recently, a renowned businessman, Alex Mashamhanda, was ordered to stop developing a service station near Matapi Police Station by Chipangano, which seems to enjoy immunity from prosecution. The group is being blamed for political violence in the area.

Mbare Ward 4 councillor, Friday Muleya, said political violence was making it hard for his party, MDC-T, to develop the area.

“We have been reduced to refugees in our own area. Even though we have embarked on some projects using the Community Development Fund, we could have done far more,’’ he said.

The Bill Gates Foundation has earmarked money for development projects in the area, but Zanu (PF) politicians who fear that the MDC-T will gain greater support if the projects are implemented have been frustrating their advancement. As the winds of change blow and the country faces an election, what will Mbare look like 10 years from now?

Post published in: News
  1. Brian M.MacGarry

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