Shelter me – and I’ll shelter you too

This week I have been researching shelter in Africa, namely Zimbabwe.

When I think of the word ‘shelter’, I think of feeling warm, safe and dry; of cups of tea, or my lovely, cosy bed, or hugs from my Mum; or that gorgeous Ray LaMontagne song Shelter, where shelter is more than just a sense of physical safety but one of emotional security too; of feeling that all is right in the world; and of my home, a sanctuary.

All too often in the world’s poorest places, your home is not a safe place where you can seek sanctuary from the evils that populate the world. In fact, your home might be the problem itself. Perhaps it’s simply physically insubstantial and doesn’t protect you from harsh weather like flooding, or natural disasters such as earthquakes.  Or maybe there are so many people squeezed inside it that the danger lurks within.

For communities in urban Zimbabwe, overcrowding and inadequate housing are very real and dangerous realities.

It wasn’t always like this. Zimbabwe used to be one of Africa’s most successful countries, ‘the bread basket of Africa’, with a strong economy, a local government system that delivered the services it was meant to provide, and with the people skilled to support those services.

The country is now struggling economically. The gap between rich and poor is widening, skilled people are migrating in search of better employment prospects, and access to basic services, such as water and sanitation, waste collection and roads, is now for many people just an impossible dream.

Hyper-inflation, very high unemployment (estimated at over 90%), a rapidly devaluating currency and a high HIV/AIDS prevalence rate (15.3%) have all contributed to increasing levels of vulnerability for Zimbabwean people. 80% of the population lives on less than 85p a day.

And in 2005, life became so much worse for 700,000 poor women, men and children who were the victims of the Zimbabwean government’s Murambatsvina Operation.  Murambatsvina (English: Operation Drive Out Trash), also officially known as Operation Restore Order or the Clean Up Operation. This was a large scale Zimbabwe government campaign to forcibly clear slum areas across the country. The campaign started in May 2005 and according to United Nations estimates, has affected at least 2.4 million people. In July 2005, UN-HABITAT estimated that 700,000 people lost either their homes or livelihoods, or both.

But the Government of Zimbabwe says the operation was launched after extensive consultations with stakeholders.  The primary objective, the Government says, was to rid the urban environments of illegal structures and unlicensed trading premises. The aim of the national clean-up exercise was meant to decongest the cities and towns and establish an environment conducive to investment.

Unfortunately, the Government wasn’t able to replace the people’s homes, with inflation then raging at 1,700,000%.

Local authorities have struggled since the ‘clean up’, with the enormous task of ensuring that poor and vulnerable people living in urban areas have access to the basics that we take for granted – clean water at the turn of a tap, toilets, where people, particularly children, are protected from the waste and have privacy, refuse that is removed regularly, streets that are clean and safe to walk in, and, fundamentally, the security of knowing you have a home that is legally yours to rent or own.

Furthermore, since the ‘clean up’, overcrowding has become a massive problem in many urban areas. Almost overnight houses suddenly had to host three families rather than one, with nothing more than blankets to separate different families’ living areas. TB and cholera are rife. Children will often sleep on the floor underneath their parents’ bed. This fact is actually a contributing factor to the high HIV rate. Children are exposed to their parents having sex just above them, and children being children, will begin to copy this from a very young age. Young girls are falling pregnant as young as 12 years old, and rape cases are on the rise. And I’ve read stories of mothers who are forced to prostitute themselves just to make enough money to pay rent and feed their children.

Practical Action is training  these marginalised communities, who have come through so much, to improve their houses, ensuring they are safe places offering real shelter. Brick by brick, people here are rebuilding their own homes, and their hopes for a brighter future.

Our approach is to help people to make the best use of their own labour and to use locally produced building materials and construction techniques that they can afford and manage themselves.  Ensuring that people have good quality homes to live in, with enough space for everyone, doesn’t just improve living conditions – it can become a catalyst for the further development of communities by creating local jobs, and an infrastructure that benefits everyone.

I sit here at my desk listening to that song Shelter, hoping from the bottom of my heart that the people in Zimbabwe with whom we are working will once more have safe homes that are full of happiness and love, and free from harm and danger. Sanctuaries.

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