Inside Epworth’s Free Magada slum
EPWORTH, a grossly underdeveloped suburb 12 kilometers south-east of Harare’s Central Business District, is a place of contrasts.
To a first time visitor, the serenity of the famous balancing rocks (a national monument) quickly gets snuffed by haphazardly planned, ramshackle settlements.
Most of Epworth’s “houses” do not seem to conform to any standard and are not serviced either with electricity, water or a sewer system.
Most residents are poverty-stricken, mostly unemployed citizens, among them gangs of criminals and sex workers who find the unplanned settlement a haven.
Making money largely involves selling firewood, fast foods like potato chips, maize and other basics.
Shopping centres like Domboramwari, Munyuki, Stop Over, Overspill, Solani, Corner Store and KwaRueben are dotted around the complex settlement that is Epworth.
The dormitory suburb is an epicentre of depravity and poverty.
Within all this is an emerging slum, a shanty town called Free Magada, where transactions involving hard drugs like nyaope, illicit alcoholic brews and prostitution thrive.
Like any other busy suburb, the place is quite vibrant and overpopulated, with lots of movement and activity.
What draws people’s attention to this area is its sordid way of life. Makeshift houses made from discarded wood planks, corrugated iron sheets and plastics make up the kaleidoscope that is Free Magada.
In this slum, one finds zombies (inebriated individuals), some as young as 15 years, roving up and down any time of the day or night.
Elderly residents that live in this emerging shanty town are worried that their children risk “extinction”, unless something drastic is done quickly.
It is a story that points to desperation, amid what locals call “scavenging by law enforcers”, whom they accuse of placing their get-rich-quick schemes ahead of everything else, including the future of the children.
While police are on record for raiding a huge chunk of drug lords that operate in most suburbs, this area seems to be largely ignored.
Local residents, who still wish for a semblance of normalcy, accuse the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) of turning a blind eye while some rogue officers actually work in cahoots with the drug paddlers.
“They make cash collections from the dealers and look the other way,” said an elderly resident who refused to be named.
The Sunday Mail Society tried to get a comment from the ZRP.
However, ZRP spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi could not be reached as his phone went unanswered. Questions sent to him remained unanswered by the time of going to print.
Deplorable living conditions
Oblivious to the dangers, children played hide-and-seek near a heap of garbage as this news crew went about its business. A foul smell pervaded the whole compound, but it did not seem to bother the inhabitants.
The living conditions in this heavily populated suburb have continued to deteriorate. From the look of things, if a disease breaks out, thousands will die.
More people are flocking here seeking cheaper rentals. For a month’s rentals, one needs not part with more than $20 (local currency).
Despite its well-documented haphazard planning and poverty, the settlement, which is run by a local authority, still attracts politicians.
However, they are only seen during polls.
This constituency’s Member of Parliament, Earthrage Kureva of the MDC-Alliance, agreed that things are not okay in the Free Magada slums. He said there is need for proper planning and regularisation of the illegal settlements if they are to become inhabitable.
“We will start standardising these areas so that they conform to urban criteria. This will help us to effectively be able to provide services like water, sewer and proper housing for the residents,” he said.
He added that the overpopulation of the area has hugely contributed to drug and substance abuse by minors, although they are scaling up awareness campaigns.
To make matters worse, the majority of people in this community use pit latrines. These are in a deplorable condition. Squirmy fat worms can be seen crawling on the walls as many of the pit latrines are overflowing. Some residents now practice open defecation in nearby bushes while toddlers just go behind their houses to relieve themselves.
“We cover it up, but these naughty children will dig it all up. We cannot watch them all the time,” a resident said.
A lot of women said they are tired of the way they live as they rely on water from unprotected water sources — usually shallow wells in their backyards. The wells, which are often unsecured, are not subject to safety and health checks.
Worse, this scarce resource runs out periodically in their wells and they are left with the burden of fetching it from alternative water sources that are often far from where they stay. Those without any water sources have to buy from others at an average of $1 per day — which most cannot afford.
Besides the water and pit latrines issue, the residents are also unhappy with public food handling. Discarded meat products, especially fish and chicken insides, are being sold at as low as $5 per kilogramme, making them a preferred choice for many in this poor community. The meat is sold in buckets on pavements outside shops or by vendors who move around.
But, how do these residents put up with this kind of life? Are the local authorities aware of this state of affairs?
We tried to reach out to Epworth chief executive Wilton Mhanda at his offices last week and we were told that he was not in. Efforts to get hold of him on his mobile phone were also fruitless as it was unreachable.
Drugs & prostitution
We caught up with Loice Vengeni, a Free Magada resident who recently lost a nephew from drug overdose.
“They are mixing up a concoction of hard drugs,” said Vengeni.
Apart from all the drugs and illicit brews, Epworth has its own red light districts, where young girls mill around selling their precious bodies for a song.
Said Vengeni: “Young children are engaging in unprotected sex.”
Loice also spoke of a recent incident that saw two rival gangs fighting over drugs in broad daylight.
“I am tired of seeing young children die due to illegal substance abuse, drugs like nyaope. It pains me to see very young girls, some as little as Grade Seven, engaging in commercial sex work, and not so young men soliciting for sex from these children,” she said. Another strikingly similar suburb, the infamous Corner Store, is just a stone’s throw away.
It doubles as the market place and a suburb for the “well-up”.
Yet, the unthinkable happens there.
This writer witnessed a group of youths injecting themselves with unknown substances. Upon further enquiry, it was established that the substance was the deadly nyaope. Nyaope, very popular across the border in South Africa, has since creped in the country. It is a cocktail of ARVs, rat poison, fluorescent powder, cleaning detergents and heroine. It is usually laced with marijuana to give a hallucinogenic high.
Residents say nobody has been able to speak out against this vice.
Urban slums are a worrying trend across Africa.
With rural-to-urban migration increasing in Zimbabwe, and urban squatter camps growing, the shortage of affordable public housing has become a contentious issue.
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