Independent Appeal: Volunteers go to work in a ravaged country

The starving victims of Zimbabwe are being helped by VSO – one our chosen charities. By our special correspondent

Once, Samson Ndangana earned a decent salary as a teacher. He could afford to pay Z$600,000 for a nice suburban house. He enjoyed a typical middle class lifestyle. His children were enrolled in decent schools. He drove them to school in his own car. They had access to medical aid and ate decent meals. Indeed, the profession of teacher, not so long ago, in his district in eastern Zimbabwe, was not so much a calling as a status symbol. "Our children, our students had reason to aspire to be like us [teachers] one day," recalls Mr Ndangana, 42.

That was only a short eight years ago. When Zimbabwe was still the breadbasket of Africa – and a country held up by multilateral lending institutions as a model of good governance in the troubled continent of Africa. Today, the Z$600,000 he used to buy his house in 2000 is now not enough to buy a single brick, let alone a box of matches or the cheapest sweet in the corner-store.

No one now knows what is the real inflation rate in Zimbabwe. The latest government figures claim that, as of July – the last official figures available – it stood at 231 million per cent, year-on-year. Many private sector companies put it at 80 billion per cent. Others say it now runs in the quadrillions. Prices increase several times every day. Sometimes twice or thrice while one is still waiting in a long queue to buy a basic commodity.

An official from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe told me this week the figure is simply incalculable. "The last inflation figures were released in July because there are no commodities in the shops on which to base the basket used to measure the CPI index," he said. "Inflation is no longer realistically calculable. So don't bother. Just grab what you get at whatever price."

The experience of Mr Ndangana tells the story of that national trauma. In October, teachers earned Z$20m a month. Last month, that had increased to Z$250m – only enough to buy four loaves of bread. Teachers cannot even afford the bus fare to work. "If a teacher happens to turn up at school, there will be no pupils. If the pupils turn up, there will be no teachers. So no tuition is going on," said Mr Ndangana.

Salaries are increased every pay day but remain inadequate to sustain the most basic lifestyle. Because of the shortages of bank notes (Zimbabwe does not have the foreign exchange to import the special paper to print money), withdrawals are limited to a measly Z$500,000 per person per day, enough to buy nothing. To buy even the smallest items, people have to queue for many days.

Many teachers are now vendors. From where Mr Ndangana lives in eastern Zimbabwe, many cross the border into Mozambique to buy foodstuffs to resell. Others have fled their jobs and gone to South Africa to take menial roles in restaurants.

Those with experience in teaching mathematics and science find it easier to get professional jobs. Mr Ndangana could have done that but abandoning the vulnerable in his district did not cross his mind. Instead, he has volunteered, along with 600 others, to work with a local Christian group, Family Aids Caring Trust (Fact) – which is being funded by VSO, one of the three charities being funded by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. It is working to combat the most extreme ravages of poverty and Aids in the area.

What motivated him was the plight of the children in his class. Over recent months, they have become malnourished and emaciated. The poorest, or those whose parents died of Aids, have been sent away from school to herd goats and cattle for relatives in rural areas. They end up not only going without food but being sent by the relatives to something totally alien to the lifestyles they would have been accustomed to.

VSO used to send large numbers of international volunteers to Zimbabwe. But that had to cease in 2002 when the country fell deeper into political and economic crisis. But VSO was determined not to abandon the country. It continues to operate a programme whereby Zimbabweans may volunteer to share their skills within their own country, and to support the work of organisations such as Fact. It funded a month-long trip by the director of Fact, Photipher Guta, to the Philippines last year for training on volunteer management systems. Upon his return he was able to strengthen Fact's programmes to ensure a steady inflow of both professional and community volunteers.

"Volunteers are the cornerstone of our work," explained Mr Guta. "The volunteers are from within the communities and so they have a good grasp of the problems, making monitoring and evaluation easier."

Fact volunteers, such as Mr Ndangana, now feed more than 15,000 hungry children in programmes based in the area's schools which were once run by the state but now run by volunteers. They are also trained in providing home-based care for HIV-Aids patients and run anti-Aids clubs in schools, churches and communities.

In those schools where Fact provides food to pupils and teachers, far fewer have left. Fact also buys textbooks, repairs dilapidated school buildings and gives financial support to orphans. A number of organisations support Fact but the assistance from VSO is crucial. Without it, says Mr Guta, the organisation would not function, since volunteers are the key.

"Zimbabwe needs more and more humanitarian aid," said Mr Ndangana. But it cannot manage at this time of crisis without support for its volunteers. "They are the ones who ensure that what is needed finds its way directly to community level."

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