Zimbabwe's flood victims: forgotten and still suffering

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The Independent Online

The world watched in disbelief as thousands of Mozambicans earlier this year took refuge in trees to escape the worst floods in living memory. But few outsiders gave much thought to the devastation inland - where the Save, Limpopo and Zambezi rivers take their source. In eastern and southeastern Zimbabwe alone, 250,000 people lost their homes.

The world watched in disbelief as thousands of Mozambicans earlier this year took refuge in trees to escape the worst floods in living memory. But few outsiders gave much thought to the devastation inland - where the Save, Limpopo and Zambezi rivers take their source. In eastern and southeastern Zimbabwe alone, 250,000 people lost their homes.

Now Hope For Children, in co-operation with a Zimbabwean charity called the National Organisation for the Development of the Disadvantaged (Noded), is helping to rebuild infrastructure as basic as toilets, schools and roads. With materials provided free by a Swedish charity, the project draws on unskilled, unemployed labour in Zimbabwe's townships.

The Independent has chosen Hope for Children as the recipient of this year's Christmas appeal by the newspaper.

"The idea," said Noded executive director, Charles Rutanhira, "is to give people a skill at the end of the day and, through them, to pull families out of poverty." Some 350 teenagers are currently living and working at Tongogara Camp, near Chipinge on the border with Mozambique and adjacent to the Save River that flooded in February after Cyclone Eline.

"The teenagers are drawn from families which, over the years, have become perpetually dependent on aid - young people whose parents are crippled or for some similar reason have lost their self-reliance," said Mr Rutanhira at Noded's offices in the capital city, Harare.

"The young people are chosen by the Government's social workers and given to us. The idea is that if we can give them a skill through training that lasts a year or two, they can shoulder the responsibilities of their families," he said.

Last year's floods - which in Zimbabwe claimed at least 62 lives and reduced thousands of homes to piles of mud and thatch - changed the focus of the Tongogara programme. "Until the floods we emphasised education and ran a factory making school uniforms. But after the devastation of Cyclone Eline, the Swedes came to us with materials and said we could have them as long as we found the labour. Now they have subcontracted the work of building classrooms and toilets to us."

The work of the Tongogara teenagers is crucial to an impoverished region of Zimbabwe, where roads, clinics and telephone lines were swept away by swollen rivers and where the Government is doing little to repair the damage.

In common with each of Noded's principal four programmes, the Tongogara scheme is based in a former refugee camp that until 1994 was inhabited by 58,000 Mozambicans who had fled the civil war in their country. "After the war, we inherited five refugee camps. One of them became a high school and we use the other four for social upliftment programmes, ranging from retraining street children and prostitutes to caring for pensioners who have no families," he said.

Mr Rutanhira, a personnel manager for Lonrho before entering the voluntary sector, is especially proud of Noded's Mazowe River Bridge project, in the northeast of the country, where 200 pensioners co-habit with 66 former street children. "There are very frail elderly people as well as more active men and women who earn money making straw hats, soap, doing pottery and bead work.

"Some have made plenty of money, to the extent that we have a problem! Two of the elderly men have been so successful that they have brought in concubines and now they have Aids. We had never thought of warning these old people about safe sex but from now on we must do so," he said.

The lively atmosphere at Mazowe River Bridge, which as a refugee camp accommodated 37,000 Mozambicans, is helped by the presence of the street children. "We took the children there to give them surrogate parents. Most of them have miserable family backgrounds and being with the elderly gives them back some childhood - they learn to listen to stories and learn some core values." he said.

Hope For Children supports each of the programmes and helps pay the salaries of Noded's 45 employees, all of them qualified Zimbabwean social workers. It has also introduced Noded to BA Runners - a charity run by British Airways employees who, in co-operation with the airline, freight containers of food and clothes to third world countries.

"We get a small grant from the Zimbabwe Government, but its resources are at rock bottom. Hope For Children is vital to us because the political situation has meant that many foreign governments have withdrawn their aid. Most recently we lost the Netherlands Government's support," said Mr Rutanhira, who also works with Children's Cup International.

Noded's strength is that it is Zimbabwean. Its board includes social workers, a representative of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches and employees of two Government ministries. It is probably the most effective structure for aid at a time when President Robert Mugabe and other Government officials in the former British colony have adopted a bunker mentality and become suspicious of foreign donors.

Among snapshots of Noded's projects littering his desk is a memo pad listing mobile phone numbers for two Zimbabwean ministers. His morning had been spent trying to raise money for customs duties on two one tonne trucks, donated from Japan but stuck in Durban harbour, South Africa.

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