May 2005 found me at Magunje Growth Point, a gutsy windswept place 20 minutes drive west of Karoi town. Like a score of similar places in Zimbabwe, it really is a place that defies classification. It is a rural centre threatening to become an urban one, a strange mix of the old and the new, the emergent and the established. And all the time you feel it’s a place tittering on the verge of decay, so that the aspired state can never be realised, and the old state never recaptured. It is an enigma: a half-way house between imagined futures and a rebuke by a shunned past.
It is a place where you meet donkeys pulling scotch-carts mixing it with the latest Mercedes Benz salons. A place where a suited magistrate holds court a stone-throw away from a traditional leader’s “dare”; where your local MP-turned minister could be strutting his stuff alongside an impoverished but dignified village-head. It is where the tarmac meets the dirt, where the urbane accents and the rough local ones hold tense discussions about different “developments”, where the local village-girl-turned-siren jauntily patrols in skimpy clothes, defiant, dirty but appealing. This is where some of the highest HIV/AIDS rates have been reported in Zimbabwe: hot-spots of urban decay-meet-rural-decay.
This was to be my final station as a field level extension worker. The arrangements were that I work from Magunje while logistical issues pertaining to my accommodation in Msambakaruma were sorted out by the Head Office. From here, I could go and do various duties in my designated area of Msambakaruma: a sort of itinerant extension worker! It worked perfectly for me, because it meant I could claim the dubious benefits of being a “volunteer” while not exposed to the vile conditions in Msambakaruma.
My office lay right at the eastern edge of the Magunje centre. Beyond that, half-hidden by bushy hedges, had mushroomed 5 or so clumps of scarecrow cabin dwellings where I was told unholy things happened come night time.
I shared the office with my boss who only popped in from time to time. For most of the time, I was on my own. There was a clerk who helped with books and an elderly office orderly with a charming smile who always had great story to tell about times past.
I remember my first visit to Msambakaruma in the company of my boss. We were on a Newcastle Disease vaccination campaign, and we had been given the District pick-up truck to use. We took advantage to pay the Chief a courtesy visit. We found Chief Msambakaruma at his “dare”, a dignified elderly man with a round paunch and gentle demeanour. He had serene eyes set wide apart, calm and unruffled. He did not seem like an individual who needed much “development” to me. He was concerned by the death of his animals and occasionally his people. But beyond that he seemed a man at peace in his remote kingdom. In my mind he was probably a man to be left to his way of life, untroubled by runaway inflation, diseases, poverty and a certain grasping desperateness that are hallmarks of “modernity”.
We were introduced, and he showed great pleasure at my acceptance to work in his area. My heart did a funny swell. He looked long at me, as if wondering about something. We discussed my accommodation situation, since there were no government offices for me at Musambakaruma. I was offered a house/office at the local primary or secondary school. I wasn’t really concerned where I would stay but my minimum condition was that the house should have electricity. That threw him a little, because I suspect all electrified houses had been taken! I was a volunteer, but certainly not a cheap one!
We continued on our way, making our rounds in the villages, teaching villagers about the disease, how we intended to intervene by vaccinating all stock, and the likely consequences. We left Chief Msambakaruma promising to look at my accommodation issue with his local political leaders. We finished our rounds and made the 250 km journey back, tired bodies jostling and bumping on the bumpy ride.