The
Zimbabwe
Letters

     
  Ghost town growing  
     
 
CHIPINGE - As we drove into Chipinge, a town some 200km south of Mutare city in Zimbabwe's eastern highlands, we were greeted by an eerie silence.

What you could only hear were howling winds blowing from the south-east as the town seemed literally deserted.

The few shops that were still open appeared devoid of life. The shelves were empty. Only a few customers were slowly trickling in. The once busy streets were also empty of people and cars.

Young children, who are normally full of zest and joy, were also nowhere near in sight, instead what greeted you was a frightening silence of the graveyard.

Chipinge, until recently boasted of vast tea, timber and coffee plantations that stretched miles towards the horizon. Numerous agro-businesses and supporting industries were operating at full throttle.

It was a typical agricultural town whose soul was the land. Everything seemed to tick.

Not anymore.

For 52-year old Mary Jana, who has lived in the town over the past 30 years, the change has been traumatic. Jana has seen farms collapse and businesses close, sapped of their lifeblood as President Robert Mugabe, against all conventional wisdom, pushed ahead his often violent land reform agenda.

But five years down the line, Jana says Zimbabweans are paying for Mugabe's ill-advised experiment.

"This is a sad story of a town which used to be a centre of agricultural excellence," Jana said.

Zimbabwe is going through a severe economic recession blamed on Mugabe's disruption of the key agricultural sector after he seized large tracts of farmland from the minority whites for redistribution to landless blacks five years ago.

Mugabe says the land seizures were necessary to correct historical imbalances in land ownership which saw the best farmland in the hands of the minority whites while blacks were cramped on poor sandy soils.

The farm seizures slashed food production by 60 percent leaving Zimbabweans dependent on food handouts from the international community for survival. The five-year old crisis has also seen severe shortages of fuel, electricity, essential medical drugs, hard cash and several basic
commodities.

Jana said transport businesses which depended on ferrying farm produce to Mutare and other towns, have also shut down due to lack of business.

Brendon Scot, a large-scale commercial farmer in the town, is among hundreds of farmers who had survived the earlier purge of white farmers which took place five years ago. He was kicked out of his farm a few weeks ago.

"We are not sure how we will transport our produce to markets because we have relied on Scot's transport companies over the years," said a black commercial farmer who refused to be named for fear of victimisation.

Another shop in the town which was owned by a white couple, which provided telephone and secretarial services to the community, was virtually pushed out of business after the majority of its customers relocated en masse.

"They closed because there is no business anymore. I do not know how the people will conduct their business having lost reliable commercial banks, transport companies and even clinics. It is not looking good," Jana said.

A private clinic, Chipinge Trust Clinic, closed its doors in September after the sole doctor, Petra Baum Gatner, relocated after his farm was taken over by government supporters.

Gatner said: "Chances that the clinic will re-open or be able to lure another doctor to Chipinge are slim given the events that have happened in this area."