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Zimbabwe: 8,000 Shawasha flats families live on health time bomb, as colonial dwelling betrays 39 years of failure by the independent government

Stewart Musarapasi

HARARE – Standing among other completely dilapidated buildings and principally housing some of the poorest of Zimbabwe’s urbanites, Mbare’s Shawasha Flats are – in their sorry state, not only a reminder of Zimbabwe’s colonial past, but also an epitome of the epic failures of the present administration.

Whichever direction one uses to approach this ramshackle of a communal dwelling, the marks are there that they have arrived. A school across the road – on the eastern side, betrays the poor state of the families who provide it with pupils, a police station on the southern end of the blocks of flats and a market that provides vending space for everyone with something to sell – which spreads itself out on the western side, make some of the structures that complete this scary set of structures which has become a death trap.

Garbage flies off the dumping site

A mere look at the flats tells their complete story – that these flats were built more than half a century ago, during the Rhodesian government. Even 39 years after the much-famed majority rule, much the sewer pipes and taps are yet to be replaced. A closer look at the facilities highlights the urgent need to arrest what has now become a ticking time bomb for the close to 10,000 families who call this place home.

There can be no gainsaying the fact that the condition of these flats does justice to the length of the period they have been standing there – given no particular attention by the Zimbabwean government – both old and present, but especially the present.

Constructed for the poor – and back then, marginalised, black workers, it would be unfair to expect the structures to offer more. The flats were built in 1940 by the then Salisbury town council, using colonial urban housing policies crafted to restrict immigration of the populace, especially women.

What is supposed to be a toilet

The hostels are 131 blocks of single-roomed flats housing approximately 8000 families. They have an average height of between two and four floors. Ideally, an average family of eight members shares a single room, something symptomatic of the poor state of the families, if not a general reflection of the comatose state of the Zimbabwean economy.

The need for privacy even in the midst of the biting accommodation challenges has forced some families to informally partition the rooms with cardboard boxes, sofas, pieces of clothing and any other unorthodox materials. This alone has created a grave scenario overcrowding in which each of the single rooms now accommodates at least three families – three or four times the standard requirement.

The families share communal toilets and bathrooms that are located at one end of every floor of the hostels, and that is where the health hazard looms large. Reeling under multiplied pressure, most of the old sewer pipes have succumbed. Blockages and waste spills have become commonplace – with human filth overflowing the flats with reckless abandon.

Water and sanitation is a huge challenge in Mbare hostels., as residents use communal toilets and taps, which are insufficient in terms of both number and capacity. Currently, a single block can have its legion of tenants flooding the only two toilets and two water taps that have resisted the cancerous state of their dilapidation, as the rest have broken down without anyone showing a semblance of care. A lack of attention for both the flats and their occupants has further provided the anti-climax in the form of constant sewer bursts, water leaks and the free flow of raw sewerage – making both the toxic sludge and unwelcome stench part of the place’s stinking identity.

The dirt and poor sanitary conditions in the communal toilets, kitchens and outside the flats are so suffocating that the flats are a clear breeding ground for communicable diseases like cholera and typhoid – both curable diseases that have metamorphosed into lethal killers under Zimbabwe’s failed health system. Perhaps evidence of lurking death is threadbare in the manifestation of green flies that have swamped heaps of uncollected garbage and raw sewerage.

Touched by the plight of her fellow Harare residents, Panashe Boni, a 28-year-old lawyer, has opened a page on social network Facebook, following her many visits to the place. Her request is for well-wishers – both in and out of Zimbabwe, to sponsor a rescue effort for the forgotten dwellers of Shawasha Flats, who are in the jaws of a health time bomb.

Boni was touched mainly by what she saw inside the buildings, where raw sewage streams down the corridors and in the bathrooms. To gain access into some of the rooms, the residents have had to place stones to walk over, just to access the toilet or sink. On one of the floors, a blocked toilet is surrounded by faeces and urine.  

The city of Harare recently resolved to demolish some flats, but serious political tension between the city council and some officials at local government put paid to that and people continue to live in potentially dangerous conditions. Rehabilitating the dilapidated flats would have been made possible via a donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had not there been political influence.

Mbare hostel residents pay average monthly rentals of $70 to the Harare City Council each one-roomed hostel, an amount that is way beyond the reach of the majority of residents in this largely impoverished community.

The problem for 30 years has been two-fold: what to do with the families already living in them and where to find the money for conversions. Every successive year has seen the hostels become more serious a health hazard.

Boni has taken it upon herself to advocate for these residents. She wants them both to speak out and start working towards improving their living conditions even,

“Even if it is one block at a time, one floor at a time or one day at a time,” it has to be done, says Bwoni, who laments the alarming state of disrepair the flats are now in.

Charity begins at home and one hopes something will now be done to rescue those tenants. It will be a demonstration of the true spirit of Ubuntu if well-wishers work together with this young lady, who has managed to go an extra mile, doing something even local councillors, MPs and or Mayors have failed to do.

Boni may not be a resident of Shawasha Flats, but to her, human beings still live there, and they deserve to have basic amenities too. They are humans too and they need to have their living conditions improved.

Panashe Bwoni intends to install new pipes, fix the electrical wiring, install doors and windows and repaint the building. In the meanwhile, she has resorted to do it “one block at a time” and with the help of donors and well-wishers, move on to the next.

Last month, Bwoni visited the site with a civil engineer and his team. A report awaited presentation on the extent of the work to be done, following preliminary observations that the sewage and plumbing systems needed to be redesigned to accommodate the numbers in the blocks, the pipes needed to be removed and replaced with new ones. Toilets would also need to be re-installed and essentially, it would be three toilets, while taps are also needed.

Raw sewage has become the order of the day

The structure of the building remains sound, according to the report – especially the foundation and the walls, meaning nothing has to be demolished. The roof would need to be replaced as it has outlived its timeframe, there is electricity in the building, but the wiring would need to be re-evaluated in each room as currently, appliances are connected in a confusing manner using adaptors and conduits. There are no lights in the toilets, laundry rooms, kitchens and corridors. The building is dark even during the day.

There are some cracked door frames that need replacing, most apartments need new doors and new windows, the building will also need to be repainted on the outside and the corridors as well inside.

The Achilles heel though, remains the source of funds and the much-needed construction materials for renovations to begin. With the right labour in place, it would take between three weeks and a month to do all the work without relocating the residents.

A stitch in time which can save nine.

Panashe Bwoni volunteer of Shawasha Flats can be contacted at;

Cellphone. +263 776 634854


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