|The vegetable section of Chitima Market was razed down soon after the lockdown was declared|
Masvingo city has a number of resettlement schemes that came into being courtesy of the willing buyer-willing seller programme of the 1980-90s as well as the fast track Land Reform Programme of the early 2000s.
These include Chipinda, Mayo, Mazare and Summerton; all under Masvingo Rural District Council. Many farmers in these resettlement areas, according to the Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU) Masvingo region, areas are women who grow vegetables for sale in Masvingo city especially at Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle Market.
Better known colloquially as ‘Chitima Market’ due to its closeness to a railway line, this is the biggest informal market in the city. It was established in 2005 as part of the Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle rebuilding exercise which followed the controversial urban clean-up campaign known as Operation Murambatsvina.
The shanty market comprises a vegetable section which is dominated by women, and a clothing section which has both male and female traders. Under normal circumstances, the market is a hive of activity, with farmers and traders selling all kinds of vegetables and such grains as sorghum, millet, beans and wheat.
According to Masvingo City Council’s Department of Housing and Community Services Department, around 450 informal traders did business at the vegetable section of the market per day before the lockdown. Many of them were female fresh produce farmers from the resettlement schemes while others were women from the city who got their stock in bulk from the farmers every morning.
When the lockdown came into effect at the end of March, the market was shut down and all the farmers and traders lost their surest source of reliable income.
Council went on to raze down the whole vegetable section of the market which consisted of wooden and plastic market stalls but it has so far failed to adequately replace those makeshift structures with proper ones as was promised.
“The lockdown is the hardest challenged we have faced since we got resettled. Not even the droughts of 2002 and 2008 led to as much losses as we suffered this time around because some farmers here have some small irrigation systems that draw water from Mazare River,” said Ruvarashe Chuma of Mazare, who normally some of her produce at Chitima Market.
A mother of three who is married to a polygamous man, Chuma said she suffered serious losses as her tomatoes and cabbages grown on a one hectare piece of land could not be delivered to the market.
“I had many tomato and cabbage seedlings which I had hoped to plant and harvest in winter when the tomato market is usually undersupplied hence most rewarding. I however did not make much from my efforts as I failed to get the tomatoes to town. I looked for new markets in the rural areas where I sold at giveaway prices. Some of the produce actually went to waste,” said Chuma.
Her story was shared by Dorcus Muzire of Summerton who said the lockdown was the most difficult setback she has encountered in recent years.
Since 2012, Muzire had been a regular of Chitima Markert where she traded either sugar beans from her piece of land or millet (mhunga) bought in bulky from farmers in Mwenezi district for resale in Masvingo city.
“I am sitting with over 300kg of millet and a similar amount of beans which I could not sell in time due to the lockdown. I am a member of a women’s club in which we take turns giving each other money per month to enable members to buy inputs and tradable produce but we could not continue during the lockdown. There are eight of us in the club and I owe my colleagues money,” said Muzire, a mother of four.
Chitima Vegetable Vendors Association chairperson Tamisai Katini said close to 300 women who are members of her grouping were in dire straits.
“We are suffering. Our regular income stream was blocked all of a sudden and our members, who are mostly women, face severe financial difficulties. Some have since relocated back to their rural homes. Others are trading from home but it’s never the same,” said Katini.
She criticised council for failing to replace all the destroyed market stalls in time, and for allocating the few available spaces in the upgraded part of the vegetable side of the market in what she said was a non-transparent manner.
“They razed the whole market but what was built anew is not enough. Some traders who had always known this place as their only workplace were excluded while new traders were allowed in. We feel preference should have been given to those who worked here before the lockdown,” said Katini.
Masvingo Urban Ward 1 Councillor Selina Maridza said she was working with many desperate women of her ward to help them find new ways of doing business.
“My ward incorporates the oldest and poorest part of the city. Many residents in this ward called Chitima their work place for over 10 years but they are now at home where they live in worse poverty than before. We are working to encourage them to trade from home and to form WhatsApp groups to market their merchandise. I often tell them that as women, they should form groups and support each other rather than needlessly compete against one another,” said Maridza.
Her counterpart in Masvingo Rural Ward 5, Aleta Mokomeke said the lockdown had not only had a negative impact on women’s earnings, but had also increased cases of domestic violence.
“Many women in my ward used to come to the city to trade but the lockdown stopped all that. As a result, many women became more dependent on government and donor food aid programmes. With less means to spend their time productively and almost always at home, they have become victims of abuse at home,” said Makomeke who herself has donated foodstuffs and money to some of the most vulnerable of women and families in her ward.
Centre for Gender and Community Development in Zimbabwe (CGCZ) operations manager Chida Mudadi, said it was a sad reality that the lockdown had had a net effect of women’s earnings and ultimately their safety at home.
“There is a correlation between income levels and vulnerability of women and we noticed that the lockdown made women more vulnerable as it froze their earning capacity and rendered them more dependent on men. As a result, cases of domestic violence increased during the lockdown,” said Mudadi whose organization works for women’s economic empowerment, climate adaptation and supporting livelihoods in such rural and peri-urban areas as Bikita and Mashava.
In Mhene village Masvingo Rural Ward 12, CGCDZ also supports dozens of women who run a lucrative horticulture project which was not fully spared by the impact of the lockdown.
Women Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ) Masvingo Chapter coordinator Belinda Mwale said the lockdown did disrupt women’s lives. She however praised the resilience that some women had demonstrated in the face of immense adversity.
“Many women resorted to roadside vending in the night to evade a crackdown by the police but this exposed them to greater dangers of abuse. Perishables also contributed to the losses suffered by female fruit and vegetable vendors and farmers.
“It is pleasing, however, that a whole new home industry is emerging in high density suburbs where women are now producing and selling their goods,” said Mwale.
Meanwhile, business is slowly returning at markets that are popular with farmers and traders, but the coronavirus pandemic means conditions will never be the same and it remains to be assessed whether women will fully rebuild from the ashes.