Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Towards sustainability in rural Zimbabwe - news from Hlekweni

This week’s post comes Craig Barnett in Zimbabwe. Craig is a Quaker who previously worked in Sheffield for the City of Sanctuary organisation. He was also co-tutor with me on one of the Good Lives courses last year – Good Lives: because we can’t eat money – which I wrote about in an earlier blog post.

Craig and his family left for Zimbabwe towards the end of last year for Craig to take up the post of Director of Hlekweni, a rural training centre outside Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, which specialises in bio-intensive agriculture, and also offers practical training courses, both long and short, on subjects from building and carpentry to garment-making and early childhood education.

You can follow Hlekweni on Facebook or you can sign up for Hlekweni news by emailing: info@friendsofhlekweni.org.uk. You can also give support via Friends of Hlekweni in Britain and donate to help Hlekweni's work.

When Craig arrived in Zimbabwe to take over as Director, his work permit hadn’t come through, so he had to be technically a volunteer for some time. Below is his most recent newsletter.

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Craig writes:

After all these months of waiting, I finally have my Zimbabwean work permit and officially started as Director of Hlekweni last week. It was quite a shock to hear that the permit had been approved - I had almost given up on it and we were starting to think of making plans to come back to the UK for good this summer. Instead, we have shifted into a new gear of preparing to be here for the next two years (the permit is until Feb 2013), and being totally responsible for Hlekweni with all its rather pressing challenges.

Things are very tough here at the moment. We have been hit by a combination of poor harvests due to drought (with almost no rain since January) and government-imposed wage increases which have brought Hlekweni to imminent financial disaster. The absolute poverty here is a constant source of frustration, and I am still struggling to adapt to a situation of absolute scarcity of all resources. As just one example; Moya and Jonathan's [Craig's children] school has been waiting for months to have a dangerously hanging classroom roof fixed - on investigation I discovered it was because there weren't any nails. I finally bought a bag of nails, but the work seems to be stalled again, pending the availability of something - perhaps we are out of hammers too...

We have had lots of volunteers and visitors staying at Hlekweni over the last few weeks, which is a welcome source of support. We are also starting to get to know some people outside of Hlekweni, and I have been networking assiduously, to the extent that I was inducted into the Bulawayo Rotary Club yesterday - not something I would ever have seen myself doing before. Kate [Craig's partner] came with me and said it's "like Brownies for grown-ups".

Despite the general air of desperation about the place, there are also encouraging 'signs of hope' to help keep us going. The micro-credit scheme we have set up for the local community is working well, and focusing local people's energies on a renewed sense of possibility and self-reliance. The first loan we made was $160 to a group of women who are making Ndebele bead jewellery, and as well as selling to overseas visitors they are starting to become a fashion item around Hlekweni too. I have designed a business plan template which lots of other groups are using to develop their small business proposals, and our farm manager Lungisani has led a workshop on business planning for the community. One local man told me how important it was to him that Hlekweni is now doing something to help the community who live here, as well as the people from rural areas who we provide training to.

Moya and Jonathan are still having a great time, now just starting their month-long Easter holiday. With the support of the Headteacher, we have put a stop to Jonathan's teacher's Dickensian habit of caning children's hands and slapping their faces at every opportunity, and J. now seems quite happy at school. Through Kate's part-time home education he has also raced ahead with maths and reading - he now sits in bed reading books to himself in the mornings. He has also introduced the local boys to the joy of home-made bows and arrows - there was a little band of them playing Robin Hood the other day. Moya has been helping sometimes at the Hlekweni library, reading stories to younger children as well as joining in with the new games club for local children.

Things in Zimbabwe generally are quite worrying. On the positive side, the economy is continuing to recover, with more foodstuffs available in the shops and businesses re-opening. Politically, the situation is deteriorating, as the security services and youth militias are being used intimidate the population in advance of elections. Hlekweni is still an oasis of peacefulness, and we haven't encountered any trouble ourselves - in fact this is probably the safest place to be in the whole country. It is dispiriting to see the hopes of Zimbabwean people being crushed out of them though, as they feel totally powerless to change their situation. Despite their envy of the revolutions in North Africa, no-one I have spoken to sees any prospect of something similar here, where the army is so solidly and ruthlessly behind the current regime.
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Craig and his family will be in the UK on holiday in June and Craig also has speaking/fundraising events lined up while he’s here. You can catch him at Sheffield Friends Meeting House on Sunday 19 June, following Meeting for Worship; and at Friends House, London on 29 June, 6-8pm.
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