Xoliswa Sithole – an accomplished film maker who was once proud to call Zimbabwe her home – has produced a wrenching documentary chronicling the economic and political melt-down of her country, and the devastating impact this is having on children.
The BBC aired the documentary, ‘Zimbabwe’s Forgotten Children,’ earlier this month. When I watched the film, I was struck by the grim resignation and stoicism with which the children she worked with seemed to accept their fate. They knew their childhoods had been stolen.
Many children in Zimbabwe are forced to take care of sick and elderly relatives, or to scrabble out enough money to buy food for their families through panning for gold, collecting bottles, or digging for bones (to be used in sugar refining) in rubbish heaps.
Sithole originally intended to make a film about her childhood and the excellent education that she received in Zimbabwe. She grew up in a time when Zimbabwe was envied throughout Africa for its high-quality education and health care systems.
Now she sees children turned away from schools because their relatives cannot afford to pay, in some cases, as little as 50 cents per term for school fees.
Sithole visited Zimbabwe in 2005, and was there when Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government implemented Operation Murambatsvina (Remove the filth). Operation Murambatsvina was the demolition of poor, high density suburbs whose citizens were suspected of supporting the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Operation Murambatsvina – and other ZANU-PF policies such as the seizure of productive farms and their re-distribution to false independence war veterans with no training in farming – have garnered some attention in the West.
But we hear less about Zimbabwe’s children, who are now in danger of becoming a lost generation.
In a country where the life expectancy is 34 years, many have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS or the cholera epidemic, in which about 4,000 died. These children may be cared for by elderly grandparents – or, as this film showed – they may be the ones caring for the grandparents.
This is the case for Obert, a boy in a rural area who tries to feed himself and his grandmother by panning for gold and trapping small birds with sticky gum from trees. His grandmother was once a fore-person on a white-owned farm. All of her family were employed on the farm, and she says that the farmer treated them well and that she could do the job ‘better than any man.’
Obert is one of the brightest pupils in his class. But we see his grandmother reduced to pleading for mercy with the government lackey who comes to the school to send home all of the children who have not paid their fees. Obert is sent home because his grandmother cannot produce 50 cents.
Here’s a boy who loves school and yearns for an education, who for the sake of 50 cents would have the chance to grow up and become a creative and productive member of society. Zimbabwe will need the intellect and skills of such children if it is ever to emerge from the situation it is now in.
You can still see some clips from the documentary on the BBC website, or visit the website devoted to the documentary.
Be warned that some of the scenes and stories are harrowing. I was often frustrated when watching it that the filmmakers did not intervene (i.e. ‘give the woman 50 cents, would you!’), but there is provision on their site to donate to the children.