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The shared, blackened pot
May 14, 2007
Gaborone, Botswana — While in quiet conversation with a friend, recently, I learned that her project to build a home in a suburb of our town had suddenly come to an awkward halt. The half- finished building, which had lain quiet for some weeks, had been occupied by a raft of strangers who had taken shelter there when no one was watching.
It seems that well-to-do neighbours had seen the improvised life of the squatters: the nighttime candles, the bundles of firewood, the smoke of cooking fires and the motley coming and going. They had called the owner to say they felt profoundly uneasy, and could she look into things.
With her heart in her throat she went to the site and had all her worst fears confirmed: as many as twenty strangers were camping in her property. Having glimpsed the scene, she fled out of fear for her own safety, not knowing what desperate – and brazen – people might do. It was this conundrum that she recounted as we sat together.
What was she to do now? I suggested that we go together to initiate contact and seek some understanding with them. But we arrived the next day to find that the local police had swooped on the property early that very morning and had already taken a van load of the squatters to the precinct.
I begin to wonder if any of them might even be Anabaptist sisters and brothers. My mind replays glimpses of their heroic efforts in hospitality at the Mennonite World Conference '03 in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, midst threadbare circumstances – the army of women who laboured to cook and serve the multitude, the array of blackened cooking pots ranged over the wood fires, and the humble nameless who washed and cleaned and swept with such zeal and dignity.
We arrive at the police station and find our squatters – men and women, even mothers with small infants on their backs. Some in handcuffs, and all with the resigned, humiliated look of the wretched of the earth. They are Zimbabweans. Border-jumpers, as they are called here. The children of Robert Mugabe. A tiny eddy of a much larger tide of 'les miserables' who have fled their homes as a matter of survival, and been cast adrift in the neighbouring countries by the millions. Here in Botswana, it is estimated by some that nearly one in five persons currently in this country are in flight from what has befallen them at home in Zimbabwe.
This once proud, educated and productive society has been drubbed to its skinned, wobbly knees as the effects of HIV, of drought, of corruption, inflation and of political folly have left the people utterly prostrate. I know of a family outside of Bulawayo whose able-bodied bread winners have been picked off one by one by AIDS. The surviving children of these workers have been left to the only surviving member of the family. Today she has 12 children under the age of five living under her shrinking roof and no means even of supporting herself.
Little wonder that a ragged band of these unfortunates should have found its way through the backcountry fences and crept under the eaves of an unfinished house seeking some shelter from life's blast. As we speak with them at the police station, we assure them that we will not press charges against them. Who could bear to see them taken to prison, or even worse, returned to their shattered country? We only ask that they return the house to its owner.
This particular group of people are Shona refugees from the eastern side of Zimbabwe – 600 kilometers or more away. They, and many more like them, would have taken buses or trucks to the border areas, crossing by foot and then trekking to the Botswana highways where they might catch a passing vehicle into towns. Others might come by train from Bulawayo, passing through the formal border posts where a gratuity would see them through formalities. I’m not sure how many enter each day, but it must certainly be in the hundreds.
The pressure of these growing numbers of arrivals has elicited an uncharacteristic resentment from Botswana society which had always been known as a congenial haven for outsiders since the bad old days of apartheid, and even before. Yesterday, the Special Branch police swept through our side of town checking documents again and accosted a young man whom we had hired at the church hall as a day worker. I feared they were going to haul him away, but in the end were persuaded that his papers were in order.
We return with our new acquaintances to the construction site. They begin – with astonishing efficiency – to gather their belongings. They have done this many times. But the story of their troubles is far from over. The blackened cooking pots, the plastic jugs, the frayed bags in which they have folded their blankets and clothes are gathered on the unfinished entryway of the house – belongings that we would cart away to a dumpster without a moment's thought. Someone will come with a battered pickup to collect them and their things – to go in search of some other unguarded corner where they will huddle together for a few days, where by the evening fires they will laugh the quiet laugh of those whose hearts are breaking, the dispossessed of the world.
Even now, the great and powerful of these countries and of the world gather at sea-side villas, where, turned out in their finery, they laud each other while surrounded by body guards. If only they could sit by those evening fires in the quiet and bitter corners of our countries to hear the truth – the gritty, pitiful truth.
In this part of the world that truth reads this way: at evening, we all eat from the same blackened pot.
Glyn Jones and Susan Alison Jones are Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Mennonite Mission Network church workers in Botswana. They offer Bible teaching and leadership development to the Africa Independent Church movement, but are at a loss as to how to help these political and economic refuges without endangering their own work visas.
“The illegal Zim population is a tricky one,” says Susan. “First, they are illegal. It may sound like a minor point, but they are not defined as refugees. No one in the world has stepped up to the plate and offered aid to refugees from Zimbabwe, and any association with them could jeopardize the work permit/residency permit status of any one who is found directly helping them.”
Susan is reminded of the illegal Zimbabwean gardener they inherited with their home when they first arrived in Botswana. “Within a year needed to let him go because the government was clamping down on the hiring of illegal people. He had been expelled twice in two weeks, driven to the border and released in Zimbabwe, then made his way back to Gaborone.”
There is a Brethren in Christ group of legal Zimbabweans in Gaborone that are church planting, says Alison Jones. But they also do not want to compromise their status. “Perhaps in the future there will be a role for Mennonites to play to help these people, but for now our hands are tied because of lack of personnel, and the political reality,” adds Susan.
Mennonite World Conference figures number Mennonite and Brethren in Christ members in Zimbabwe at just over 29,000. That’s comparable to Mennonite Church Canada’s membership at around 33,000.