Life in a squatter camp

2013-06-03 00:00

HAVING a home is a choice of location for some. For others, it’s a lifetime struggle. Some have lived in a squatter camp their entire lives.

We shall call it The Dungeon Valley, because the residents have only a slim chance of ever owning their own home. This is the most democratic community, for in its midst are fugitives, but they are treated equally. Everyone deserves a second life, especially in the valley. Families invite themselves and only require cheap materials to build a home. Whatever they can afford is permissible. No identity, nationality, race code or boundary is required. In contrast, across the river are the Haven Mansions. Their lives are different, but these communities need each other dearly. The suburbs are where they source their free electricity via street lights, while the camp provides a work force and clientele for their shops. And in-between is a dump, where men compete with stray dogs for survival. Then there is the derelict factory that employed many people before it shut down. Many worked there before the big city swallowed them. Once, thousands gathered beneath the big tree and whispered in hushed voices. Children were warned not to interfere in their business. This time, things were serious. They were tired of being on the waiting list for houses that never came. Many had been to banks, and each time, when they were asked how they would repay the bond, they got stuck. “What is a bond?” many inquired.

“Today we will march for our rights,” they all declared. Then the police came and disrupted the meeting. Since then, nothing has changed. Their homes are still single rooms, expertly partitioned with cheap cloth or cardboard. The divisions consist of a kitchen for meals, if there is ever anything to cook. In it is a puffing paraffin stove and a few tins converted into pots. This is where the children sleep. Each night they watch in shame as rats make babies on top of the pots and even excrete there. What a bunch of ungrateful vermin. The bedroom is for prayers and keeping valuables. It also serves as the entertainment room. The last section is reserved for a mobile toilet. It gets too dark to venture outside at night and then the bucket comes in handy. In the morning, the children take turns to empty it into the nearby stream. The semi-attached homes are demarcated by thin sheets, awkwardly fixed together to create that imaginative divide. What happens next door is never a secret. You can overhear someone snoring in the next room as if he is just next to you. You can chat with someone next door without leaving your home.

Each morning, one lights the paraffin stove to warm the bathing water. The same pot is used for washing and cooking a small meal. The face is the most recognised part, so it takes priority. After that, a small portion of thick porridge with warm water and a pinch of salt for taste, and probably some sugar, if they can afford it. Nothing for lunch. The day has commenced. Saturday is soccer day. Worn-out shoes demarcate the playing field. The game, which has reached a climax, is interrupted when a pack of stray dogs trails a bitch on heat. Everyone abandons the match and tracks the action to its finale. They are not disappointed. One day, someone did the unforgivable, leaving a paraffin stove on, or was it a loose connection? The free electricity had been reconnected after another prolonged protest. The resultant flames engulfed the homes, destroying an entire livelihood. Most of all, they will remember a young girl consumed by the flames. On that day she was sick, so she stayed home, alone. She could not run. As the paramedic carried her lifeless torso, her unconscious waving arms seemed to say goodbye to the bemused survivors. “We tried our best,” the firefighters claimed, as their sirens brightened the blackened earth.

• Derick Matsengarwodzi is a freelance journalist from Zimbabwe, now in Pietermaritzburg.

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