How should I organise this report? Chronologically, or by theme? Is it a story, a list, a lesson, a philosophical treatise? If I can make it interesting, hopefully that will be enough. It shouldn’t be hard.
I arrived in
I spent my first day in
I was to be collected at the following morning to join the others for the trip north and west to
The journey to
Workcamp membership consisted of 14 Zimbabweans, including the camp ranger and driver, and 3 Europeans. We stayed in shared tents (old and draughty) in a basic campsite beside the river
Our work technically took place between 8 and 12 in the morning, Monday to Friday. In practice the hours were often shorter than that, as we were so often late. We never worked beyond 12, although we were very frequently waiting for over an hour to be collected from our work.
The primary job was to cut back vegetation on a trail running alongside the
The work on the trail itself was very difficult, at least as far as I was concerned. We were using machetes, axes and mattocks. They were heavy and blunt. The only tool I could use was a machete, and of those there was only one with a grip narrow enough to be moderately comfortable for me to hold. My aim was poor, and my strength insufficient for the job. While both of these improved significantly even over the very short period of the workcamp, they still couldn’t be compared to the abilities of the locals. There was the added difficulty of the heat – although it was winter, we hit 30+ by or so, and my strength (such as it was) simply drained away if I tried to work in direct sunlight. I carried water with me everywhere, for my own benefit and that of Marcel, a north German, and to the mildly scornful bemusement of my Zimbabwean friends. They did not understand why we needed to drink ‘so much’ water; in fact I am fairly sure they just thought we were wimps. But that couldn’t be helped.
Anyway, given all that, I can’t honestly feel that I was of any real assistance on the trail. They would have finished just as fast without me, even though I tried my best. In the gardens, working with tools I was used to on jobs that didn’t require so much strength, I made more of an impact. Financially, I know that my fee paid for the food of far more people than just myself, which is probably the biggest practical impact I made. And in terms of cultural exchange, the project was very definitely worthwhile, I think from both points of view.
There were so few ‘westerners’ on the project that the balance of cultural exchange was very intense. Much of the conversation was in Ndebele and Shona, despite a camp rule that all group conversation be in English, as the only language that all there had some grasp of. This felt at times quite isolating, and the presence of two languages made getting any handle on even basic phrases more confusing: no one could be persuaded to teach me just one phrase, or one language, at a time; with the result that I couldn’t keep anything much in my head following the intense and convoluted lessons. My only word in Ndebele is ‘Kiwa’ or ‘White’. Wherever we went in the township (suburb), and in the ranger village, the children shouted and followed us. Gertie, one of the girls in the camp, persisted in pointing me out and calling ‘Kiwa’ on these occasions, just in case any children had managed to miss me. I began to feel rather like a travelling elephant; a simile that was rather inappropriate in that location, where elephants did not occasion nearly so much comment.
The fact that my skin colour was so noticeable demonstrates clearly the segregation in Zimbabwean society. Those children all lived within 10 km of
In those preserves of the local Zimbabwean, I was greeted with great friendliness and warmth wherever we went. In the centre of town, I was greeted as a potential source of money, just like any other tourist. That is probably the biggest gift being on the workcamp gave me; the backstage pass. I missed it intensely when I went on safari for ten days following the workcamp, and was once again in a group of western tourists, being hustled on the street instead of greeted with instant affection.
Life in the camp itself was very structured. We were part of one ‘family’, and had to do things together or not at all. In practice it didn’t always work like that, but Mike, the camp leader, and Malven, a guy of somewhat preachy character, talked about it fairly constantly. Each night we had a meeting about how the day had gone, and everyone had to say what they thought. Some did, some didn’t. The standard statement of ‘For me the day was ok’ was an infectious one; quickly, I found myself adapting to the phrasing and language usages of those around me. There was a certain loss of individual identity, something which I resisted instinctively and intensely. Again, it surprised me how strongly I felt.
We spent our evenings around the campfire. I was on the entertainment committee, and we organised social debates and discussions, told stories, sang songs and played games. As a group we went on outings; to
Cooking took place on an ironwood fire in a stone cooking pit. We stirred sadza in a large cauldron with huge wooden beaters, to make enough for all of us. Sadza, or cornmeal porridge, may be the most filling food I have ever tasted. The portions were enormous and I could never finish what I was given, even after I started severely restricting what was put on my plate. The camp wasted quite a lot of food, just as petrol and time were so frequently wasted.
This may come across as rather a critical report. What I am trying to make sure it is is an honest one. There were many things that were uncomfortable either physically or socially, and some that upset me on a personal level. ‘Gender issues’ were a very current issue for most of the people on the camp, and were under constant discussion. The proportion of men to women was intimidating, and the other women were very unwilling to give their opinions in group debate or say what they really thought if they did speak. The men were equally unwilling to believe that there was a problem, and laughed at the women when they didn’t want to speak. I found it difficult to distinguish the line between culture and sexism, difficult to know which things it would be acceptable to take issue with and which I should just accept. That was probably the most difficult part of the workcamp, on a personal level.
Having said all that, it was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. In some ways I felt freer than I ever have before: free to just let things happen. I learned so much about people on an individual level and within the wider social and cultural context. Three weeks is the tip of the iceberg, of course. It was exciting, and fun, and fascinating, and the exhaustion and confusion and discomfort only added to that. I wouldn’t change anything, except perhaps to have taken a pair of seceters with me and have left them as a gift to Environment Africa. Then I might have made more of an impact on the actual task at hand!
Emma McGuire 2007
Emma McGuire 2007