Jeffrey Gogo Features Correspondent
Leonard Cheshire Home, a haven for people living with disability (PWDs) in central Harare, is the only place Tapfumaneyi Majecha has known as home for the past 35 years. But the 60-year old now faces life on the streets after trustees at the Home kicked out its 17 occupants.
“I have nowhere to go,” Majecha cried, her reaction reporting deep heart-break. Majecha has been afflicted with polio since birth, a condition so devastating her hands and legs have gone into paralysis. She struggles terribly with speech, some words she speaks are hardly discernable.
Majecha moved into Cheshire in 1982, hoping to find peace and love. She had endured rejection at the hands of her family following the death of her mother, who had erstwhile provided her with care.
But the lonely granny is now struggling to come to terms with the cruel changes in the world today, how it has become a cold, loveless and uncomforting place to live in, moreso for the vulnerable.
Benedict Chikwanha epitomises this cold front. Since 1999, able-bodied Chikwanha, who heads the Leonard Cheshire Zimbabwe Trust, which manages the home at 85 Baines Avenue in Harare, has been fighting to force the residents out.
His dream came true on March 10, when he obtained a High Court order allowing him to turn the dreams of others like Majecha into nightmares.
Thanks to the order, Chikwanha can now dump some of Zimbabwe’s most neglected citizens – those living with disability – onto the streets, with backing from the law. And they had just two weeks since the eviction notice to leave the home.
“He (Chikwanha) tells us the Trust can no longer afford to manage the place,” Lewis Garabha, who chairs a residents’ committee at the Home said, crest-fallen.
“He plans to sell the place, and distribute the proceeds to some of their charities. That, of course, is nonsense.”
The property at 85 Baines Avenue – 17 disability friendly flats, kitchen facilities plus an outside shelter currently used as light tailoring factory – was built very early in the 1980s by global charity Leonard Cheshire International of the UK.
It aimed to provide shelter, food and health-care to those living with disability for free, hoping that would make their lives more liveable.
For some years the Home offered such services remarkably well, said Garabha, who has been at the property since 1999. But a combination of alleged greed, mismanagement and to some extent deteriorating economic conditions, have turned their joys into sorrow, he claims. That they could live with.
“The property is run down, we no longer get food or healthcare,” Garabha complained, adding “as residents we have formed a committee that now helps residents on some of these things. But Chikwanha’s decision to sell just doesn’t make sense.”
It does for some, like Chikwanha. Located in a prime district in Harare’s Avenues – quiet, close to the CBD and to major hospitals, but “far from the madding crowd” – Leonard Cheshire Home is an investors’ dream. It could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Some property hawks have already started swirling in the sky, waiting to pounce. They include owners of Avenues Clinic, which is a stone’s throw away from the Home, residents say.
Mr Chikwanha did not respond to questions sent to him by text. Calls to his mobile phone were unsuccessful. Questions sent to The Leonard Cheshire Zimbabwe Trust Facebook page, last updated in July 2014, did not receive a response. The Trust’s website is down.
“I think Mr Chikwanha is selling for his own benefit,” mourned Hedwick Zwane (28), a paraplegic who moved into Cheshire in 2014, coming from Bulawayo. “He is not a disabled person. He does not understand what it means to live with a disability.”
People living with disability make up 10 percent, or 1,3 million, of the population in Zimbabwe, according to Government data. That’s a population equal in size to that of Swaziland, a whole country.
Of the 6,4 million children in Zimbabwe, 600 000 live with a disability, according to a 2011 UNICEF study, but most risked abandonment due to their condition. More than 52 percent of children with disabilities have no access to primary education,
While some of their needs and concerns are covered by the 2013 Constitution, with at least two mandatory representatives in Parliament, people living with disability often face discrimination in the workplace, in the home, school and at social gatherings.
Opportunities are still few and far between, says Farai Mukuta, a disability expert and technical advisor at Disability, HIV and AIDS Trust (DHAT).
Discrimination is so rife it has been institutionalised. National social security provider, NSSA, regards those unable to work due to disability as “invalids.” They even have an “invalidity pension.”
“People with disabilities . . . lack access to the fundamental freedoms and rights that other . . . people in society take for granted. The lack of access runs across the whole socio-economic, political and cultural spectrum through to poor social integration,” he said.
Due to their condition, people with disability faced “greater risk of abuse, neglect and violence than their able-bodied counterparts”, he added.
Perched uncomfortably on an old wheelchair braving the bitter winds of sunrise, Majecha grinds out a living selling biscuits, sweets and mobile phone airtime to passers-by at the intersection of Baines Avenue and Mazowe Street.
On a good day she takes home $2, but the grin on her wrinkled face speaks of many years of pain from ill-health, poverty and suffering. With the future promising nothing but darkness, Majecha is now despondent.
“I am unable to do what most able bodied people can do with ease, such as walking or eating on my own,” said Majecha inaudibly. Mostly she spoke through a translator – a helper with whom she lives – for it was tough making sense of what she was saying.
“I am deeply pained by the decision to sell the property, which was built to help people living with disability. I wish they could offer us alternative accommodation, than leave us homeless.”
A highly placed source at the Social Welfare Ministry said Government was taking the Cheshire eviction brawl very seriously and would soon step in.
“The issue is now being handled at the highest level,” the source said. “It has gone to the Office of the President.”
Anna Shiri, a Senator representing PWDs, urged caution. “Able bodied people are key to championing the cause of those living with disability, although some now do it for money. We need to understand why Chikwanha is behaving the way he is, to disabled people in the cold,” she said.
In Glen View, a tiny room has stood desolate for two decades. This is the room Chikwanha stitched up for Majecha in 1999 at the tail-end of her half-brother’s house.
It should have been her go-to place, as Chikwanha put final touches to his eviction strategy.
“That little room is disability unfriendly,” said Majecha. “There are stairs at the entrance and the wheelchair can barely fit in the bathroom/toilet. I can’t move there.