Twenty years of livelihood change in southern Zimbabwe

In 1985 I first went to Zimbabwe, and to Mazvihwa communal area in Zvishavane district in particular, at the invitation of Ken Wilson and Cephas Mukamuri, the late father of Billy Mukamuri, now chair at CASS at UZ. I was to start my PhD research on the ecology and economics of livestock production in the communal areas.

1985 was a time of hope and expectation. Independence had been achieved, investments were flowing (if rather slowly to the remote Mazvihwa), and everyone was expecting – including us idealistic researchers – a great developmental transformation. Yes there were challenges to this idealistic (naive?) vision. Unknown to us then, the brutal massacres in Matabeleland were happening, and the political formation of the new Zimbabwe was shaky to say the least. South Africa was still under apartheid, and launched destabilising raids into what were then ‘the frontline states’. But despite this the future to us at least looked bright.

So what happened in Mazvihwa since? I have been visiting friends there over the last 20 years, and during the 1990s, I was involved in a project over the Runde river in Chivi which became the book, Hazards and Opportunities. But it was not until 2004 when Josphat Mushongah wrote to me proposing PhD at the IDS that I got to know what really had happened in the intervening years. Josphat had been the assistant district administrator in Zvishavane in the 1990s and knew many of the people I did. I suggested that he do a restudy for his PhD, asking what happened to people’s livelihoods between 1986 and 2006.

And this is what he did. A restudy is not as easy as it sounds. In the 1980s Ken Wilson and I only had a small sample of around 70 households. Many were still resident, although the older household heads had passed on. Some households had dissolved, and discovering when and why required some patient forensics. But tracing those who had left the area required the biggest challenge. Josphat travelled by bus, donkey cart and foot to the furthest reaches of the country, and located everyone. Tracing the next generation was also a challenge, as many had spread through the diaspora – from South Africa to Botswana to the UK.

His PhD is a fascinating read, and a paper emerging from that restudy has just been published in the Journal of Development Studies (submitted version). In this paper we take the ‘wealth ranking’ analysis I did in the 1980s and the repeat Josphat did 20 years on, and explore, with survey data, livelihood biographies and so on, what happened to particular households – both those in the original sample, and their Mazvihwa resident offspring.  It’s an engrossing tale. Some have improved their lot, some have declined, while others have stayed much the same. The factors that have affected these changes are diverse. A sequence of poor harvests could push someone down; a death, illness or period of unemployment could have dramatic consequences. Equally, a windfall payout from a retrenchment or an inheritance of some animals could have the opposite effects. Chance, luck, and happenstance have as much to answer for as the relatively more predictable dynamics of social differentiation.

While the sample is small, as only 11 acquired new land through resettlement – either through the formal resettlements in the 1980-90s, the informal movements to the ‘frontier lands’ of Gokwe and beyond in the 1990s, or the fast-track; in the 2000s – the results are interesting. Nearly all of these households improved their lot, and only one who fled to the frontier areas showed a decline. Gaining land as an asset is an important form of social protection, and can help improve living standards.

Overall, though, the great expectations and naive hopes of the 1980s have not been realised in Mazvihwa. Despite the tarmac road, the new resettlement opportunities and the investments in schools and clinics, the place remains a backwater. Poor, isolated, and plagued by drought, few are making a significant living from farming alone. Off-farm opportunities are perhaps fewer than they were in the 1980s, and the prospects for the next generation are limited. Most talk of exit – getting educated, and getting out. For some this is to the new resettlements where there is land and some prospect of prosperity; for others it is out of the country, perhaps as border jumpers but ideally with a proper job.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


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3 responses to “Twenty years of livelihood change in southern Zimbabwe

  1. Pingback: Planting water: sustainable agriculture in Zimbabwe | zimbabweland

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  3. Pingback: Migration and changing disease dynamics in the Zambezi valley | zimbabweland | Zimbo News

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