***Editor’s Note (4 Jan 2010): For an update on behind-scenes-negotiations with local government officials at this convention, check out the SDI blog.***
Dennis Ndlovu smiled as he stood on a step ladder, nailing pink cloth into a wooden beam. He was putting the finishing touches on a model two-story house that the Zimbabwean Homeless People’s Federation built at last week’s National Housing Convention in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. “Through this kind of model, we can accommodate more families,” Ndlovu said, arguing that the model can be used to lobby government authorities to show that the homeless people of Zimbabwe, organized as the ZHPF, can provide their own solutions to the housing shortages that affect their lives daily.
The model was just outside the Elephant Hills Hotel. There, politicans, developers, international aid agencies, and other delegates were debating low-income housing policies and strategies in Zimbabwe. But Ndlovu and his fellow federation members were using the conference to showcase the solutions that poor people in Zimbabwe can and already have developed by themselves.
He said that the federation got the plan for the two-story shared houses during an exchange with the National Slum Dwellers Federation in India. Both federations are part of the Shack / Slum Dwellers International alliance. Patience Mudimu, a project coordinator with the Dialogue on Shelter, an NGO that supports the work of the ZHPF, emphasized the importance of such exchanges. “We have learned a lot from [NSDF] and we still have a lot to learn,” she said.
In September, SDI hosted Fidelis Mhashu, Zimbabwean Minister of Housing and Social Amenities, on an exchange visit to India, where the minister was exposed to the concept of community-led construction of multi-storey residential buildings. The model at the October housing convention in Zimbabwe was borne out of Mashu’s request for a similar model suitable for Zimbabwe. The ZHPF intends to use this model as a negotiating tool in their negotiations for land with local authorities.
On Tuesday, 27 October 2009, just as federation members put the finishing touches on the model house, SDI president Jockin Arputham and fellow SDI coordinator Rose Molokoane brought Mhashu, and a number of Zimbabwean city and town mayors to view the house.
Federation members greeted the politicians with songs sung in Shona and Ndebele, emphasizing the work that federation members have already achieved in just over ten years of existence. One song translated to “people who were once lodging [in temporary structures], are now in houses.” Another: “houses are being built, houses are being built, my dear wife, houses are being built.” Federation members mimicked cleaning the windows and floors of their new houses as they sang.
Just minutes away from the hotel where conference delegates stayed, many federation members were not just impersonating the everyday actions of home ownership. They were — and are — living them. Through the communal savings schemes central to the rituals of the Zimbabwean federation, as well as all such SDI-affiliated federations in over 30 countries, the ZHPF in Victoria Falls have built over 340 homes. In addition, the federation itself has serviced the site where these homes lie with sewerage, water, and roads. Members are currently working to provide the settlement with electricity.
Tapfumaneyi Muronzi, age 45, lives in the area, but does not yet have his own home. Still, he said, seeing the progress the federation has made there relying on its own savings and wherewithal, he can’t help but be inspired. Though he had not previously been a member of the federation, “I think I’m going to be part of a [federation saving] scheme now,” he said.
As part of the national housing conference, Mhashu led a delegation of mayors to visit the federation, informally known as Umfelandawonye (“we die together”), and the settlement they have built in Victoria Falls. Ndlovu spoke to the politicians. “Through our spirited efforts we have serviced this land. You can see that there is no missionary here,” he said. He pointed to the throngs of village residents and other federation members from across Zimbabwe. “This is the missionary.”
Femias Chakabuda, mayor of Masvingo and president of the Urban Councils Association of Zimbabwe, laid a brick on fresh mortar in an unfinished house the federation has been building for a local orphan. Housing, he said, “is everyone’s responsibility, with government as the facilitator.”
Mhashu, who also laid a brick, said he was “humbled” by such a “symbol of self-reliance in this country … “I won’t sleep until I find a solution to the problems in this country as far as housing is concerned,” he said. “Because of the zeal that I see is in [the ZHPF], I am going to make sure that the land is made available to you.”
The successes the federation showcased at the convention are all the more notable for the trying circumstances during which they were achieved.
The hyperinflation that destroyed the value of the Zimbabwean dollar was of particular concern for a federation built on communal savings. “All our savings schemes had no money,” said William Hwata, a federation member from the resort town of Kariba. To respond to these particularly dire circumstances, individual savings scheme leaders took on larger roles, collecting information about all kinds of social issues. “They collect not just savings, but any challenge that is affecting a community,” Hwata said.
Because money was next to worthless, the federation could not save. “It was better to keep food stuffs than to keep money. That’s what we were doing in a tough situation,” Hwata said.
The Gungano Fund, a bridging finance fund and technical support organization for the ZHPF, was basically eroded by hyperinflation. If a loan had originally been for Zim$20, but was subsequently devalued to Zim$0.02, said Hwata, “We would ask what can we get for two cents. Then if we find out that it can get one nail, then now you owe Gungano one nail.”
With the introduction of the US dollar and South African rand as currency in Zimbabwe, the federation has moved back to monetarization. The federation has negotiated with the Gungano fund to set up rates of exchange to convert back from material loans and savings to currency. “Federation members — they are educated like they’ve got degrees,” Hwata said.
Back at the model house, the politicians peppered federation members with questions: Where are the separate doors for each family that lives in the structure? Where are the toilets? How did you develop this idea?
As federation members patiently showed the politicians around the house, responding to their concerns, a consensus seemed to emerge among the politicians. “It’s quite a good idea,” said Nkosilathi Jiyane, mayor of Victoria Falls.
Muchadeyi Msaunda, the mayor of Harare, went even further, proposing that this kind of house should be built in every city in Zimbabwe.
On Thursday, as the conference neared its end, federation members packed the hotel conference room ahead of a joint speech by Jockin and Rose. As the two leaders of SDI were called to the stage, Rose led the federation in rousing renditions of federation songs, leaving the rest of the audience with stunned looks on their faces. After Jockin and Rose explained the work of SDI and pleaded for land and support from government officials in Zimbabwe, many in the audience raised their hands to ask questions.
Responding to one question about the financial and technical capabilities of the community-based federation model, Rose was unequivocal: “Today we are eating, tomorrow we are not eating. So it is a messy process. Today we’ll be right and tomorrow we will be wrong. But we will learn from our mistakes. Can you please accommodate our messy way of operating?”
After a week of showcasing the achievements of the federation’s “messy” processes, many were now agreeing that this “way of operating” may just be the way forward to respond to the historic conditions of urban poverty in the 21st century.