Lincoln Towindo and Edwin Mwase
Unprotected wells, makeshift schools, pole and dagga houses, thorn-infested play grounds, illicit beer brews, rampant prostitution, dust roads and general lawlessness dominates what characterises a normal life for close to one million residents.
It, therefore, becomes a pipe dream for most children growing under such a depraved environment to expect success in life.
Despite being more than a century old and within the proximity of the city centre, the suburb, some 15 kilometres from the capital, remains an eyesore.
Welcome to the 121-year-old settlement, Epworth.
The settlement was established in 1891 as the Epworth Mission Lands after the United Methodist Church acquired a vast piece of land to establish a mission on the fringes of Harare.
Initially, it was meant to be a sanctuary for Methodist Church members.
However, with the advent of the liberation war, many people fled from “hot” areas and sought refuge there.
With the passage of time, the settlement became a full-fledged squatter camp.
People continued to flock even after the war, forcing the church to hand over Epworth to the Government in 1983.
This subsequently led to the formation of the Epworth Local Board in 1986 to run the affairs of the area which was evidently in dire need of organisation and development.
Today, almost three decades since the formation of the board, Epworth still remains one of the most under-developed “urban” townships in the country.
“Epworth has suffered the bane of neglect by the subsequent national governments over the last century,” said Mr Bernard Matereke, a carpenter who has been resident in the Jacha area since 1980.
“There has not been any significant infrastructural investment in Epworth throughout its history, a testament to the level of neglect it has suffered.
“We have turned into the forgotten people of Zimbabwe.”
With a fast-growing population which the local board projects to reach over 700 000, Epworth’s problems are worsening by the day.
Observers note that for such a large community to have only three secondary schools is a travesty.
Such a situation has condemned many children to a life of illiteracy and ultimately rendering them unemployable in future.
Today, comparisons are being drawn between Epworth and slum cities such as Abahlali beBase Mjondoro in Durban, South Africa, and the crime-infested Kibera slums in Kenya, which rank among the biggest and most notorious in the world.
Just as is the case in South Africa and Kibera slums, criminality is the order of the day in Epworth.
In the Kibera slums, the availability of the infamous changaa, a highly potent alcoholic drink high in methanol, to the more than 50 percent unemployed adults, leads to violent crimes, rapes and general lawlessness.
In Epworth, life evolves around under-age prostitution, open drug peddling and mafia-like street gangs.
Most of the security personnel or bouncers around Harare’s elite clubs and tough sports like boxing, karate and kung-fu emanate from the neighbourhood.
They allude to the fact that they joined those hard-core sporting activities to protect themselves against the marauding gangs in equally notorious suburbs of the settlement such as Kurdish, Jacha, Mupiniwasvotoka, Goremucheche and Komboniyatsva.
In these areas, dangerous drugs such as cannabis (mbanje) from Malawi and Mozambique, known for their high potency, and a number of illicit brews with devastating effects on the human mind, are freely peddled like oranges on market stalls.
Observers note that if more is not done to assist Epworth, it could soon easily slide into a direct replica of the infamous slums in Africa.
With formal employment almost impossible to come across, many young people have turned to the formation of criminal gangs.
Harare police spokesperson Inspector James Sabau identified crimes such as robbery, muggings, murder, burglary, rape and the harbouring of wanted criminals as the most common activities in the area.
“Residents from adjacent suburbs have been raising alarm over the criminal activities we believe to be linked to criminal gangs which are domiciled in Epworth,” said Insp Sabau.
“As the police we are, however, making efforts to ensure that we put an end to such activities.” Due to the lack of street lighting, criminals have declared unofficial 8pm curfews for locals, making it fatally dangerous to roam the local streets at night.
Stung by having nothing to do, girls have turned to prostitution for survival despite the shocking prevalence of HIV and Aids within the area.
Girls, some of school-going age, openly invade street corners for the purpose of prostitution in the afternoon, then in the evenings they drift into bars.
Pressure on the few available resources has further exacerbated the already dire situation.
“With only one inadequately equipped referral centre to cater for the close to million people, there is need for immediate intervention in establishing hospitals and clinics,” said Mr Richard Moyo, a town planning expert.
“There is need to move fast in providing basic services such as water, electricity, schools, decent accommodation and, ultimately, security.
“Authorities should go back to the drawing board and re-plan the whole township using tried and tested town-planning models.”
Lawlessness in Epworth reached astronomical levels when known land barons started parcelling out land to desperate land-seekers without the approval of the board.
Working on a meagre budget of US$4,1 million, the board is failing to stem the illegal activities or bring development to the area since the residents are failing to pay monthly utility charges which are pegged at US$6 per household.
Because of crowding, unsanitary conditions, poor nutrition and pollution, disease is prevalent in the poorer slums, and infant mortality rates are high.
Lack of amenities like clean water and reticulation systems has now left the residents at the mercy of water-borne diseases.
Statistics show that Epworth was one of the most affected areas by the cholera outbreak of 2008.
Chairman of the Local Board Mr Gift July emphasised the need for investment in infrastructure development as well as job creation.
“Youth unemployment and lawlessness remain our biggest challenge in Epworth,” he said.
“We have been calling for investors to come in and join us, but we have realised that there is a very slim hope unless we address challenge such as availability of electricity and running water.
“Later this year we expect power utility Zesa to complete construction a power sub-station to providing electricity to the households.”
While the chairman expressed optimism that Epworth would eventually transform into a suitable habitat, the current economic problems in the country render this a pipe dream. It is unfortunate that lawlessness, poor infrastructure and lack of opportunities will for some time remain the order of the day in the township less than 15 minutes’ drive from the capital.