The Sunday Mail
Were it not for the roaming and predatory reptiles called crocodiles, residents at Tongogara Refugee Camp would literally live in the mighty Save River, cushioning themselves from the sweltering heat that characterise the Middle Sabi.
But the heat, which on the day in question could have easily tipped 34 on the mercury scales, is the least of their worries. Coming from the DRC, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, countries whose average tropical climatic conditions make the Middle Sabi feel like some polar region, their immediate worries are usually welfare-related.
China Aid, a growing brand in global humanitarian assistance, was in town and the refugees, some 13 000 of them drawn from across 15 nationalities, could, at least for the day, endure the heat, waiting for whatever good news the Chinese were bringing.
The Chinese government recently donated $2 million to Tongogara Refugee Camp and Tuesday’s ceremony was to hand-over part of the donation.
The World Food Programme, the implementing partner, represented by Mr Niels Balzer, the deputy country director, was in attendance.
So were other UN agencies and other non-governmental organisations that are thriving to make the life of the refugees bearable on a day-to-day basis.
The Chinese government, through China Aid, was represented by the Chinese Embassy, of which the Economics and Commercial Counsellor, Mr Chen Ning, was the guest of honour. Zimbabwe is awaiting the secondment of an ambassador after the expiry of the term of Mr Huang Ping.
In his opening remarks, Mr Johan Mhlanga, the camp administrator, outlined the myriad of challenges that faces the refugee camp, but said they were not insurmountable, especially with the help of the many organisations that readily offer their support, trying to make the lives of the refugees as bearable as possible.
To this end, every month, the refugees receive a cash stipend of $13 per head to meet incidental needs.
Mr Balzer said the cash pay-outs go a long way in helping restoring dignity in the lives of refugees.
“With this support, WFP is able to provide food as well as cash, allowing you to do what families around the world do every day — decide together as a family what goods to purchase and empowering the local economy,” he said.
Besides the cash hand-outs, the residents of the camp receive a range of kind donations, ranging from blankets, mosquito nets, sanitary pads, to consumables like rice, cooking oil and cow peas.
Mr Ning said the hand-over ceremony reminded him of a similar event 20 years ago in China when a poverty-stricken village was receiving a school from a UN development agency.
“Decades have passed and tremendous changes have taken place in China, the Chinese government has taken its people on a rapid development that leads to growth in all sectors of society and people’s livelihoods,” he remarked.
To this end, he said the Chinese government is ever-ready to assist Zimbabwe in realising some of its SDGs, especially achieving zero hunger.
Initially founded as a research station, the refugee camp has undergone some interesting changes over the years. In 1979, when Rhodesia signed the Lancaster House agreement that ceased hostilities with the liberation movements, the camp became a demobilisation centre.
During this period when Vice President Constantino Chiwengwa was camp commander, the research station was renamed Tongogara, in reverence of the army commander who had just been killed in a road accident on the eve of the country’s independence.
Soon after the demobilisation, the camp closed.
Then in 1984, as hostilities between Renamo and the Mozambican government escalated, the camp re-opened to take in Mozambicans who were fleeing the conflict.
In 1994, with the signing of a peace accord between the warring parties in Mozambique, the refugee camp was closed down as the refugees made their way back home. It was during this period that the refugee population at the camp peaked 50 000.
To share the influx of Mozambican refugees during this time, Tongogara operated alongside Chambuta in Chiredzi, Nyangombe in Nyanga and Mazowe River Bridge.
After the successful repatriation of Mozambican nationals, the Tongogara Refugee Camp closed in 1995, and for the coming two years was used as a centre for the disabled.
Then in 1998, a civil war erupted in the Great Lakes region and the camp opened again, now as a refugee retreat centre. The longest-serving residents at the camp today have been resident there since that 1998 conflict.
Lying on some 870 hectares, the refugee camp engages the residents in self-help projects like soap-making, arts and crafts, piggery and irrigation schemes, so that their livelihoods are not entirely reliant on donor-funding.
At the conclusion of the long-day tour of the camp, Mr Ning pledged the Chinese government’s commitment to help upgrade St Michael’s Secondary School to Advanced Level status.
“I urge the camp administrator, with the assistance of the development partners here, to make a proposal to the Chinese government through the relevant channels and we are keen to assist with the upgrading of this school. We have already built a number of schools around Zimbabwe and there is no reason why we should not build one with such a worthy cause,” he said.
With an enrolment of 705, the secondary school has plans to take in A-Level students so that the refugees can continue with their education at the camp.
The secondary school feeds from Tongogara Primary School, with a staggering enrolment of 1 900.