If headman Givas Chinobaiwa had his way, his three boys and daughter would all be in school.
Instead, all four, like the other three hundred or so children of Zimbabwe’s Doma people, spend their days in the villages and forests around Kanyemba, in Mashonaland Central province, foraging for food and looking for any work they can get.
``We are poor people,’’ Chinobaiwa, 45, says matter of factly at his homestead. Home is three simple grass and pole structures built on the Zambezi River plains on the border with Zambia and Mozambique. ``I cannot afford the school fees and so we are all sitting at home.’’
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Sometimes referred to as Zimbabwe’s two-toed people because of a genetic condition that afflicts some members of the tribe, the Doma people have remained largely unintegrated and out of the school system in their enclave in spite of government efforts since independence.
With their nomadic lifestyle curtailed by settlements around them including the development of national parks like Chewore, Mana Pools and Sapi, the Doma rely on handouts and subsistence farming on the Zambezi floodplains where their crops are threatened by elephants, baboons and hippos.
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Now as food shortages threaten as much as a third of Zimbabweans after the country’s worst drought in more than three decades, feeding the community is becoming even harder for people whose farming skills remain limited as evidenced by the small fields spread around the dry river bed.
The irony is that government relief food intended for some of the poorest such the Doma doesn’t reach them because of a state rule which forbids food distribution beyond the cost of a dollar a kilometre. So where food costs exceed this limit, it’s only those with money who end up accessing it, leaving out the poor like the Doma who live in difficult to access areas.
Ephraim Murendo, director of a local non-government organisation, the Lower Guruve Development Association says the Doma are particularly vulnerable because they are a shy people and have to be singled out for support in the World Food Programme distribution he is administering.
``We found them very difficult to approach. They were very reserved,’’ said Murendo, who has worked with the community for seven years. ``They didn’t want to mix with other people. It was only later that we realised it was their culture and we had to find ways of reaching them.’’
Murendo, whose organisation’s projects were mainly in Chief Chapoto’s area where most of the Doma live, advises the government and other agencies seeking to help them to work with their leaders rather than force integration and assimilation. Lack of funding led to a suspension of his programme two years ago.
Attempts over the years to integrate the community appear to have made little headway. Two schools built by the Seventh Day Adventist Church and the government remain unused, two years after they were built. When we asked headman Chinobaiwa why children weren’t in school he said no teachers had been deployed and he had heard the government was struggling to staff the schools because of their remoteness. Education ministry officials in the administrative capital of Bindura didn’t return calls for comment.
The other government schools are too far and they require money, he said.
``The only option is to integrate but we have to make sure we don’t impose our views on them. We have to allow a gradual process where they understand what needs to be done but where they take the lead in making sure the children are going to school and they mix well with other people,’’ says Murendo. ``We should implement a gradual process to make sure their views are understood. We need to come up with approaches that entice them.’’
Others however are making progress.
Green Carbon Africa, a carbon trader has been teaching the community conservation from which it earns carbon credits. The area manager Jacob Smit says he has found the Doma enthusiastic participants in the company’s Reduce Emissions from Deforestation Forest Degradation+ (REDD+) initiative which includes preventing deforestation and forest management.
The company has given back to the community through projects like borehole rehabilitation, conservation farming, nutritional gardens and bee keeping to help make up for the disruption of its traditional way of living.
``Their way of life is definitely threatened,’’ Smit said in Mbire. ``Though they have integrated through marriage and what have you, they still have that hunter-gatherer system in them. That on its own has excluded them from other communities because they live at one with nature, they appreciate nature and appreciate what nature gives them.’’
The local chapter of the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources, a community based natural resources management programme, says it built toilets, two building blocks and teachers’ houses at the abandoned schools. A spokesman who gave his name as Charuma said last year alone $26,000 was raised and used to help repair roads and buy drugs.
Smit disputes the allegation that the Doma are lazy, saying they were being forced to farm when they are hunters and gatherers.
``They are not cropping people but they have now been forced to grow crops. They used to live off the land. Because of the environmental projects and so on, they can no longer go into the forest to collect and forage. Their main food supply was honey and plants.’’
Headman Chinobaiwa concedes the community’s way of life needs to change but he says there has been little effort from the local authorities to help them. He points to the idle schools as an example.
``We have always been looked down upon because they say we want handouts,’’ he said. ``But we want to work for ourselves. We want jobs. We also want our children to work so that they can uplift us.’’
*Godfrey Mutizwa is an African journalist and broadcaster