Zimbabwe’s women-only rangers fight poachers and poverty
BY FARAI SHAWN MATIASHE
Sharai Tunhira frowns with focus as she runs through drills with her all-female patrol team – each woman armed and ready for the many men they catch poaching wildlife in their corner of northern Zimbabwe.
Despite the risks of the job, she says joining the military-style unit has given her the chance to protect the wildlife she loves while also earning a decent livelihood in a rural area where many poor women struggle to make ends meet.
“Here I am occupied and empowered. I do not depend on a man to survive,” said Tunhira (25) who joined the team in 2021 after years eking out a living as a cleaner and vegetable seller.
The Akashinga unit – aka ‘The Brave Ones’ in the Shona language – says it aims to change the face of conservation as the country’s first armed, all-women anti-poaching unit.
The unit is a rarity in a sector dominated by men.
One in five African rangers is female, according to a 2016 World Wildlife Fund survey of 570 rangers, though the continent has a handful of female teams including South Africa’s Black Mambas and The Lionesses rangers in Kenya.
Established in 2017 by Damien Mander, an Australian ex-commando, Akashinga has since grown to a total of 200 heavily-armed rangers who patrol eight reserves in the Lower Zambezi Valley under contracts with three district councils.
Zimbabwe is home to some 80,000 elephants, about a fifth of Africa’s total, conservationists estimate.
Numbers have declined sharply in recent years, mostly due to poaching, illegal hunting and drought.
The Zambezi Valley, which spans the border with Zambia, is home to thousands of elephants as well as lions and cheetahs.
Military-style units such as Akashinga are controversial.
Some conservationists have said armed rangers using battle tactics have harmed and intimidated local residents in wildlife areas and fail to tackle the root causes of poaching.
Akashinga is part of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), a non-profit founded in 2009 by Mander.
The IAPF says the unit focuses on protecting wildlife via community engagement, from improving sanitation to creating jobs.
Mander said IAPF did initially focus on defending the area it protected but such criticism is outdated, with a shift to recognising conservation as a social issue that involves educating and empowering the community.
“We used to be an organisation that was extremely law enforcement focused … We had helicopters, drones and military hardware,” he said.
“We do not have that now. This is less antagonistic.”
He defended the Akashinga unit’s continued use of semi-automatic and bolt action rifles as there is a real threat of poachers being armed with automatic weapons and the women should be prepared for the worst.
“For us not to train the rangers, whether men or women, to deal with the threat they will face will be irresponsible. We will be sending them to danger,” he said.
Having women as rangers “generally de-escalates tension”, said Mander, while teams that work in their home communities help foster productive relationships with residents.
The IAPF says since 2017, Akashinga rangers have made more than 300 arrests without firing a shot and helped drive an 80 percent downturn in elephant poaching in the Zambezi Valley, while wildlife sightings are up by almost 400 percent.
Its figures could not be independently verified but Ability Gandawa, lawmaker for Hurungwe North, which includes the Phundundu Wildlife Park, said animal sightings had increased.
“I am impressed by their solid effort to educate the community not to hunt wildlife,” he said.
“The effort has since made it possible to significantly reduce poaching in my area.”
What is not in doubt is the benefit to the women rangers, who include survivors of domestic abuse, child brides, and girls who dropped out of school.
Rangers earn the equivalent of between US$300 and US$1,500 per month, a good salary in a country where teachers earn an average of US$120 per month.
“I had no idea that I would work in a formal setting as most jobs are for educated people,” said Tunhira, cradling a rifle, describing how her family could not afford for her to finish school.
Margaret Darawanda (24), another ranger and a single mother to a three-year-old daughter, recalled life pre-patrol when she depended on her mother, herself a poor farmer.
“The opportunity of becoming a ranger came when I needed it the most,” she said.
“I am now able to look after my mother, my child and my community,” she said, her sights now set on university.
Mander said 95 Percent of Akashinga’s rangers come from within 20 kilometres from the area they protect, with their salaries spent locally to the benefit of a wider area.
“We want to be a beacon of progression in the conservation industry,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The idea is for Akashinga to be a stepping stone towards women’s goals and following a career path.”
The IAPF aims to grow Akashinga to 1,000 rangers protecting 20 nature reserves by 2026.
Some said the unit gave them a safe haven after fleeing abuse, and a sense of solidarity as they support each other.
Esther Goboza (22), applied to join the rangers to escape an abusive marriage.
Her husband, in a bid to stop her from becoming a ranger, burnt her national identity card, a requirement for the job application.
“They gave me the opportunity. My husband even came to the training camp to take me home but I stood my ground,” said Goboza, who is now divorced.
Tracy Mukuni (32), quit her police job to join the unit as a trainer because she wanted to support other working women.
“It was about my passion to help my fellow women to achieve their goals,” said Mukuni, a sergeant instructor who trains rangers in fitness, bush survival skills and ethics.
“Out there they come face to face with armed poachers who are strong …
“These women need to be brave and skilled to protect wildlife. They also need to look after each other.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation
Victoria Falls based lawfirm donates football kits to Division Two teams
BY NOKUTHABA DLAMINI
A Victoria Falls based law firm has donated football kits to twelve Division Two soccer players in Hwange West district in an effort to fight drugs and substance abuse among youths in the communities.
According to the law firm’s director Thulani Nkala, of Dube Nkala & Company Legal Practitioners, the donation aims to promote a healthy society where teenagers can engage in sports even after school.
Division Two falls under the Zimbabwe Football Association and it comes after Division One which is also below the premier league.
“As you are all aware that drugs are causing problems in our town, we felt that we can make a difference to counter this by donating some football kits and other equipment for our youths to use as they play,” Nkala said.
“We hope that this will be an ongoing partnership, but for now we will only be sponsoring for this upcoming season which is about to start and we shall renew as the next seasons approach on condition that we have mutual understanding which is based on respect because we will not want a situation where teams fight each one another.”
He said apart from the kits and trophy, the teams will play for a prize money at the end of the season.
Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) Matabeleland North provincial acting chairman Clevious Ncube said the gesture will go a long way in nurturing young talents in the Division Two league, whom most of them are school going children and teenagers.
Prosper Neshavi, provincial ZIFA board member, lamented lack of interest in football sponsorship even at national level.
He said this has been part of the reasons why the country has been kicked out of the Federation Internationale Football Association (FIFA).
FIFA President Giovanni Infantino last year said the association had to suspend Zimbabwe and Kenya for government interference in the activities of the football associations.
“They know what needs to be done for them to be readmitted or for the suspension to be lifted. “Infantino said last year.
Meanwhile, as part of efforts to introduce sports tourism in Victoria Falls, tourism operators and other sports officials have joined hands to form a committee that will spearhead the allocation of land by the Victoria Falls City Council for sporting activities such as the football, tennis, boxing and rugby among other sporting disciples.
This was revealed by the committee chairperson Mthabisi Ncube who lamented lack of sporting facilities in the city.
He revealed that through their negotiations with the council, a certain portion of land has been set aside for the project.
Their end goal is to see the town hosting local and international teams, which will inturn boost the country’s tourism GDP.
“As we say that we are the tourism capital of Zimbabwe and possibly the better capital of Africa and we fail to have a 10 000 seater stadium,” he said.
“We can not fail to host training matches such as the rugby, football where teams such as the Kaizer Chiefs Football Club can decide to come to Victoria Falls as they prepare ahead of the season, so their coming will help us a lot because all the businesses from accomodation to the salons and vegetable vendors will benefit from their presence, but it cannot happen when we do not have the facilities.
“Our vision is to have a complex where we can host international games, international meetings for cricket, rugby, tennis. We want to be like what Capetown (South Africa) does where they have no free weekend in arts and sporting activities.”
Gaseous coal substances exposes Hwange residents to TB
BY NOKUTHABA DLAMINI
In the scorching sun, Litha Ncube and her nine-year-old daughter are armed with hoes and shovels as they make way to a dumpsite to scavenge for a precious by-product of coal, coke.
The poverty-stricken widow from Hwange’s Madumabisa Village says she has no option but to scrounge for the product in a life-threatening environment that has claimed the lives of many. This is her only means of survival.
As she digs the dumpsite without any Personal Protective Clothing (PPE) such as the surgical mask, her daughter’s task is to pick and separate the coke from the chaff and fill a 50-kilogramme sack. This quantity of coke fetches US$5, which she says helps to sustain her family.
Her husband died at the height of Covid-19 pandemic in 2021 after he was diagnosed with Tubercolosis (TB) which he contracted due to inhaling of coal dust at the same dumpsite.
Ncube was also diagnosed and it took her over 12 months to fully recover.
“If I stop, who will support my children?” Ncube quizzes as she continues to dig.
Ncube is among the many women in Hwange who have resorted to trespassing into the Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL) dumpsite in search of coke, which they resell to make ends meet.
TB is one of the leading causes of death in Zimbabwe.
According to Community Working Group on Health, about 6 300 Zimbabweans die of TB each year despite it being preventable and curable.
The African region has the second-highest tuberculosis burden worldwide, after Southeast Asia. under the World Health Organisation End Tuberculosis Strategy, countries should aim to reduce TB cases by 80% and cut deaths by 90% by 2030 compared with 2015.
According to National Mine Workers Union of Zimbabwe president Kurebwa Javangwe Nomboka, gaseous substances from coal dusts have left many Hwange villagers and residents exposed to TB, although many are not documented.
‘The prevalence of TB is very high, but undocumented in the areas we have done programs which are around the mining community of Hwange,” Nomboka told VicFallsLive.
“Coal is the commonly mined mineral in the area and is well known for its combustible nature and the emission of dangerous poisonous gases.”
Nomboka says apart from residents such as Ncube, the scourge is higher in the mining companies, largely Chinese owned.
He says the mostly affected are underground miners and even those involved in the processing of coal to coking coke.
” Examples of areas with a high risk of TB which my team have visited are HC, Hwange Coal Gasification and South Mining,” he revealed.
“The environment in these mines is heavily embroidered or engulfed with coal dust and gaseous substances which causes a high risk of TB and other related diseases like Pneumoconiosis.”
These heavy dusts and gaseous substances, Nomboka says are also evident in the residential areas and thus posing a risk to the families of miners.
” At Hwange Coal Gasification at times the whole complex is engulfed with gaseous substances to an extent that you won’t even be in a position to see buildings or people around you,”
“Besides the dust and gaseous substances there is immense heat that comes out from the furnaces and the personnel working such under environments are spotted with improper and inadequate PPEs and the issue in these mines has become of lesser priority as it is only acquired when we raise a red flag as a union.”
Nomboka said the PPEs being acquired does not meet the standard required under the Mining industry safety regulations leaving workers vulnerable to contracting TB and other related diseases.
” As a trade union we have reigned in on these defaulting companies to comply with the mining safety regulations and those found not to be in compliance with the regulations have had to be litigated against in order for them to comply,” Nomboka revealed.
“The country needs to adopt stern measures on those who fail to comply with mining safety regulations by enacting laws which provide for hefty fines for companies who fail to provide safety nets for their employees and proper and adequate protective clothing.”
Engage communities in TB planning, Government urged
BY NOKUTHABA DLAMINI
The Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) has called on the government to engage communities in planning and implementing of strong, integrated Tubercolosis (TB) mitigation as part of response measure, amid revelations that over 6 000 Zimbabweans succumb to the pulmonary disease every year.
The call was made by CWGH, a health watch organisation executive director Itai Rusike ahead of the World TB Day commemorations.
Rusike said although there has been some efforts made towards ending TB, a killer disease and highlighting further action that is needed to defeat the life-threatening disease, communities should be part of the action.
“TB remains a major obstacle to attaining the SDG vision of health, development, and prosperity for all in Zimbabwe,”Rusike told VicFallsLive.
“Our country has an estimated 21 000 new cases of TB each year, and 3.1% of these are drug resistant.
” 6300 Zimbabweans die of TB each year despite it being preventable and curable.”
According to health activists, most of these are recorded in mining towns and communities where there is no adequate Personal Protective Equipment.
Rusike also called for more scientific research and funding towards eradication of pulmonary disease including the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Funding for research on TB in Zimbabwe is minimal, and new tools to prevent, diagnose, and treat TB are urgently required,” he said.
“There is an opportunity to leverage Covid-19 infrastructure and investments to improve the TB response, integrate TB and Covid-19 testing and tracing, and strengthen efforts to overcome the barriers that people continue to face when accessing TB services.”
According to studies, the advent of Covid-19, three years ago eliminated 12 years of progress in the Global Fight against TB as governments, due to its response to the pandemic pushed aside TB outreach and services, resulting in a 20% drop in diagnosis and treatment worldwide.
“This World TB Day 2023 (March 24) we emphasize that “Yes! We can end TB” – aims to inspire hope and encourage high-level leadership, increased investments, faster uptake of new World Health Organisation recommendations, adoption of innovation, accelerated action and multisectoral collaboration to combat the TB epidemic,”Rusike said.
“It is time for the government to fulfill its commitments towards defeating TB.
“The government should engage communities in planning and implementing strong, integrated TB and Covid-19 mitigation and response measures.”
In addition, he said, there is need to increase financing for TB prevention and care, innovations in care delivery, and research and development, including for new TB vaccines to prevent the development of Drug Resistant TB.
” The theme brings attention to tuberculosis (TB) and our collective power to end TB by 2030 and therefore reach the SDG goals,” he added.
“It brings hope and builds on the amazing work done in 2022 by Zimbabwe as one of the TB High Burden Countries to recover from the impact of Covid -19 while ensuring access to TB treatment and prevention.
” It is time to take urgent action to get back on track and accelerate collective efforts to fulfill the 2022 United Nations targets on TB to defeat the disease and save lives.
“The commitments made, and targets set by Heads of State and other leaders to accelerate action to end TB must be kept even in Covid-19 crisis and should be backed by adequate investments (and) this will help to protect the lives of thousands of peoplesuffering from TB and to prevent further loss of gains made in the fight against TB.
” Not one more person should die from TB because it is a preventable and treatable disease.”
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