By Moses Ziyambi
An old woman sits on an old bench under the shade of a house facing the entrance to the Mucheke Old People’s Home. A faint smile lights up her face as she sees this writer walking through the entrance towards her.
Sporting a long floral dress and a grey doek, she stretches her hand to greet me with the courtesy I had not expected from a lady visibly old enough to be my grandmother. Her dry wrinkled hand bears testimony to a long time of a pitiful existence she has probably led through the years.
She mumbles something that I could hardly hear as she shakes my hand but assuming it to be the customary “good afternoon grandson how are you”, I take my chances and answer back, “Tiripo hedu mbuya makadiiwo”
Still holding my hand, the lady tells me how she has noticed that it was my first day at the place. Utterly surprised by her on the mark observation, I fake a smile in agreement, a little bit embarrassed that I could be easily read by such an old person.
“You see grandson, we have been through a lot and we have become wiser. I saw you walking through the gate and could tell by your movements that it was your first time here”, she says to me with a clear intention to start a long conversation. She however senses my impatience and gives up.
“Do you want to see those who are in charge, just walk to that second building to your right and get inside’, she directs, pointing at the building that appears a bit different from the rest I could see. As I say my thanks, she takes the opportunity to ask for a ‘dollar to buy coke”.
“I will be back very soon, I will find something for you”, I promise her as I turn and walk along the dust passage, passing probably a dozen other old people sitting under the shade of their roofs to escape the scorching sun. I made sure that I acknowledge everybody along the way with at least short greeting.
Sitting behind a small desk at the reception is a middle-aged man dressed in a smart golf t/shirt and matching formal black pants. I take a seat in the veranda waiting for my turn to get in since two other men were still being served.
It strikes me to realise how all the houses appeared as old as the people who live in them, the painting being in visible need of urgent attention much as the rough cracked floors. Nonetheless, life seemed to go on for the contented inhabitants of this shelter. I noted that despite the air of despondency that I conjured up in my mind upon entering the place, everybody seemed to be in high spirits after all.
“We survive on donations from well-wisher here. Besides, we do run some self-help projects as well that assist us to go through”, says Mr Louis Phiri, the man behind the desk, who also turns out to be the head of the institution.
“We have been running a poultry project but unfortunately it’s been going down as we don’t always get enough feed for the chickens”, explains Mr Phiri with a strong voice that seems to emphasise the gravity of the problem at hand.
“As for the donations, we don’t discriminate; we accept anything whether big or small. You can as well walk into this place with your two kg rice or sugar, we will take it.”
In another building, Mr Phiri keeps a donations records book. He goes through the book, pointing at the donations of the day.
“Members of the Reformed Church University were here a while ago and they made a substantial donation of foodstuffs that will help us for quite some time. The mayor was also here to witness the donation.”
On the list of the donation were 24l Orange Crush juice, 10x10kg Super Power maize meal, 24x1kg Elangeni green bar laundry soap, 60kg Harvest rice, 20kg sugar and 12l cooking oil.
The profile of the institution’s Facebook page states that, ‘Mucheke Old People’s Home is a charity institution that cares for the elderly. We offer them food, accommodation, electricity and every basic need including medication. Mission: To make life as comfortable and entertaining as possible for the elderly.’
But are those goals being met in face of the harsh economic realities prevailing in our country and the consequent dwindling contributions by good Samaritans or has it become a matter of hand to mouth survival?
“Due to the economic situation, donations have not been as forthcoming as we would expect but these are the kind of charitable works that keep us going”, says Mr Phiri.
At this point in time I could feel the sense of genuine need in his voice, in a way invoking and reaffirming the sense of desperation that engulfed my mind the moment I walked in.
What about municipal rates, do they pay, considering they are a non-profit, charity-driven institution for the aged?
“We pay for our water and electricity on our own.”
What? So does it mean the council gives them some preferential rates of some sort or does the government have some mechanisms in place to assist struggling charity institutions like Mucheke Old People’s Home?
“No, not at all. Recently, the city council was up in arms against us for failure to pay rates, they even threatened to disconnect water supplies. We hope it won’t come down to that.”
Established on the 15th of May 1980 by Baptist Church pastor Lewis Bandawe after seeing the plight of homeless old people in the town, Mucheke Old People’s Home has seen the good and the bad times. The Baptist Church has however maintained a helping hand through the years, providing a life line to an otherwise forgotten place. Together with the Masvingo Christian Church, the Baptist Church accounts for the biggest chunk of donations to the institution every year.
“They donate in cash and kind and it’s only well-wishers who sustain this place. We also have Caswell Meats who donate meat every month to ensure a healthier diet for the people we care for.”
The charity institution, however, strives to maintain some semblance of self-reliance through such self-help initiatives as the poultry project and the hiring of their function room to outsiders.
“Anybody who wants to make use of the venue for such events as Church services and kiddies parties is welcome”, continues Mr Phiri as he explains the presence of children who are walking around outside.
“I think Universities like yours should look into such issues and assist this old people’s home so that we continue our job of providing a roof over the head of homeless old people.”
What is their criteria for choosing whom to accept or not to accept into their fold? Do you simply walk into the premises, claim that you are old and in need of shelter and perhaps produce your ID to prove it?
“No, we don’t simply take anyone, we only take people through the Department of Social Welfare. They are the ones who clear people and determine whether they are old and destitute enough to come here. In other words, the Department of Social welfare determines your suitability to be here. We currently house twenty-one old people here.”
As I say my thanks and my goodbyes, my emotions are provoked and I make a silent pledge to come and assist one day.
Walking towards the gate in a hurry not to lose any of the little time left to travel back home, I noticed the old woman, still seated on the bench. I quickly remember my promise to her so I take out a shrivelled dollar out of my wallet and hand it over to her. Once again, I say my thanks to her and leave.