It is 8.30pm in the quarters for married people on the second floor of the Central Methodist Church – a place that has been a refuge for hundreds of Zimbabweans over the years. Today, I visit 15 Zimbabwean couples all living in one room – some with two or three children aged under five. The room is filled with the sounds of chatter and music, while a few of the people are huddled around a television. And while all this is going on, some of the women are busy preparing the day’s meal – on a two-plate stove at the foot of their mattresses. Some of the men, meanwhile, look after the little ones.
This in a nutshell is the story of everyday life at the five-storey Methodist Church, which has been home to more than 30000 refugees since 2006: at present there are about 1300 adults and 100 children.
Very light pieces of cloth and sheets are used to divide the room into little compartments – a bedroom for each couple. The 2-metre by 1.5-metre divisions can only fit a three-quarter mattress. As I walk through the room, I peek inside each compartment, where the couples sleep, cook and do the washing, sharing one sink.Rumbidzai Hove (38) from the Lochinvar suburb in Harare, left for Johannesburg in August 2009. She tells me she came through the “double up”.
“I climbed over the border fence, crossed the Limpopo River and walked for three hours from Beitbridge to Musina.”
She then took a bus to Johannesburg, to be with her husband, who had been in SA since 2006. She left two daughters, aged seven and 18, back home.
Hove sits on the mattress with her husband and three toddlers. “We have six children and one granddaughter,” she says, proudly. “Two are in Zimbabwe and two in Soweto.”
Pointing to the two girls and boy sitting with their father eating pap and chicken, she says: “I live with these two and my granddaughter.”
She explains that the Methodist Church has a children’s shelter in Soweto.
“I am looking for a job,” she says, in eloquent English. “I used to have businesses in Zimbabwe which the Zanu-PF people destroyed. Because of hunger, I am now here. I had a job as a domestic worker, but my boss fired me after I became pregnant.”
Asked if she misses her home country, she says: “I don’t miss anything about Zimbabwe, only my daughter. I have not seen her since I left home. She was too small to travel with me.”
Would she go back if Robert Mugabe died? “The dying of Mugabe is nothing. They must restore our dignity and treat us like human beings,” she says.
Outside the couples’ quarters there are men and women like Hove – teachers, accountants, nurses – who left Zimbabwe to look for work in Johannesburg.
They are busy booking their sleeping spots on the caramel-coloured tiled floor so they can retire after a hard day’s work. Some are already bundled up in their blankets and fast asleep in the midst of talking and laughter, using their bags as pillows.
Going up the stairs to the third floor is tricky: one has to jump over people sleeping on the uneven floor. The light is not bright enough; you have to be careful not to step on someone’s head. On the third floor there is a computer lab, with six computers for people who need computer lessons. The church also offers skills training in sewing and waitressing, so that its residents can have skills to find work in the city.
In a corner there is a double mattress, blankets and a wardrobe. Ambrose Mapiravana lives here with his wife and five-year-old twin daughters. He heard about the church at the Beitbridge border and so he journeyed to Johannesburg knowing that his accommodation was sorted. Mapiravana has four children – two are with his mother in Zimbabwe.
He says he was a welder and carpenter back home but left because of financial difficulties. He has been living at the church for four years and now helps in running the place. He used to live in the couples’ quarters with his wife but they were moved to the computer lab because of his position.
“There is no privacy in the couples’ quarters, people have to sleep out in order to have sex,” says Mapiravana. “We have eight rules that everyone must follow: no drinking, no smoking, no sex – except in the married quarters, everyone must attend church everyday at 7pm, keep the place clean, everyone must at least attend one educational programme, keep the area clean and no fighting.”
Asked if the rules are displayed anywhere in the building, he says: “No, but they are announced every Friday when we have a meeting to welcome new residents. Implementation of our rules is very tough. But we try. I sjambokked two ladies last week – they were fighting and causing disturbances.”
He says the women sleep on the corridors and in the basement while men on the stairs.
When asked if the men don’t harass the women given the sleeping arrangements, he says: “If I find you, you are in for it; they must be very prepared to face me if they do that.”
The tour continues to the fourth floor, to the children’s room. There are more than 200 children, but only 50 stay at the church. The rest – all older – are at the shelter in Soweto. he children have caretakers who cook for them and make sure they attend school. “We have a school on Albert Street, two blocks from here,” he says. The children’s room is filled with kids playing around happily, some are having bread and tea; while others are paging through a magazine. Some lie on mattresses, ready to sleep.
Next door is the home-based care room, where the sick are taken care of. A frail man is lying on a mattress chatting to a group of men who got a piece-job packaging condoms for an NGO. “We have two nurses to take care of the sick, they cook for them and give them their medicines,” says Mapiravana.
Descending the stairs to the first floor is difficult because the men are already sleeping. The women in the corridor are sitting on sponges, chatting, while some are nursing their babies. Others are fast asleep.