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Arrival in Zimbabwe

Arriving in Zimbabwe is a slightly surreal experience.

En route from London I passed through South Africa’s plush Jo’burg airport. While waiting for my connection I sleepily breezed through the vast souvenir shops and chatted about Obama’s inaugural speech (and his wife’s inaugural dress!) with the laid-back check in staff.

It was only on the plane to Harare that I started to engage with Zimbabwe’s plight for real and piece together the realities of life in Zimbabwe with what I’d heard while waiting in London.

I met a retired ‘well-to-do’ Zimbabwean lady who described her daily routine of surviving when all her life savings have turned to dust. She is literally living hand to mouth. Her only safety net is that she has a part-time job teaching at the university, which enables her to visit her son once a year in South Africa. Zimbabwe is her home she says, and she would never leave it.

Unfortunately it is estimated that as many as ¼ of all Zimbabweans have been forced to leave home, as they don’t even have the security of a part-time job. Unemployment in Zimbabwe is at more than 80%. Even young children are choosing to make the dangerous and lengthy journey to neighbouring South Africa, in search of employment and simply something to eat.

Many of these children travel unaccompanied by an adult and, as a result, this migration can expose them to a variety of serious child protection risks. There is not only the crocodile infested Limpopo river to traverse, the border crossing itself can involve encounters with organised criminals that prey on those trying to pass.

Children set out on their journey in good faith of finding decent employment, but more often than not get lured into prostitution and other types of exploitative work. These children constitute easy prey, as most have entered South Africa illegally and so will not report a crime for fear of being deported.

In response to this migration Save the Children is running centres on both the Zimbabwe and South Africa sides of the border. These centres provide services aimed at minimising the risks that children that who have crossed or who are intending to cross the border are exposed to.

On arrival at Harare airport I’m disappointed that my bags haven’t arrived. It’s happened to many colleagues but never to me, and I know the reputation Jo’burg airport has for things going ‘missing’. But the friendly confidence of the airport officials reassures me. Apparently they will come in the evening. The afternoon planes always come with half of the bags missing, as the precious space in the hold is required for fuel and other vital imports.

I’m greeted at the airport by one of our longest-serving staff members. He’s worked for us for 17 years and teaches me some of the local language on my way into town so that I can impress my new colleagues on arrival.

He isn’t surprised by my sense of shock as we drive through central Harare streets that are largely empty of vehicles and people. It’s like being in a ghost town not a capital city. Next to modern, high-rise buildings are boarded up shops and clapped out cars. I’m starting to feel heartbroken by the mass decline of what was once a developed and prosperous country.

I’m here as part of Save the Children’s Child Protection Trainee Scheme. Funded by the UK’s Department for International Development, each year the scheme trains 10 people from a variety of personal and professional backgrounds. This is my last assignment on the scheme and I’m excited to learn and contribute as much as possible to our work at such a critical time for Zimbabwe.

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