Shurugwi, Zimbabwe – Shepherd Mahove became homeless on Saturday.
Six homesteads, including his, in Hanke B Village in Zimbabwe’s Midlands province, were razed to the ground by unknown arsonists, less than a week before a crucial presidential vote in the Southern African nation.
Rifling through the scant remains of his kitchen, the 48-year-old farmer surveys the damaged home. Buckets, food, and water containers were all charred in the fire. In the other room, blankets and two beds were scorched to ash.
The incident took place while Mahove and his wife were attending the final campaign rally of Zimbabwe’s governing ZANU-PF party at Tongogara Business Center in Shurugwi district. The district is a stronghold for the party and the hometown of some of its top-ranking officials.
The fires began about 5am when many of the villagers were at a party sleepover near the rally venue.
Earlier this month, 10 other homesteads in Hanke B, including houses of local ZANU-PF leaders and three structures belonging to the party’s district chairwoman, Anna Mangena, were razed. The motive remains unclear, but two suspects are in custody.
Many of those whose homes were burned now have to sleep at their neighbours’ and plan to rebuild the razed households through housing materials donated to them by Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ), a ZANU-PF affiliate.
Some of those donated doors and asbestos roofing sheets were burned along with Mahove’s property.
“We have experienced violence before in this area and we have asked for protection, but nothing seems to be done, now this has happened,” Mahove said. “We don’t know what this war is about and why, it could be someone who is jealous and wants me to suffer, but why, why me? What has this community done?”
Call for peace
Since independence from Britain in 1980, Zimbabwe’s elections have been chequered with rights violations, and despite the advent of multiparty democracy in the late 1990s, political violence has been more pronounced.
Nearly 200 people were killed during the 2008 presidential polls, and in 2018, Mnangagwa’s first election as president following a military-backed coup in 2017, six people were killed by the army during post-election protests by opposition supporters. Although the environment for the 2023 general elections is far less turbulent, there is some tension.
A record 6.6 million voters will make their choice on Wednesday. But despite the calls for peace, international rights groups continue to warn against the threat of a brutal crackdown by the state.
A report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) shows that political violence more than doubled in July compared with the monthly average over the past year. This, the report showed, was mainly driven by a spike in attacks targeting the main opposition candidates and supporters, the Citizen Coalition for Change (CCC) were particularly targeted.
Thus far, one person, Tinashe Chitsungo, a CCC supporter, has been killed in the lead-up to polls and there have been numerous reports of intimidation and harassment largely perpetrated by governing party supporters and political candidates in rural areas.
But even ZANU-PF supporters say they are also the targets of political violence. On Friday, a man believed to be an opposition supporter allegedly struck a ZANU-PF supporter with an axe for wearing party regalia in Binga, in northwestern Zimbabwe. The local chief, aware of the incident, said the victim is yet to make a formal report to the police.
And at his final rally on Saturday at Tongogara Center, just 7km (4 miles) from Hanke B, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is contesting for a second term, spoke against violence.
“Let us shame those detractors who wish us to be violent, who wish chaos in this country, let us shame them by being peaceful, let us shame them by being non-violent, let us shame by accepting them in spite of them not wanting ZANU-PF to rule,” he said.
Gardening for peace
To mitigate political violence as well as create safe spaces and alternative livelihoods, especially for women who are disproportionately affected by these hostilities, one organisation is creating community peace gardens.
The project, started by the local NGO Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) in 2015, provides a non-partisan space for communities. ZimRights has a total of six gardens in three provinces.
One of those is the Thuthuka Garden in Matabeleland South, a province roughly 380km (236 miles) from the capital, Harare, where villagers grow vegetables as part of the peace initiative. The garden was started as a way of providing women with a livelihood and to help reduce domestic violence as the gold-rich area has many artisanal miners who are prone to substance abuse and heavy drinking.
The majority of members are women from the surroundings in the Mtshabezi area in Matabeleland South.
Unlike Hanke B, where common people have been the victims, most of the reported violence in the Umzingwane and Mtshabezi areas has been towards political candidates.
Thuthuka Garden is less than an hour’s drive from Umzingwane, home of Thokozile Dube, an opposition politician attacked at her home for not standing down in last year’s by-election. Dube went on to win the councillor seat but has accused her ZANU-PF rival of attempting to intimidate her not to contest this time.
Every Monday, the garden initiative spends the first 30 minutes discussing peacebuilding in the community, anxiety about the polls, or domestic violence issues.
Afterwards, members discuss gardening issues, like upcoming projects, and then each group starts to work on their crops. They mostly grow carrots, tomatoes, collard greens and onions all year round and during the rainy season, they also grow maize. The project is run in partnership with the village head, Joe Mpande.
“This is a free space for people to share their problems and get help, as a kraal head I try to assist in cases where I can act as a mediator,” he told Al Jazeera.
The garden, which has 47 members, provides women like Patricia Mpofu, 50, with a sustainable income that helps complement their husbands’ in running their homes. They sell their produce to the locals by setting up market stalls at the shops.
A 50-year-old mother of one, Mpofu hopes the closely contested presidential vote between frontrunners, incumbent Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa of the CCC, will mean more empowerment for women.
“I don’t know who will win the election to lead this country, but I hope it will mean that women will have more means to empower themselves so that we are not always left behind,” she said.
She also hopes the elected leaders in her area can drill a borehole to improve the water supply to the garden to greatly improve productivity. The community peace gardens supported by ZimRights have helped ease tensions in certain hotspots, according to its national director Dzikamai Bere.
But ahead of the election, voters are still wary.
In Hanke B, Mahove and his family have made a report to the police and hope the perpetrators will be caught. Mahove also hopes the police will provide surveillance for the area as he has pleaded with them before to protect the area. And he is determined to still vote for Mnangagwa on Wednesday.
“Well, whether the police catch or don’t catch who did it, my choice for the election is still clear,” he told Al Jazeera. “I know who I support.”