Masvingo is the oldest town in Zimbabwe, and the area is famed for its amazing balancing boulders – gigantic, rounded, gleaming granite mountain rock formations that sit on top of each other and look like they’re threatening to tumble down on top of you.
It’s a five-hour, 300 km drive to Masvingo from Harare. The tarmac road is smooth and undulates across stunning countryside. It’s a busy road, and I’m told one of the most dangerous in country. It’s the route from the border with South Africa, and goods for the shops in Zimbabwe come in this way – the roofs of cars, vans and old buses are piled high with cross-border wares. All the vehicles travel at break-neck speeds, displaying the most daring over-taking manoeuvres, which have you firmly clutching your seat and performing imaginary breaking manoeuvres. My driver cruises along, almost not noticing the crazy antics. He’s from Masvingo and knows every inch of this road. I’m in safe hands.
On both sides of the road, long golden grasslands sway in the wind. I spot several tilled fields, the earth a rich, dark-chocolate-sponge-cake colour. Groups of women painstakingly weed around their precious crops. There are honey-sellers dotted along the road, arms outstretched, holding their jars of golden nectar.
It’s hard to believe that only five years ago some of these fields lay barren, because of the economic meltdown in the country. Farmers couldn’t get hold of seeds or fertiliser for planting, and the only activity along the roadside was the darting about of mischievous monkeys.
Masvingo town is bustling. I notice the ‘OK Supermarket’ is packed full of shoppers, and the petrol stations have petrol and diesel for sale. Someone has even been enterprising enough to open a ‘Backpackers Budget Accommodation Hotel’. My driver wonders who might end up staying in this drab concrete building; there appear to be no windows, so the place might be a little grim for any backpackers who stray into town. The faded paintwork on some of the 1960s concrete buildings points to prosperity long disappeared. The town used to be the centre for mining and cattle ranching, but today it largely relies on the retail trade, with shops enticing people to buy clothes and kitchenware brought in from South Africa.
The top news story in Masvingo town last month was the merging of two local football teams to create New Masvingo Town FC. Masvingo United was relegated in 2011, but the merger has brought hopes of the Zimbabwean Premier League once more. Someone tells me that Masvingo is twinned with Middlesbrough, so I start to imagine finding the ‘Backpackers Budget Accommodation Hotel’ fully booked up with Boro fans in a few seasons’ time.
Five years ago, many of Masvingo’s young people were forced to look for work in neighbouring South Africa and Mozambique. Today, many have returned to help their families work the land. CAFOD partner Caritas Masvingo started a sustainable farming programme in 2008, and today that programme has transformed small rural communities, which are now able to feed themselves and earn an income from selling their surplus food.
New Masvingo Town FC can look forward to its community rallying behind them. There is so much hope here. People are putting so much energy into starting again: like the town’s football team, they are determined to find new ways to achieve success.