In Zimbabwe, political mismanagement, misguided land reforms, and devastating droughts and cyclones linked to climate change have created a devastating food-insecurity crisis. The United Nations estimates that as much as 60 percent of the country’s population is food-insecure, and about half of all urban dwellers go to bed hungry every night.
But in Mwenezi, a small district in the Masvingo province in southern Zimbabwe, 112 households are able to keep their heads above water, literally—thanks to a group of local women who decided to build a dam.
“The women say the dam has transformed their lives,” Zimbabwean financial journalist Chris Muronzi wrote in his July 2020 story for Climate Home News, “These Women Built a Dam and Saved Their Families from Man-Made Starvation.”
The article chronicles how Anna Mbalula, Sekai Mubatagore, and about 200 other Mwenezi women made a plan that would provide their families with access to water for irrigation and agriculture for years to come.
In 2014, each contributed small amounts of money to buy four bags of cement to build a small water tank that would store the water they needed to build a dam. For more than six months, with additional financial support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), they engaged in grueling physical work, carrying boulders and other material themselves, to create a 21,000-cubic-meter dam.
A November 2019 U.N. report detailed the project—and after Muronzi read it, he knew he had to share their story with the world.
Muronzi, who began reporting 17 years ago at age 21, served as business editor of the country’s largest business weekly, The Zimbabwe Independent, for a decade. He has also worked with Al Jazeera on stories of economic hardship and humanitarian crises in Zimbabwe.
Muronzi’s journey to chronicle the strong women who built the dam began with a road trip to Mwenezi, a district some 460 kilometers south of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, where he is based. He found them right where their story first began—in the middle of the vegetable garden in a part of Mwenezi called Rumwanjiva. The garden, irrigated by the dam they built, now provides vegetables for 112 households to eat and sell.
I recently spoke with Muronzi about how he developed and reported this story, how it affected him, and why he believes in the power of human resilience in the face of adversity.
Our conversation was made more difficult by something he has to contend with every day as a journalist in Zimbabwe: poor internet access. (It’s something that I know well as a reporter from India.)
When we were unable to use Zoom or Google Meets to connect over a video call, Chris suggested a WhatsApp call, which has a lower bandwidth requirement and worked quite well even with a slower internet connection. For our second live discussion, we used WhatsApp chat. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
I’d love to know what a typical work day looks like for you.
I have been working from home since last year, [so] I get to spend a lot of time with my youngest daughter, Tino, 3.
My day starts early in the morning and involves going through all the Zimbabwean news websites, followed by a Google [News] search to get an appreciation of the stories that are coming out of Zimbabwe and those that potentially could be developed into story ideas for international media houses.
I [also] patrol social media a bit. During the COVID pandemic, I realized that social media is a good hunting ground for stories that can be developed, especially human-interest stories.
Let’s talk about the Mwenezi dam article. What drew you to this story, and how did you decide which aspects of it to focus on?
“We, as journalists, ought to get on the ground more and talk to ordinary people. The best stories come from ordinary people.”
When I saw a call for climate resilience pitches on Climate Home News, I quickly remembered an interesting story of women who had built a dam in Mwenezi. On the 28th of November 2019, the U.N. rapporteur on human rights, Hilal Elver, released her initial report [about food insecurity] after touring Zimbabwe. This led me to write a story for Al Jazeera on the issue. Hilal Elver was able to reach remote parts of Zimbabwe and unearthed new information which was quite revealing.
After my story was published, I dug deeper into the report and came across many interesting things I thought could be developed into feature ideas. One of the things that captured my attention was the story of these women who had built a dam in Mwenezi.
Do you often read U.N. reports?
Do I make this compulsory reading every night before I sleep? No. [But] I sometimes find stories that way. Combing through volumes of reports for story ideas can be quite a task.
You managed to speak to the very women who spearheaded this project. How did you connect with them?
Honestly, I had no idea where Mwenezi was before I did this story.
After Climate Home News commissioned the article, I had to Google the distance and location of the place. But I didn’t know the specific village I would need to [visit] to do this story. I felt a bit ashamed that I didn’t know my own country that well.
I knew I would never get to the exact place without help from people who knew the area well. I quickly phoned a World Food Programme communication person, a former intern at one of the publications I had worked with some years ago, and asked if he could help me locate the exact spot.
He was able to get in touch with some field people, and as luck would have it, there was a team of people who were going to be in the area in a few days from Masvingo. I then drove to Masvingo, some [300 kilometers] out of Harare. I spent a night in Masvingo and then connected with the WFP team and set out to Rumwanjiva. Without their help, I fear I would have gotten lost in Mwenezi.
Do the Mwenezi women you chronicle have support from their husbands, or do they take on the entire burden of feeding their families single-handedly?
Owing to the proximity and location of Mwenezi to South Africa and the fact that there are no industries in Masvingo province, a lot of men in the area trek to South Africa in search of jobs and a better life. This essentially means women in Mwenezi head the families and raise kids on their own. The entire burden of raising kids, childcare, household work is thrust on them.
What was your greatest takeaway from this story?
It was one of those stories that gives one hope. The women in Mwenezi saw solutions where everyone saw problems of climate change.
Let’s zoom out a bit. As you mention in your story, Zimbabwe was once considered the bread basket of Africa. How did things end up going so terribly wrong? What are the factors that led to Zimbabwe’s extreme food crisis?
As you may be aware, Zimbabwe is a former colony of Britain. Prior to independence, white farmers held most of the productive land.
At the turn of the millennium, in a bid to overturn British colonialism, late president Robert Mugabe implemented the land reform exercise, which included forcibly seized farming land from white farmers. Before the land reform, Zimbabwe actually exported maize to other countries. Part of the deal was that the land would be redistributed to landless Black Zimbabwean farmers, who unfortunately lacked the resources to run their farms productively. Banks still don’t lend to the farmers because the land they have has no title, as it is on lease to them from the state for 99 years.
This saw production come down quite dramatically, and the country started to rely on grain imports to cover food deficits. Without good agricultural production, other downstream industries have also suffered.
And all of this has been exacerbated by climate change, right?
Climate change has worsened the food security situation in a big way, especially in rural communities. Typically, people in the rural areas do not have disposable income and rely on the food they grow for survival. When it doesn’t rain or when there is a drought, it means villagers are left without food and that can easily spiral into a humanitarian crisis.
The world has changed in so many ways as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. How has it changed your process of reporting stories? How did you adapt to this change?
Al Jazeera adopted very tough [health and safety] guidelines that limited interaction with sources. So, in most instances, I had to rely heavily on technology and messaging services to get in touch with sources and gather news, especially in the last year.
It taught me to be resourceful. I reached out to people with stories on social media and did interviews that way. Notwithstanding the obvious limitations, I managed to come up with some pretty good stories.
The internet in Zimbabwe can be unreliable at times, and regular videoconferencing tools such as Zoom may not always be the best option. Do you have any favorite apps or software for interviewing?
I used Twitter a lot to reach out to people who had COVID stories to tell and who had lost loved ones. To chat with them, I used WhatsApp Messenger, where they sent long voice notes, and Facebook as well.
You’ve done a lot of really powerful reporting on issues like poverty, agriculture, COVID, and human rights. What is your advice for other health and science reporters on writing a balanced story?
“Journalists the world over have never been safe. I always have some measure of underlying fear when I do certain stories but feel compelled to tell the story all the same.”
I spent most of my working career as a financial journalist reporting on company earnings, the stock market, money, and a lot of other economics-related topics. I was particularly challenged when I started working with Patricia Sabga, managing business editor for Al Jazeera U.S. She challenged me to put a human face to an economic business story as part of an impact series she was running. I had never really valued the opinions of nonexperts or ordinary people when it came to economic issues.
Under Patricia Sabga’s guidance, I wrote some of my best stories that came from interviews with regular people and realized that we, as journalists, ought to get on the ground more and talk to ordinary people.
The best stories come from ordinary people. Let’s talk to them with humility and be all we can be.
I loved how your Climate Home News story was structured—it began and ended with Anna and the other women, which I thought was a great way of putting them front of mind for the reader. Do you have a favorite method of structuring your stories, or any tips on structure?
I use different kinds of approaches depending on the subject and depending on the editor I am dealing with. When you have worked with a specific editor for some time, you get an idea of the writing style the editor likes.
For instance, at Al Jazeera I mostly use real-life characters to tell and structure a story because they are big on those kinds of things.
Many of your stories tend to be critical of the Zimbabwe government. What is your advice for other reporters working in a difficult and even dangerous environment? Do you have any suggestions for how reporters can stay safe while exposing political failings?
Journalists the world over have never been safe. I always have some measure of underlying fear when I do certain stories but feel compelled to tell the story all the same. I focus on the importance and impact of the story first and then deal with consequences, if any, of the story later.
I think the most important thing is to do a thorough investigation and fact-check so that when your story comes out, those in power don’t come after you for a mistake you made.
Aishwarya Jagani is a freelance technology and science writer. Her work has appeared in Digital Privacy News, Unbias the News, The Postscript, Bustle, and many other publications. She is also a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. Follow her on Twitter @aishwarya_7777.