Margaret Chibanda doesn’t walk into the room. She crawls.
The 87-year-old looks me in the eye and tries to hold my hand.
“I used to look so nice, so nice and smart,” she says.
Mrs Chibanda doesn’t know what’s wrong with her hands and feet. Or if she does, she’s too shy to say.
“The doctors say it’s not leprosy, it’s cancer,” she says.
Mrs Chibanda was a teacher, educated and proud, her husband worked for the railways before he died.
But, for the past 40 years, she’s been suffering. All the toes on one foot are gone, her legs are raw with lesions. Her fingers are missing too.
Her house is spotlessly clean, the red cement floors shine. But, flies follow Mrs Chibanda relentlessly.
While she has lost feeling at the ends of her limbs, the tops of her legs are sharp with pain.
“The pain is so intense, that when it starts, I cannot sleep. Even you ask my daughter. I’m always hitting my leg. It’s just too painful,” she said.
Her 46-year-old daughter Papina is severely disabled. A part-time carer tries to look after both of them but there is little help from the Government and no nearby hospital.
Mrs Chibanda wonders what will happen to her daughter when she’s gone.
“I worry a lot, since her sister died. If I die too, what will she do? How will she survive?” Mrs Chibanda says.
Many of the little houses in Rugare, Zimbabwe, hold stories of their own.
It was once a well-manicured town for railway workers. It had a company-owned shop and a well-stocked clinic. But, more than a decade ago, the railways ran out of money and the town was left to fend for itself.
The railways-built church, St Christopher’s, is almost full on Sundays. It’s bold brick tower gives a hint of better days long gone. A poster outside reminds parishioners, “Do not come to the house of God, empty handed”. But, most people have little to give.
The Reverend, Charles Muzanenhamo, says many of the people left in Rugare are pensioners. Most are trying to get by on pensions of only a few dollars a day.
“Unfortunately, they feel so neglected, because it’s not forthcoming to them. Especially with the challenges we have right now … where we are short of money in the country,” he says.
“You find people waking up in the middle of the night to go and queue up at the banks, just to get $30.
“We would wish that those in authority, would at least look at these old people. They have worked their life for their country.”
Temba Philip Sithole sits in his small lounge room, cradling a photo album of his children and grandchildren. His wife Nomvula had a stroke five years ago and is unable to turn the pages with her left hand.
Mr Sithole worked for the railways for 37 years, before he retired in 2012.
“At the moment it is very, very, very difficult. People, especially here in Rugare, most of the people are pensioners. We are getting our little pension, but for those who are not working. It is very difficult,” Mr Sithole says.
All of the Sithole’s five children have left Zimbabwe and moved to neighbouring South Africa, because there are no jobs.
“Yes, it’s very difficult. Sometimes we are helped by our kids in South Africa. They send us some money for their mother’s treatment,” he says.
Zimbabwe’s economy crashing
Many of the pensioners in Rugare are hoping the new President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, will start turning Zimbabwe in the right direction.
The size of the Zimbabwean economy has halved since 2000.
Zimbabweans have endured hyperinflation, the crash of the currency, shortages, chronic unemployment, entrenched corruption, crumbling infrastructure, and mismanagement.
Mr Mnangagwa came to power only two months ago, after a bloodless military takeover.
The 37-year reign of Robert Mugabe came to an end on November 21, but it may take much longer to revive the economy.
Economist Tony Hawkins says even if the government introduces much-needed reforms, it could take at least 10 years to turn the economy in the right direction.
“When the economy has been run into the ground as it has, it’s going to take a decade or so to recover, and that’s under positive conditions,” Professor Hawkins says.
“And the conditions are far from positive, because this Government, including, the new leader and the Minister of Finance, have been part of running the country for the past 38 years and they must take part of the blame for what has happened.”
No-one really knows how many people are unemployed in Zimbabwe.
The jobless rate is thought to be as high as 90 per cent. Real jobs are so hard to find, millions of Zimbabweans try to find any scraps of income from fruit and vegetable carts, subsistence farming, anything they can.
Professor Hawkins says the government needs to change its policy settings, so vital industries and investment can return.
“Clearly, agriculture and mining. Tourism. Infrastructure. There is a lot of talk about reviving manufacturing, but I think that’s dreaming, pipe-dreaming in a sense, in that it’s very hard to re-industrialise in Africa these days,” he says.
“I think education standards have slipped. I think an awful lot of the highly educated people have gone. They have joined the diaspora. It’s very difficult for educated people to get jobs. We haven’t created a job in the formal economy, outside agriculture, for 25 years or so.”
Economy priority over politics
The economy is the number one priority for Mr Mnangagwa.
Last month he led a delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The salesman in chief is continuing to meet with business, political and international leaders, urging them to invest in Zimbabwe.
“On my day of inauguration, I mentioned economics and trade cooperation would be my priority in Zimbabwe, rather than politics, in order to catch up with the region,” the President says.
“Zimbabwe has lagged behind in many areas as a result of isolation for the past 16, 18 years. Now we are saying to the world: ‘Zimbabwe is now open for business’.”
The Zimbabwean Government’s land reform program and attempts to enforce Zimbabwean majority ownership of mining ventures further weakened the economy.
Mr Mnangagwa knows he not only needs to undo the policy failings of the past, but also to introduce significant reforms.
“To do so, we need to look at all the legislation that has been constraining business coming into Zimbabwe to improve the ease of doing business,” he says.
The next Zimbabwean election needs to be held by August.
Mr Mnangagwa is promising the poll will be free and fair. But, the country has a terrible record for election violence, rigging and intimidation.
Long-time political rival Morgan Tsvangirai, who battled Robert Mugabe for more than two decades, is now seriously ill with cancer.
The divided opposition only has a few months to get itself ready for the contest.
‘2018 is going to be a watershed’
The deputy president of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Nelson Chamisa, says it’s time for reform.
“Definitely, 2018 is going to be a watershed. Most people have a wait-and-see attitude,” Mr Chamisa says.
“People want to see how the election is going to be held. People also want to see how credible, free and fair, the election is going to be. And how durable and stable is this path in a post transitional period,” Mr Chamisa says.
Mr Mnangagwa has some of the advantages of incumbency, but also the guise of an opposition leader.
He is promoting himself and his cabinet as a significant change from the Mugabe era. But the Opposition says nothing has changed.
“This is why people are so frustrated, because they thought Mr Mnangagwa was going to usher in a new dispensation. New politics. New policies. But clearly he is just borrowing from the Mugabe template,” Mr Chamisa says.
Back in the township of Rugare, Reverend Muzanenhamo is continuing to offer care and counselling to pensioners in need.
He is hoping the Government can make much-needed reforms to bring some relief to those who have worked so hard for their country.
“We pray to God and we always look forward to a brighter future,” Reverend Muzanenhamo says. – ABC