Zimbabwe’s villagers hope for an end to Grace Mugabe’s land grab

Seventeen years ago, hundreds of families were resettled onto a lush green estate in Mazowe, a farming district 35km north of Zimbabwe’s capital. In recent years, the villagers have had to fight to keep their land. From frequent police raids, alleged beatings and threats of eviction, the peasant farmers of Manzou Farm have withstood efforts by former First Lady Grace Mugabe to expand her empire and allegedly turn the state-owned estate into a private game reserve. When news of President Robert Mugabe’s resignation broke last week, many peasant farmers of Manzou Farm celebrated the fall of the Mugabes.

But it was short-lived.

The police guarding the entrance did not leave the premises, instead, according to Violet Mazvarira, 57, more security units visited the area and told the villagers to build good relations with the police or risk eviction.

Manzou’s inhabitants moved onto the land in 2000 at the height of the fast-track land reform programme that was meant to redistribute white-owned farms to landless, poor blacks, but the oft-violent land seizures did not resettle people properly. The re-appropriated Manzou Farm, also known as Arnold Farm, was designated a national heritage site. Grace expressed interest in transforming the farmland into a wildlife sanctuary and museum to Mazowe’s district officials, and as a result hundreds of villagers began to be moved off.

Others resisted and took the state to court in 2015.

In the absence of an alternative relocation offer, Manzou’s farmers won the right to stay. But despite the court order, villagers claim police harassment has persisted: their homes have been demolished, crops uprooted and their income projects razed to the ground. The last big raid was in January and tensions between the people and the police continue. Manzou remains closed off to the general public and difficult to access.

With the recent inauguration of Mugabe’s former right-hand man, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, some villagers remain cautiously optimistic and they hope the security raids will finally come to an end. These images capture the inside lives of two of Manzou’s families and their dreams of rebuilding their homes and reviving their livelihoods under a new leadership.

Christopher Sosono, 65, a retired road engineer, says he believes land is the sovereign right of all Zimbabweans and Manzou Farm is his birthright where he ought to live. “This place is our ancestral land, but after 17 years we are still fighting to be lawfully settled,” he lamented.
Zvisinei Zvisinei Sosono, 37, sits in a grass thatched shelter that was built to replace a brickfaced home allegedly demolished on several occasions by the police. She expressed her hopes that the inception of President Emmerson Mnangagwa could mean an end to the raid cycles.
A destroyed shelter re-built with asbestos sheeting and other makeshift materials is divided into a sleeping area for some of the Sonono’s children and the family’s poultry stock.
Tawananyasha Sosono, 25, prepares a meal in the family kitchen. She moved to Manzou Farm to be with her husband, Panuel, 26, but with few income opportunities in Mazowe the young couple say they put their hope in being permanently settled on Manzou Farm. This would mean they can finally build their own homestead rather than squatting with their in-laws.
Bajence Sosono, 14, the grandson of Christopher Sosono peeps out of the family kitchen during his weekend visit to the Manzou homestead.
Loneviance Sosono, 13 sips her morning tea while standing next to her brother Enabled, 16 (right). During periods when police raid their homestead, the children escape to a safe place to hide in the bushes and can miss out on school for several days. Enabled hopes one day soon the “cat and mouse” chase between the police and Manzou’s villagers will end.
‘What do they still want?’: Zvisinei Zvisinei Sosono, 37, expresses her frustration at the continued police presence on the farm. She says whenever there’s a raid she and her children escape into the bushes. But now that “Grace Mugabe’s husband has lost all his power,” she wonders why the security forces are still patrolling Manzou Farm.
Between uncertainty and hope: Christopher Sosono, 65, is unsure if Mnangagwa might stop the attempts at evicting the Manzou villagers. Although is hopeful Mnangagwa might be different from President Robert Mugabe, but he fears Manzou’s farmers might become oppressed by a new group of “armed people” who are not so different from the Mugabes.
Violet Mazvarira, 57, says before the former first lady expressed an interest in Manzou Farm the villagers were “very happy,” but now “it’s no longer a nice place to live”. And now that Mrs Mugabe is no longer first lady she’s even more uncertain what direction things could take, but she seems keen to stay although she feels she’s not entirely safe. “We don’t know where else we can go because we are Zimbabweans and this is our land.” Although she has hope the new regime of President Emmerson Mnangagwa might stop Grace Mugabe’s bid to grab the farm, she hopes it’ll happen sooner rather than later.
Violet Mazvarira, 57, stands with her nephew, Timothy, 24. Her sister’s son has come to live with her because she feels unsafe living on her own. “I am scared to sleep at night because you never know who will come, but they can’t chase me away,” she said.