HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Jane Savanhu, 70, plucks bean pods from her backyard garden. She will use them in a meal that she will share with two of her grandchildren.
Savanhu’s daughter, who used to sell previously owned clothing at a market in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, left the country for South Africa in 2015 with hopes of finding a well-paying job. Since then, Savanhu has been looking after her daughter’s children.
“When she left, her firstborn child was 8 years, and the other one was 3 years old,” she says.
Zimbabwe’s cashless economy has made it hard for her to care for the children. Despite the move, Savanhu’s daughter has not found a stable job. She sends her mother money as often as she can, but it’s barely enough to cover the cost of the children’s day-to-day living, Savanhu says.
The grandmother grows most of her cooking ingredients, to avoid having to go to the market and spend money on expensive food items, she says.
Thousands of Zimbabweans are heading to other countries for better job prospects, leaving behind a sputtering economy, aging parents and young children. The elderly often become caretakers of their grandchildren, but they say they are struggling to make ends meet.
Emigration has been on the rise in Zimbabwe since 2000, when economic turmoil hit the southern African nation, according to the International Organization for Migration. Many Zimbabweans could not find jobs in their home country. Unemployment is still high, particularly among the youth, according to the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations.
In 2005, 11,620 emigrants left Zimbabwe, primarily for other African countries. According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, approximately 723,000 people emigrated between 2012 and 2017, and 78 percent of them were between the ages of 15 and 34. Many moved to neighboring South Africa. A report from research network Afrobarometer puts the total number of Zimbabweans living in South Africa at 2 million.
In Zimbabwe, adults 65 and older make up 4 percent of the population. The government introduced the Older Persons Act in 2012 to ensure the well-being of the elderly but has yet to enact it. A majority of older persons who’ve worked in the informal sector do not receive pensions or financial support from the government, according to a 2017 policy brief .
Some of these elderly people become responsible for their grandchildren once their children leave the country, says Marck Chikanza, national coordinator of the National Age Network of Zimbabwe. This task is not an easy one, he adds.
“While grandparents are, in most cases, always available to take care of their grandchildren, they do not always have the right resources to do so,” he explains.
Chikanza says some grandparents’ responsibilities include paying their grandchildren’s school fees, offering guidance and counseling, and buying food, clothing and school supplies.
Savanhu says her daughter tries her best to support her family in Zimbabwe.
“At the beginning of each term, she sends in $80 for school fees, but it won’t be enough to cater for the children’s day-to-day needs,” she says. Savanhu says she relies at times on her own savings and her deceased husband’s monthly pension of $30 to cover some of the expenses.
Martha Jofirisi, 68, also looks after her grandchildren.
“I have four grandchildren that I look after; two were left by my daughter, and the other two were left by my son when they moved to South Africa,” she says. All four children are in school; two are at the primary level, and two are in secondary school.
Jofirisi says her children left the country because they could not find jobs after years of looking. While she supported the move, she says her role as a caretaker can be very stressful. Both of her children have been fortunate to find jobs, but they can only afford to send her a total of $100 each month. Jofirisi says she needs $300 to pay for the children’s food and other necessities.
She’s taken up a job as a tailor, even though she feels that she is not strong enough for the role.
“I cannot help the children with their homework, because what they are learning in school now is different from what I learned back then, and I end up paying for extra lessons for them to be helped by someone who knows,” she says.
Chikanza says that people such as Jofirisi could use some help from the government. Education should be free beyond the primary level for children with caretaker grandparents, who can barely afford to take care of themselves, he says.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.