ODZI is a major tributary to the Save River and is arguably one of the most popular rivers in the Eastern parts of Zimbabwe.
It meanders through the heart of Manicaland, as it searches its way through mountains past Mutare into the Zimunya area, heading down south to Nyanyadzi.
Odzi River serves as the border boundary between Chief Marange and Chief Zimunya, creating a separation of what has come to be known as Jindwi (Zimunya) and Bocha (Marange) by the natives.
Over the years, it has easily become the lifeline for villagers settled close to its banks.
Young boys herding stock in the summer along the riverbank pastures, also use nets to try to catch breams and catfish for a decent supper.
The areas are characterized by hungry soils the locals call ‘sugar’ because of their sandy structure, mostly unfertile and require steady rainfall to produce tangible farming products. Nothing more nothing less.
Rains occasionally come through in December stretching to April – if it’s a forgiving year. To get a decent yield, there must be a consistent and reliable supply of water.
In some areas, canals are used to irrigate lands extracting water from Odzi, but that is not the case with ward 36 under Mutare Rural District Council.
The aridity drives most villagers to the banks of the over 50 meters wide river where they fence up squares of gardens using tree shrubs, mainly thorn and Mopane.
In these gardens, they grow vegetables, tomatoes and maize throughout the year.
“I have been farming in these gardens for more than 25 years now. Mainly I farm maize and tomatoes, but I sometimes produce vegetables which I sell to locals and also transport to Mutare,” explained one of the communal farmers in the area Nhamo Parwe.
Best environmental practice stipulates that farming activities must be done at least 30 meters away from the highest flooding level of a river.
However, reluctance to carry water for a longer distance means the gardens are moved even closer to the water.
“For those with bigger gardens, carrying water using buckets becomes very difficult and exhausting over time. From my garden produce, I have managed to buy a water pump which I use to extract water from the river to my garden using pipes,” further explained Parwe.
The sustainability of the gardens and the river itself is at stake as with good rains the water levels rise and carry away the gardens with its tides, at the same time eroding loose, cultivated soils into the main river.
The cycle continues, and the villagers rebuild their gardens after the water levels have been subsidised. This poses another threat of deforestation as the Mopani and Thorn shrubs dotted along the river banks also suffer the fate of the axe.
Deforestation, siltation and the environmental politics of farming along river banks are the least of their worries.
It was not until the early 2000s that gold became a small trade along the river.
Scores of unemployed men, women and children found themselves digging into the ground in search of the precious metal.
With limited job opportunities in the country, the villagers found gold panning to be a source of money they cannot ignore.
Poverty has been a perennial issue in Zimbabwe, and the countryside has been most affected.
According to the World Bank, almost half the population fell into extreme poverty, and 90% of these people live in rural areas.
“It’s not that we get a lot of money from the gold panning. Maybe in 2 days, you get around $3 to $5, but where else can you get that money. The soils are not fertile for farming, and we do not have the resources, so we resort to gold panning.
However, most of the free land is exhausted, so people end up digging into gardens in search of virgin areas for panning,” said one of the gold-panners Cosmas Nzou.
This has led to competition over land along the river banks, as it is the major resource for farming and gold panning.
There are persistent clashes between being good to the environment and doing what is necessary to sustain lives.
“People are aware of the dangers associated with farming along the river banks. Years ago, in the 90s Environmental Management Agency (EMA) made field trips along the river to get rid of gardens, but that was a long time ago. Gold panning has been so rampant, and the river has been turned upside down,” said Tawanda Nyamurasa, Chatindo Village Headman.
“We had such a case recently, where one of the villagers complained about his garden. He was away for a few days only to come back and find his garden filled with gold panners. The holes left in the ground pose a great danger to livestock and even the people.
The guys are persistent and even operate at night. There is not much we can do about this issue as scarcity of resources drives people, and finding a solution is not easy. However, you being here served as a reminder and a wake-up call. I will resuscitate the call for people to slow down cutting of trees and safer practices for us to sustain the river,” he further stated.
The economy is agro-based, but rains continue to be erratic over the years, either off-season, too little or sometimes too much for a successive farming season for communal farmers.
In addition, the community lacks development initiatives that can help the villages to adapt to the shocks and impacts of climate change, thanks to the food distribution projects by non-governmental organisations focusing on the area
This matrix has led to the sorry sights visible along the Odzi River banks characterized by pits and hills of sand. The sediments from farming and mining activities are filling up the river, choking it up to its slow death.