Cleaning Up Mbare: How Residents Are Keeping Their City Council Accountable

Published On: September 1, 2023

There’s no place quite like Mbare. As soon as you enter this sprawling settlement in the heart of Zimbabwe’s capital city Harare, you’re greeted by a sea of market stalls selling everything from fruits and fabric, to kitchenware and appliances. Every African city worth its salt has at least one part of town like this; a place where you can find anything you need at a negotiable price. Still, Mbare stands out.

The roads are crowded with pedestrians on foot and cars angling their way through the narrow roads as street vendors compete for attention – hoping to convert passersby into customers. One has to be tough to make a living in Mbare as the area is a favorite target of police raids that routinely force vendors to run for cover with everything they can carry. It’s one of four neighborhoods where Accountability Lab Zimbabwe (ALZ) is implementing the Civic Action Teams (CivActs) campaign.

“We started our work in late 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic so that was quite interesting, but I’m glad we were able to overcome some of the challenges that were associated with that time,” says Tinotenda Chishiri, ALZ CivActs Project Officer. “We’ve been working in four locations, two within Harare – Glenview and Mbare – along with one in Bulawayo and another in Goromonzi.”

Through the CivActs campaign, communities select volunteers and with the support of local journalists gather information on critical problems affecting their communities on a monthly basis through surveys. They then relay this information to our teams at the Lab to coordinate with local and national power holders.

We feed validated information on these issues back down to communities through local radio shows, community meetings, infographics, music, films and bulletins in local languages, facilitating conversations about key local concerns and working with partners to solve problems. The program has collected critical information from hundreds of communities across Nepal, Liberia, Nigeria, Mali and Zimbabwe, solving daily problems for citizens and closing the loop on challenges related to everything from migration and human trafficking, to inclusion and election issues.

Through town hall meetings and surveys in places like Mbare, the ALZ team researched subjects such as health issues, domestic violence, drug abuse and discrimination. The team has also worked with the Amandla Centre for Development to maintain pressure on the local City Council to fulfill its obligations around cleaning and waste management. Over the past year, residents have exposed the council for failing to collect litter, in some cases for months at a time. This has posed severe health risks for the community. “Our toilets were out of order, flies were everywhere and rubbish was thrown near our homes in heaps. Maggots were now entering our homes and we had no solution,” recalls Margaret Mafiyo, an Mbare resident.

This was a common theme expressed by many of the residents. In a survey, 45% of residents said that refuse was only collected once a month, while a staggering 51% said it was never collected. More than 20% said uncollected garbage was dumped in drains and 55% said it was dumped in fields. Residents sent in their ideas for how the department should be run too, including providing bins to the area, investing in more garbage collectors and inviting the business community to partner on clean-up projects.

The local authority’s failure to collect refuse also emerged as the most urgent issue affecting residents during community meetings hosted by ALZ and the Amandla Centre for Development. Many residents contended they were facing severe health risks during the rainy season as the water contaminated by uncollected refuse was washing waste into the boreholes that residents use for drinking water.

As part of the CivActs program, ALZ supports Community Frontline Associates (CFAs) with research, advocacy and engagement training. Once trained, they help organize dialogues, town hall meetings and surveys as part of identifying issues to begin to solve. In Mbare, for instance, volunteers first visited wards 3 and 4 to record evidence of waste being dragged into sewer lines by the rains, causing blockages.

Later on, volunteers conducted community surveys on some of the issues raised so far. As part of their outreach, they came across a council worker who questioned what they were doing. The CFAs explained that they were just doing their job. Within 30 minutes of the interaction, waste had been collected. Furthermore, the City Council also sent additional staff to clean up the area. A little bit of oversight can sometimes go a long way!

The CivActs feedback process relies heavily on community radio, which remains a much-loved medium and used in the communities we work in. Amandla and ALZ hosted radio shows on station Heart and Soul which gave resident association representatives a chance to be heard directly. The radio debates also engaged Council officials and Environmental Management Agency (EMA) representatives, political officers who have also been present at the townhall events. The idea is to provide spaces and platforms for continued debate and engagement between the affected groups.

The work of these volunteers and the public exposure eventually forced the City Council to urgently collect the refuse and clean up the area on a regular basis. The experience helped demonstrate to residents the importance of self-advocating for their issues directly with the relevant powerholders. Ultimately, the EMA fined the Harare City Council $800,000 for uncollected refuse in Mbare and the Central Business District (CBD).

“For the most part, refuse collection has remained consistent with some challenges here and there. But the situation has generally improved due to continuous engagement between the Council and residents,” Chishiri says.