When her soldier husband died in 2004, Janet, 47, was left grounded. Her husband´s pension was garnished by world record inflation that engulfed Zimbabwe from 2005 to 2008. These days her $US60 widow grant can take months to reflect in her bank account. Being barren, with no child of her own, death left Janet with bitter loneliness until crèche kids begun to give her reason to smile.
“It´s not much out of love for money. Crèche kids provide some sort of emotional healing for us widows who are childless,” explains Janet in Masvingo, a city that sits arguably at the center of Zimbabwe.
“I have never had children of my own. Two years into my marriage surgeons removed my womb to stop the spread of a cancer. The experience eats me daily.”
She reveals her network. “We are a network of 20 women informal crèche schools owners across the city of Masvingo. We are all widows; 9 of us had never had children for different reasons. Crèche kids, this is our piece of mind.”
“Feeding food the crèche pupils, scribbling their cartoon books, enforcing the to afternoon sleep naps – this is also therapy for our emotions. I mean our tragedy of being widows and being childless.”
Janet drops her eyes and speaks in a low voice. “It is not easy being a widow in Zimbabwe. It´s double sadness being a childless widow. My late husband`s family don’t respect me or see my worthy because I am childless. It´s not easy to discuss issues of childlessness.”
Colleta, 43, belongs to Janet´s network of crèche school owning widows. She is childless too. “I felt ashamed daily of being labelled childless until crèche school children healed my feelings.” Her husband, an army corporal, died in 2011, she says. His family bundled her out of his estate because after four miscarriages Colleta had remained childless.
According to Human Rights Watch 2017 report titled You Will Get Nothing , the number of widows in Zimbabwe cannot be actually be counted but husband families routinely grab finances and land from them.
Janet reveals how their crèches operate unregistered. “I have 25 children under my care. Their parents pay me $30 a month as fees. It´s enough to cook them rice, fish every noon and still have something left over for myself and small bribes.”
By “bribes” she means “I have converted my dining room, kitchen and bedroom into a crèche. These are unregistered classes. I give gifts of $10 each month to municipal inspectors so they don’t shut down my classes. I´m a widow, it is also helpful for me to be friendly with our local politicians, councilors. I buy a political party card to protect my crèche from closure.”
Noma Here, secretary of the Zimbabwe Crèche School Owners Forum, which represents 200 crèche school operators, underscores Janet´s situation. “It could be expensive, up to $US1000 to get proper crèche schools registration papers. Now imagine this cost for widows who earn a monthly $US60 grant.”
Janet explains her drive to build a network of crèche owning widows. “Our late husband’s monthly pension grants can take two months to be deposited into bank accounts. It´s a mere $60. One stands in a bank queue for up to eight hours to withdraw it.”
Zimbabwe is facing enormous cash shortages. According to Simon Nyarota, director of Economic Research at Zimbabwe´s central bank, retail businesses are mandated to give amounts that cannot exceed $20 per day to customers.
“At my crèche I can obtain US dollars cash easily. This calms my needs and life.”
Colleta agrees – “jumping with the kids, smiling with them, feeding them and ordering them to sleeping mats, it´s a huge soothing of our souls as women.”
“As women crèche owners we have spaces to discuss openly about our predicament as widows and childless. There is a sore in my heart. It´s getting healed.”
(Picture caption: children sleep in an afternoon session inside Janet´s Crèche School in Masvingo Zimbabwe.)
(Photo credit: Ray Mwareya)
(Editor remarks: The Janet and Colleta chose to hide their surnames for this story)
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