The Goats of Tongogara

By Stephen Pech Gai

Tongogara Refugee Camp in the Chipinge District of Southeast Zimbabwe, four-hundred kilometers from the capital city of Harare, is among the landscapes most vulnerable to climate shock. Here we live face-to-face with the catastrophe of climate change. Like much of southern Africa, Zimbabwe has been in the grip of drought for a decade, which has crippled the rain-fed agricultural production, contributing to a huge slowdown of the country’s economy.

I am a person of forced displacement from South Sudan, now living in the Tongogara Camp. Here, strong heat waves accompanied by drought and yearly cyclones make climate change a vivid reality for the many refugees striving to eke out a living from their climate-dependent livelihoods. Subsistence farmers are losing their traditional way of life, and goat keepers are among the people who face a bleak future at Tongogara.

Samuel, a refugee goat owner, trudges behind a long line of goats in their mundane routine, combing sparse, dusty, and leafless bushes in a desperate search for food. The scorched vegetation at the perimeter of the camp shows their lack of options. Samuel is not the only one who depends on the little bit that grows here. “This is the only place we meet with those who earn a living out of cutting trees for charcoal. The vegetation is disappearing and I will eventually lose my herd to starvation, but I can’t complain. In our community we also face an energy shortage, and this bush sustains us all.”

“We have nowhere remaining now to graze our goats”, he said. “That big place in front of the camp is the only area that looks green, but goats cannot enter because it is fenced. Also, we goat owners know it is home to predators.” Samuel refers to a game park situated at the eastern side of the camp, less than two hundred meters away, where free-ranging baboons share the boreholes with the first line of the camp’s households.

A school boy who looks after the family’s goats part-time, Sam does not rest as his goats meander across the bushland, rampaging for the non-available green leaves. “I carry this little container of water whenever I leave home with the goats,” he told me, pointing at a 5-liter Jerican insulated with a dark blanket to keep the water cold. “It doesn’t last two hours, before the water steams out hot,” he added.

Sam is not the only adolescent boy whose family’s subsistence is dwindling because of climate change. Many households in the camp depend on livelihoods that are damaged by climate shocks. “Most of the other boys are tired and have let their goats loose in the community,” Sam adds. “You can see them all over, marching from place to place, and some of the goats are even climbing to reach the high-hanging leaves.” I smile at an agile goat who eats the few green leaves by stretching high.

One elderly father explained the ordeal he goes through during the summer season. “It seems like this summer will be worse. Usually, after each summer season, we pump water for the goats at the water pumps. But this year, with the water shortfall in the community and people crowding the boreholes to fetch water for domestic use, watering their small vegetable gardens and washing their clothes, we simply don’t have enough water for the goats.”

The elderly father explains that they must pump water for the goats during the night or at day break. “My children take buckets and fetch water during early or late hours, before the community rests for the night or starts the day. If we miss a day or two, our goats also miss the water.” The livestock and the community all need food. And the families need income, which is uncertain as the camp’s resilience is stretched to the very limit by global warming. The situation of the goats at Tongogara is a struggle to survive. For them to survive, they have learned to stretch their limbs.

24 October, 2022