A mother in Zimbabwe carrying her child on her back stands with a Red Cross flag in the background

© Victor Lacken/IFRC

Bumping along a dirt road for five hours, I caught my first glimpse of Zimbabwe’s rural villages rising up from the dust.

The capital, Harare, seemed modern and wealthy. The contrast with the poor country villages was extreme.

Yet the mood among the rural people was upbeat.

We arrived just after the harvest and people, poor as they still were, kept offering us freshly picked fruit and vegetables.

But the drought that stalked Zimbabwe for two years could come back at any time.

Crops would die and parents might skip meals to feed their children. Disease and malnutrition could even carry some youngsters away.

Despite all of this, I am optimistic about Zimbabwe’s future.

Here’s why:

1. Zimbabwe’s people want skills and knowledge, not handouts

The Zimbabwe Red Cross is working hard to help people learn how to improve their lives.

Red Cross volunteers come from within the communities and help each area produce a community action plan.

People identify what is most important to them, such as drought, cholera or other local issues.

The community then makes a plan to deal with them and the Red Cross project helps with funding.

The project doesn’t help the volunteers themselves: they are so dedicated to supporting their community work that they give their time anyway.

2. Gardens, gardens, gardens

Keyhole gardens, nutrition gardens, demonstration gardens – all help people grow healthy food.

Keyhole gardens are built with soil heaped in the middle of a circle of rocks.

When rain is scarce, people can water them with leftover water from the kitchen. It’s an efficient and easy way to grow vegetables for the family.

When women give birth in Zimbabwe, they often go to maternity clinics up to two months in advance because of the long distances.

While they wait there, the Red Cross helps them grow their own food in nutrition gardens.

Maize (corn), peas, beans and root vegetables all thrive in the clinic gardens. Demonstrations in cooking and new gardening techniques then help the women develop skills they can use at home after giving birth.

And together, farmers and volunteers set up demonstration plots to show what they have learned. Others then also benefit.

3. Goats like to have babies

When crops fail, livestock can see people through the lean times.

The project gave out 38 female and two male goats in the villages.

Once the females get pregnant, one family will keep the kid and pass on the mother to the next family.

People can use the milk and when times get really tough, they can eat one of the goats. By then, they should have a small flock so they won’t be without a goat at any time.

In the future, we may also provide chickens to the very poorest people who can’t afford to care for goats.

4. Bicycles can be the latest technology

Imagine wide-open country where there are no cars, buses or public transport. It would take hours for volunteers to walk between villages.

So, the Red Cross gave bicycles to half of our amazing volunteer team.

Thanks to these bikes, the first for many of the volunteers, they can spread the word much more widely and quickly.

We also give the volunteers Red Cross uniforms so everyone will know they are there to help and people can ask them for advice.

5. People want to keep clean and stay healthy

Before we started work in the area, there were few protected water wells.

There weren’t many toilets either and people used the bush instead.

During the rainy season, dirt and waste could be washed into the wells, contaminating the water. Cholera was always a possibility.

To change this, the Red Cross gave families the materials they needed to build their own latrine toilets as well as new wells with walls to keep out the dirty water.

This came to 60 per cent of the cost of building a new well. Families then built the wells and toilets themselves with guidance from the Red Cross – the other 40 per cent of the cost.

People now appreciate how much healthier they feel from eating more nutritious food and drinking clean water.

6. Families value education

Children’s education is very important to Zimbabwe’s parents. It matters to them if they can’t afford the school fees or children can’t concentrate in class because of hunger.

Thanks to loans from the project, widows and women with HIV or disabilities have started their own small businesses.

To earn money for their families, they bought 50 chicks and built huts to house them. They gradually increased the number of chicks, which they sold to local schools and others.

Business administration training helped them make the most of their investment.

Profits go towards paying school fees or growing the businesses so they can earn more for their families.

7. The people are among the most resilient in the world

We use the word resilience a lot at the Red Cross. It can mean strong, flexible, hardy and spirited.

To me, it fits the Zimbabwean villagers better than anyone I’ve met.

They have to cope with more hardship than most of us can imagine and yet they still work hard to improve their lives.

Generous donations from the People’s Postcode Lottery support this project. When people in the UK buy tickets, a little bit of the cost price helps ordinary people half a world away in Zimbabwe.

Having visited, I am moved by this connection across time and space, and know that every penny helps people to thrive.

Alexander Pendry is Zimbabwe programme manager for the British Red Cross