This article focuses on the role of the Village Heads (VH) in rural Zimbabwe and challenges they are meeting in the 21st century. Zimbabwe is made up of state land which the government is responsible for and communal land in rural areas which traditional leadership is responsible. Traditional leadership includes; Chiefs, who sit at the top of the hierarchy, followed by Headmen then VHs. A chief many have as many as 50 VHs under his rule.
(In the green t-shirt in Chief Chitsungo with his VHs and other community leaders from Angwa, Mbire district)
Traditional leadership is appointed according to lineage and is usually for life. With more than 6 million people (more than half total population) living in rural Zimbabwe traditional leadership still plays a very important role. VH also known as Sabhuku in Shona (meaning book holder), may have several villages in his/her area. They have a book for the registration of every person in the village, they record new births and deaths that happen within the village.
(2 households in Ruhukwa Village, under Sabhuku Dhokwani in Chivhu)
Their responsibilities in the village include; maintaining the traditions and culture of the Zimbabwean people, see to the well-being of the villagers, keep peace and stability, managing of natural resources and promoting development in the community. The VH is chairperson of the Village Development Committee (VIDCO) which has seven members altogether, the chairperson, vice-chair, secretary, treasurer and 3 other members. VIDCO is there to come up with development plans for the village, could range from digging a well in the village to building a school.
VHs are given an allowance of $20/ month by the Rural District Council (RDC) and a gold badge written ‘Village Head of Zimbabwe’ that can be pinned on their clothing.
(Myself and Mrs Norma Ndanga meeting Headman Zihute with the badge and his secretary far right, from Murehwa District, Ward 8)
In return VHs are required to collect a development levy tax of $2/year/household from villagers. After collecting 90% of the money is handed into the RDC, 10% the VH can keep for his/her efforts of going door to door collecting. This is making VHs very unpopular in some areas as it can be seen as if they are pocketing the money. In reality what should happen is money collected year after year is reinvested back into the community through development projects initiated by the community themselves. So the RDC safe keeps the money and depending on the projects proposed by VIDCO the government may add atop-up to the funds. Basically the $2 is an incentive for villagers to contribute to the development of their own area.
(These are VHs from Murehwa District, Ward 26 who are currently undergoing a project of building a clinic in their area and have applied for their money back from the RDC)
Some villagers refuse to pay this levy tax, some say they cannot afford it, others say they don’t see the benefit, “We don’t see any development happening” they say. This is causing some unrest in villages with little or no development.
In the olden days VHs had the power to distribute land to villagers who needed it but now under the Traditional Leadership Act they can only make recommendations to the RDC, even Chiefs cannot allocate land according to the Act. After taking recommendations, the RDC takes into consideration the peoples eligibility, environmental factors and the eventual pegging of the allocated land. But this is in theory because on the ground a lot of traditional leaders are giving land, out of ignorance or clearly ignoring the Act. Most VH do not even own a copy of the Traditional Leadership Act, yet alone know what’s written in it. They are still doing things the old traditional way in which they were allowed to allocate land. In some cases VHs are accepting cash or heads of cattle in exchange for land, this is leading to land being allocated in areas not suitable for people or the environment (River Banks, National Parks).
An example is Angwa in Mashonaland Central, the area boarders a national park along the Mighty Zambezi River. VHs gave away land which was under national parks, residents went on to build their homes only to be threatened with eviction today.
Another example is Dema Growth Point in Chitungwiza Harare where communal land meets urban land. Urban residents paid VHs for land to build large city homes, avoiding a price of$6000 for a stand from the City Council. The Council has since announced these houses are not recognized and will be destroyed. If this happens it would leave people homeless after investing a lot into building these city homes. At the end of the day they took advantage of being on the fringes of urban and rural land and used the old system of distributing land over the new system.
Councillors are part of the new system and they work for the RDC where they are responsible for the development in the Ward (ward is the greater area made up of many villages, several wards makeup districts, which make up provinces). The roles of Councillor and that of the VH are clearly stated in the Traditional Leadership Act but power struggles are not avoided with the VH saying to the Councillor “I am your traditional leader, so by tradition you must listen to me,’ and the Councillor saying “I am a democratically elected leader who was chosen by the people, so listen to me”.
These power struggles are causing conflict between councilors and VHs, but as mentioned a VH is responsible for several villages, whereas the councilor is responsible for all the villages in the ward. With the councilor spearheading development the role of the VH is slowly diminishing.
(Mr Roy Mozhenty, CEO of the Association of Rural District Councils Zimbabwe, going through Traditional Leadership Act with VHs from Kanyemba)
Maintaining our traditions and cultures is an important role for VHs but with the effects of Colonialism and Christianity they are under threat. The VH is usually at the center of all ceremonial rituals in the village (e.g.kurova guwa), which may involve paying tributes to the ancestor by brewing and drinking of traditional beer. But with most villagers now being Christians they are refusing to participate in these ceremonies, putting the future role of VHs to question.
As time passes I feel VH and the other traditional leaders are slowly losing their influence in rural communities. In some areas VHs are too old and cannot even read or write. This does not benefit the village as being literate in the 21st century is essential for development. If a village has a VH who is not suitable, they are basically stuck with him for life.
After meeting and talking to a lot of VHs I feel they are still an important element in the rural setup of Zimbabwe. They bring villagers together and spearhead development at village level. Village Development Plans depending on the scale of what needs to be done contribute to Ward Development Plans, then to District Development Plans, all the way to National Development Plans. VH are important in development plans
(Some of the VHs from Mutemakungu, Ward 18 Muzarabani District who came together to build the school block below in their village)
In most cases VHs are listened to and respected by their villagers and they do keep order in rural areas. Zimbabweans should not forget their traditional and cultural ways and start to live the western life because our tradition and culture is what defines us. I believe that any country with no traditions and cultures or has adopted from elsewhere has no identity. Traditional leaders of Zimbabwe need to be educated so they can fit into the new system and work together with the councilors and the RDC. The older VHs should pass on their knowledge and be replaced by the younger who can read and write. We need to develop our rural areas as well as preserve our traditions and cultures. Time and future government plans will determine the future of all our traditional Leaders in Zimbabwe.