KANYEMBA, ZIMBABWE — An occasional elephant footprint can be traced on a path, overshadowed by large trees, through this wildlife area 380 kilometers (236 miles) from Zimbabwe’s capital. A few miles in, bamboo sticks hold together a tiny house with a thatched roof. Scattered clay pots, wild fruit stacked on one side and a burned out fire spell neglect.
This is the home of Kesirina Chiyambo, who estimates her age at more than 100. She grew up in this forest with other community members of the Doma tribe, whose tiny establishments like hers are within a few miles of one another, near the banks of the Zambezi River at the northernmost edge of Zimbabwe.
While the government does not identify any specific group as indigenous, arguing that all Zimbabweans are indigenous peoples, the Doma self-identify as indigenous. Their tribe numbers an estimated 1,050, according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, a nongovernmental human rights organization.
For years, the Doma have lived this way in the forest, with little or no clothing or shelter. They survived on hunting and gathering, with no electricity, potable water or toilets. The community lives in isolation from the rest of the nation and speaks a dialect called Chikunda.
When David Madzivanzira, former secretary for security in the province where Kanyemba is located, visited the area to try to incorporate the community into the mainstream of Zimbabwean life, he faced challenges.
Soon after independence in 1980, Madzivanzira says, his government group visited the Doma with the nongovernmental organization Christian Care Zimbabwe, to offer clothes and food. “They saw us as people who were out of the ordinary because we had clothes on and spoke differently to them,” he says.
Madzivanzira adds that when he worked with the Doma between 1981 and 1985, they would avoid eye contact with anyone who visited them, and they stood a few meters away from any visitor. Many were born with ectrodactyly, a genetic condition that causes the toes to be fused into two parts. However, few now have this condition, said to be hereditary, because marrying solely within their tribe has been minimized.
In recent years, more visitors, notably those from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, have been active in the community, building a school in 2014, offering the Doma clothing and teaching them about modern life.
The school is not yet operational, however, because it hasn’t met government construction requirements, says Councilor Christmas Kachasu, who represents the area.
This and a recent government action designating the area as a game reserve have left the Doma vulnerable, Kachasu says, as food has become scarce.
Annual permit fees of up to $800, stipulated by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in 2014, mean the community can no longer fish or hunt in the area. Boundaries have also been demarcated only for those with permits.
“They [wildlife park authorities] accuse us of poaching when we attempt to fish. If you go and fish and you are caught, you get into serious trouble,” says Phillip Shaudhai.
Doma community members typically do not earn any income and cannot afford the fees. Occasionally, they will wake up at 2 a.m. and walk 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) to cross the Zambian border to sell vegetables they grow. That is the nearest market.
“We literally just sit every day,” says Gloria Kafanja, a member of the Doma tribe. “We wake up, clean our living area and sit. We have no food except for the occasional maize seed we receive as food aid, or we collect wild fruits called manyanya from the forest and eat that.”
Food-for-work initiatives that pop up enable those who participate to eat in exchange for short-term labor.
“We sometimes hear of some food-for-work programs and we participate,” says Kafanja. “We plough a section or fix a garden, and in exchange we get a bit of mealie-meal in a plate that lasts us a few days; this is how we survive.”
Due to food scarcity, mothers breastfeed their children for two years before introducing solid food. Rozada Chiyambo, a mother of seven, says the hunger has become unbearable.
“We planted some maize this season, but the heavy rains swept it all away,” she says. “My son is very hungry; we just woke up to come here, and he has not had anything to eat.”
Animals also break into homesteads and eat the community’s goats and other livestock, because there is no fencing to act as a safeguard. Chiyambo’s youngest son, Panato Jonasi, who is estimated to be 5, spends his days smoking a tobacco plant grown locally or eating wild fruit, and his frail body often gives in from hunger, leading him to lie helplessly on the floor.
At a community gathering organized by Councilor Kachasu, Panato spends several minutes lying head down on the ground, because he is hungry. The rest of the community looks on, knowing hunger themselves.
“One of our main problems is lack of education,” Shaudhai says. “Children do not have anything to do because they do not attend school.”
Lack of education has also led to ripple effects such as child marriage, with children wedding as young as 12. Because there is no hospital in the area, women walk a great distance to cross a river that borders their community, often giving birth along the way.
Local wildlife has also compromised their safety and is another reason for their vulnerability.
“Our people are being killed by the wildlife living amongst us, and we do not get assistance from authorities,” says Baisai Karenga, secretary of the Mariga area within the Doma region. “Some are killed when they go and look for firewood. The parks department says if it was a woman, they would help, but if it is a man, they ignore.”
The local Agricultural and Rural Development Authority has engaged community members in income-earning projects.
Nomatter Tamai, 25, in March participated in a development program in Harare, where she experienced city life and learned how to sew sanitary pads.
“For three days, I got to have a hot shower and enjoy three meals a day. I would love to go back” to Harare, she says.