Zubo Trust’s soap project in the pandemic

Social impacts of the pandemic

for women in rural Zimbabwe


An English translation of the German article in January’s “Graswurzel Revolution”, GWR465

20.12.2021, by Bulemu Mutale and Claudia Wegener

Photo: Zubo Trust

Zubo Trust is a women’s collective and organisation in Zimbabwe that produces, among other things, handmade soap, also under current pandemic conditions. How did the lives of the women change due to lockdown and “safety distance”? What are the implications for the Zubo women’s collective work and cooperatively run soap manufacture? For their article in the German monthly “Graswurzel Revolution”, Bulemu Mutale and Claudia Wegener gather current information about the project and illustrate the situation on the ground. (GWR ed.)

When we start talking to Matron Muleya about the plans for this article in October 2021, we find her in the workshop, as ever so often; at once, she sends us a photograph of the work at hand. Matron is in charge of the Jatropha soap project, and the colleague in the picture, Engeline, is the wonderfully experienced production manager of the manufactory. The two women are part of the team at Zubo Trust, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the small town of Binga in northern Zimbabwe. (1) They are currently packing pieces of soap for the upcoming agricultural fair in the capital Harare. High infection rates in the country had postponed the date by a month to the end of October. But now the situation has eased and Zubo will participate in the fair to represent the women’s products, handmade soap and baskets, as well as fresh tamarind from Binga. Before the pandemic, we knew of two teams of six women who were employed and paid in the soap production for three weeks at a time. At this moment, we find Matron and Engeline alone at work. Are hygiene regulations a reason? (2)

The remote rural areas of the Zambezi Valley bordering Zambia are home to the indigenous BaTonga people, a marginalised ethnic minority in Zimbabwe. A group of committed, well-educated women from the valley founded the NGO twelve years ago to improve the lives of local women and represent their rights; and to do so proactively and systematically. In Zubo’s longtime experience, it is the women’s economic participation which is a key to social change; and it is this empowerment – that is to say, self-discovery in a collective work, which is a prerequisite for the gradual social and political integration of women into the local public life. Zubo’s work therefore always centres around this social space for the mutual empowerment of women. (3)

Covid-19 in Zimbabwe and the Zambezi Valley

Currently, there’s less complaint about Corona than about the heat in the Zambezi Valley. Temperatures are around 42 degrees during the day and, depending on the wind, cool down only late and very slowly. The valley is notorious for its high temperatures. The number of infections in the country appears rather less urgent than the climate. The World Health Organisation (WHO) currently reports 136,379 confirmed cases and 4,707 deaths for Covid-19 in Zimbabwe (as of 5 December 2021). As we begin this article, at the end of October, daily new infections are mostly between 1 and 30; but from the beginning of December, a jump to over 1,000 is recorded. However, at the height of the cold season, in July and August 2021, daily new infections were at over 4,000. This was the third and so far the strongest wave in the country. (4)

We ask about Covid cases among the more than 700 women in the villages that Zubo works with. No one in the Zubo team knows of anyone with the disease – that is the initial information. Could this mean a “Letʼs not talk about it”? We then learn more: two staff members were infected and hospitalized during the third wave. In the meantime, some of the office staff have been vaccinated.

According to one assumption from the team: a majority of those who fall ill, especially in rural areas, will probably quietly go into self-quarantine and treat the symptoms with common household remedies like those used for flu and colds.

Apart from the probable lack of testing facilities in Binga district, infection rates are likely to be slowed down by the widely scattered settlements in the Zambezi Valley; and due to the fact that daily life of the women takes place outside, in the field, in the garden, under a tree, in the yard. The following information Matron gives us can further complement our understanding of the situation on the ground: No comprehensive evidence is at hand as yet, but some reports had been received from women who complain that nurses in the field and at the health wards are dismissive of patients seeking help; on the other hand, fear and ignorance have also prevented women from seeking medical help where it would have been necessary. (5) The reports from the Zubo team can shed some light on the question what it may mean for people on the ground where statisticians talk about so-called “dark figures” – in German: “Dunkelziffer” – with regards to the number of infections in some African countries.

We hear from the team about the deep shock and fear at the beginning of the pandemic and during the first lockdown: everything was at a standstill, everyone stayed home, no one knew what to do, neither among the NGOs nor the community leadership. The terrible state of perplexity lasted for two or three months until some official enlightening information reached Binga. The Zubo team is trying to continue their joint work in home office as far as that is possible; only from about mid-May 2020, there are again some sporadic face-to-face contacts among the staff; the fear of the unknown virus is great; security forces in the streets are another factor. The military was and is present – even in remote Binga – to ensure compliance with Covid-19 and lockdown regulations. (6) In addition to the obligatory wearing of face masks and keeping social distance, there is still mentioning of a curfew between 10 p.m. and 5.30 a.m., at least according to relevant government and embassy websites, also, a 50-per-cent reduction in the number of employees in offices or businesses premisses, with working hours from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the most; restaurants are only allowed to offer take-aways; pubs and nightclubs must remain closed, and gatherings of more than 100 participants are prohibited.

Here just to briefly outline the social implications of a strict lockdown guaranteed by security forces: In Zimbabwe, the majority of the population lives from the so-called informal trade. Curfews mean: no income and thus, hunger! The ongoing hyperinflation in the country has also forced nurses and teachers to rely on informal trade for vital additional income.

At the end of October and in November 2021, the situation eased somewhat as the number of infections declined at the end of the cold season. Yet, it is still considered wise to keep a low profile and at least wear your mask in the pocket, otherwise you could be fined. In the strict lockdown, citizens could only pass the roadblocks with an official letter stating precisely the certain important errands that you needed to run. At the end of November, however, Zubo was even able to accept an invitation from ZimTrade to participate in the Intra-African Trade Fair 2021 in Durban and present the women’s products such as baskets and soaps in South Africa.

Photo: Zubo Trust

Zubo helps to overcome the information deficit on the ground

In the communities that Zubo works with, three quarters of households are without information provision through internet or public media. Over the years, Zubo has built up its own organisational communication infrastructure, at least in the six wards where the NGO is active. Among other provisions, there are six women forums of 25 members each representing different village communities. That is how, the work on the ground has been accompanied and promoted for years, problems are uncovered and discussed, and further training is provided. As Bulemu hears in conversation with the management, Zubo has recently been able to develop new groundbreaking partnerships. During the exceptional situation of the pandemic, a cooperation developed with the local office of the Ministry of Health and Child Care. With the help of Zubo’s structured access to the rural communities, up-to-date information as well as urgently needed basic medical equipment could be supplied effectively even to the remote communities.

The Zubo team is also directly involved in the educational information work of the health professionals in the communities; information videos are produced and a WhatsApp group has been set up for Corona information exchange – information tools, however, that, as mentioned, can only reach a small part of the population in the rural areas; further parts of the population are reached in village meetings convened by Zubo. The organisation underlines this work with the Ministry of Health among the positive developments even in the pandemic; Zubo’s work had been able to expand in cooperation with new partners and thus reach new and wider circles in the communities.

Photo & following: radio continental drift

Consequences of the lockdown

The impact of lockdowns and periodic, prolonged restrictions on movement and transport have led to setbacks in Zubo’s work that will have to be dealt with for a long time to come. The extent and further social consequences, for example, an increase in domestic violence and early pregnancies, can currently only be guessed at in the ongoing emergency situation. In the first lockdown, as Matron tells us, three of the six wards in which Zubo operates were no longer accessible by the already sporadic public transport. Contact, communication and assistance became extremely difficult or impossible. In some of these communities, access to drinking water involves such long transport routes that women use public transport to get there; in the lockdown, this situation became even more untenable. We ask about the “good rains” that were reported last season. We learn that, yes, rain had been there, and good for the lake, the fish and the fishery; but as far as the water supply to the families in Binga district through the women was concerned, the “good rains” would make little difference to the women who are traditionally fetching the water; possibly, it would postpone the time when distances to drinking water are usually becoming longer and longer by a month or so. Matron explicitly refers to a dangerous and disenfranchising situation for the women.

All the women Zubo works with – whether fisherwomen, basket weavers or soap producers – earn their small incomes through trade. Transport restrictions interrupt or slow down the procurement or collection of raw materials as well as the marketing and delivery of goods. After the complete standstill at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the groups of basket weavers can currently at least get together again where they live and work together more or less as usual. The two times six production assistants in Zubo’s soap manufactory come from the aforementioned six wards; some have long, complicated journeys to Binga Centre and thus to Zubo’s location. In strict lockdown, soap production falls flat or continues at a much slower pace, with perhaps only one of the assistants who is lives nearby. In this case, the inventive production manager Engeline will make use of the empty workshop for new experiments, as Matron tells us; thus, artificial and natural dyes are tried out or different herbal additives are tested in the soaps.

The extent of impoverishment as a result of the pandemic and lockdowns may be illustrated by the following development: The capital investment of rural women is livestock; this has been promoted by Zubo for years with the establishment of micro-credit groups among the women. The loss of income in the lockdown has meant that since the beginning of the pandemic, the women have now literally eaten up all their capital, including seeds for the next season, for example. There are hardly any reserves left; the population is largely dependent on food subsidies from the government. How can Zubo’s work continue in this situation? – this is the organisation’s biggest concern.


Rays of hope and international cooperation

In cooperation with international partners such as Welthaus Bielefeld and “All We Can” in the UK, funding could be reallocated at short notice from May 2020 to support Zubo in providing more effective aid on the ground in this exceptional situation. Soaps that could not be exported to Germany at the time could now be distributed as donations to the communities in Zubo’s area of activities and support hygiene conditions right here on site which was now more important than ever. At Zubo’s request and suggestion, money was also used to buy salt and distribute it to the communities with the information that they could improve self-protection in their families even by increased oral hygiene, or gargling with salty water.

It is a courageous struggle for survival – not least, of the organisation itself – that is picked up again every day by the Zubo women. In view of the dwindling purchasing power locally and in the country at large, Zubo’s soap project will be in need of some large production orders from abroad in order to overcome the current deep crisis and to continue the valuable work on the ground by its own means and efforts.

Despite all the difficulties, an unusual form of creative, cross-continental cooperation can still be reported, and indeed even from the difficult time of the first lockdown in 2020: Zubo’s considerable documentary online sound archive enabled the start of a correspondence in WhatsApp voicemails between the Zubo women in Binga Zimbabwe, young radio producers in Sinazongwe Zambia, on the opposite side of Lake Kariba and anthropology students in New York City. This co-production in Voicemails is also documented online; and excerpts were broadcast internationally as a radio programme. (7)

A Call for Donations

The authors would like to appeal for support for Zubo Trust in the pandemic. Donations are being collected on the account of the Baobab e.V. Association in Kassel; keyword: “Zubo”; donation receipts will be issued and sent as from 20 Euro; please supply your mailing or email address on the transfer form; IBAN: DE67 4306 0967 4103 8566 00; BIC: GENO DEM 1GLS; GLS Bank; https://www.baobab-ev.org/de-de/



Download this article (English)

(1) Zubo’s soap project is supported by Welthaus Bielefeld; a report on the situation under Corona was published in June 2020: Welthaus_Info_19_2020, page 5; https://www.welthaus.de/auslandsprojekte/zimbabwe/income-for-women-in-binga/ .

(2) On the impact of Corona on Zubos projects, there is a blog post from January 2021: https://diasporanarratives.com/2021/01/12/a-retrospect-on-covid-19-and-its-impact-on-the-women-of-zubo-trust/ .

(3) The name of the organisation, “Zubo”, is programmatic: it goes back to the indigenous word for a basket made of branches for fishing. The BaTonga women at the Zambezi use the “Zubo” to fish; this is only possible collectively. A year ago, in GWR 454, we reported on Zubo’s women’s collective “Bindawuko Bbanakazi”, the first women-owned fishing cooperative on Lake Kariba.

(4) cf. World Health Organisation WHO: https://covid19.who.int/region/afro/country/zw When comparing with infection rates in Germany, it should be borne in mind that in terms of population figures, Germany ranks at place 19, globally, while Zimbabwe at place 73, with 14,829,688 inhabitants. Of the population, 38% in Zimbabwe live in urban areas; and in Germany 77%. While the average age of the population is 46 in Germany and 18 in Zimbabwe.

(5) The catastrophic lack of protective clothing and basic medical equipment at the beginning of the pandemic 2020, as well as the resulting nationwide strikes by doctors and nurses, may also have been a reason for the dismissive behaviour of the nursing staff. See e.g. DLF report from the time of the first lockdown, June/August 2020: https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/repressionen-in-simbabwe-krise-korruption-und-corona-100.html

(6) There are fines and arrests. See i.a. the mentioned DLF report (5). As noteworthy, we would here also like to mention the daily “Zimbabwe Lockdown Report” of the Women ́s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCOZ), which keeps a record of now more than 600 days of the situation under Covid-protection orders for the people on the ground; and the observance or non-observance of human and civil rights. See the WCOZ website, and the “civil society information hub” Kubatana,  .

(7) On the co-production “Building Radio Bridges – Audio Letters between Lockdown NYC and the Zambezi Valley”, see https://radiocontinentaldrift.wordpress.com/2020/08/02/buildingradiobridges-distance-co-production/ ; radio broadcast ; Zubo Audio Archive

Further information about Zubo Trust:

Zubo’s website https://www.zubowomen.org/




About the authors:

Bulemu Mutale was born in Binga, Zimbabwe, and lived there until the beginning of 2019. She volunteered there for the women’s organisation Zubo Trust, came to Welthaus Bielefeld as the first South-North volunteer from Zimbabwe and is currently training as a nurse.

Claudia Wegener was born in Hamm, Westphalia, and as a radio activist has regularly been involved in local projects in Southern Africa since 2005, including with Zubo Trust in Binga. Under “radio continental drift”, audio recordings and productions are archived online for free download under Creative Commons licence.


The authors wish to thank the editorial of the “Graswurzel Revolution”; they have been amazingly supportive throughout. Twalumba loko. Many thanks.

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