Grace Murapa*, who used to work as a secretary at a large textile factory in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe, has scraped a living in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, for over five years by selling colourfully printed cloth on a busy road along the city’s beachfront.
"It is a hard and painful job," she said. Police harassment and endless days exposed to traffic and the elements were major hazards.
| Zimbabweans call it the "Diaspora" – the flight of its citizens to neighbouring states and even further afield to such countries as Britain and Australia to escape their country’s collapse.
There are no accurate figures of the numbers involved, but it is estimated that more than three million people, from a population of 12 million, have left Zimbabwe.
Money earned by those in the diaspora – estimated to be in excess each year of Zimbabwe’s best ever annual tobacco harvest, once the primary foreign currency earner – has been remitted to relatives at home.
IRIN spoke to Zimbabweans in three neighbouring countries – Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa – and asked: Is it time to go home?
"When I first came to work here I used to go back home frequently every year, but in the past three years it was becoming very difficult to travel to and from Zimbabwe because of the politics, shortage of food and money."
Murapa said she had not seen her mother, who is ill, and her two children for months. "I have been sending back money for them to go to school but the schools have been closed and they are not learning."
News travels fast
Recently the cross-border traders from Zimbabwe who supply her wares brought news that an agreement to form a government of national unity (GNU) had been signed between President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
"We hear that there is a new government and that Morgan Tsvangirai [MDC leader] is now a Prime Minister. I hope to go back home this month and try to get my old life back. Now I am planning to go for good, because I think the new government is going to work," Murapa said.
Tichaona Nyamunda*, 28, has been living in Maputo since 2006, where his wife and two children recently joined him. "I believe the new government will work, so I am going back home soon because I want to be part of the first reforms, should they work out," he told IRIN.
"I have received some messages from relatives in Zimbabwe and they are happy with the new situation; they are telling me not to fear to come back. If things do not work out I will make plans to return [to Mozambique] by the end of this year, but I am tired of living as a foreigner. I am tired of the high monthly rents we are charged, the uncertainty when I fall sick – there is no place like home," Nyamunda said.
"I want to go back to Chinhoyi [about 100km east of the Zimbabwean capital, Harare,] and see if I can start my life anew. It is easier to work when you have friends and relatives to support you; here it is not possible, and the living standards are not that good."
According to Joseph Matongo, National Coordinator of the Zimbabwe-Mozambique Solidarity Alliance (ZIMOSA), a support group of Zimbabweans in Mozambique, most Zimbabweans living in the Portuguese-speaking country welcomed the new political settlement and were ready to go home.
"As of now, people are excited that the crisis is going to end, that the new government is going to stick to making the agreement work, and people are going home," Matongo told IRIN.
Not an easy living
The biggest problems immigrants faced in Mozambique were related to legal documentation and dealing with a foreign language. Increased flows of Zimbabweans in the past several months had created a problem of overcrowding in Manica Province, bordering Zimbabwe.
The busiest crossing between the two countries is the Machipanda/Forbes border post in Manica on the Mozambican side, near Mutare on the Zimbabwean side.
Matongo said a ZIMOSA survey at the end of 2008 had revealed that the overcrowded shelter facilities in Manica gave rise to problems such as prostitution, outbreaks of diseases like cholera, and a rise in general cases of abuse.
"It is just about 15 kilometres from the border to the nearest town in Mozambique, so the numbers of Zimbabweans running away from the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe – especially last year , soon after the March 29 [general election] and June 27 [presidential] elections – shot up," he commented.
"Following the new political agreement in Zimbabwe, we are monitoring the benchmarks of the agreement, especially the revival of the economy and the provision of humanitarian aid," Matongo said.
"Once people know there is unrestricted flow of humanitarian aid we are certain there will be more people ready to go back home, because food is the major problem that made them cross the border in the first place."
*The interviewees agreed to talk to IRIN on the understanding their real names would not be used.