Patrick Chitumba, Midlands Bureau Chief
Miss Merjury Sibanda (22) works as a caretaker managing two houses in Gweru’s Nehosho and Senga suburbs, all along benefitting from a special arrangement that Midlands State University (MSU) has with landlords to house off-campus students.

Unfortunately, she might be forced out of work as her employer can no longer afford to pay her because for the past three months or so, no students were leasing the properties.

This was after Government closed universities in March following the outbreak of Covid-19.

In June, Government directed institutions of higher learning to start reopening for final year students but on July 24, citing a surge in Covid 19 cases in the country, the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development permanent secretary Professor Fanuel Tagwira said universities must close and pursue online learning.

In compliance, the MSU also suspended final year examinations that were set to start on Monday.

Landlords in Senga and Nehosho suburbs in Gweru, who offer lodgings to Midlands State University (MSU) off-campus students, are now singing the blues because of the negative effects of Covid-19.

MSU has a special arrangement with landlords or property owners in Senga and Nehosho suburbs to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its off-campus students.

The landlords started to charge MSU students monthly rentals in United States dollars in January before Government had authourised the use of foreign currency to transact.

A drive through Senga and Nehosho suburbs shows that even the number of people who were on the road selling vegetables and others things to MSU off campus students are now fewer.

Miss Sibanda is a caretaker for two houses that are used for off campus accommodation by MSU students, each having 11 rooms.

Each room accommodates two students.

In these two houses, Miss Sibanda used to take care of 44 students each paying US$30 each per month.

She used to collect US$660 per month from students.

“My job was mainly to look for students to rent the rooms at the two houses I run on behalf of my boss who is in Harare. I also made sure they follow house rules such as being indoors by 10PM. We follow MSU rules and regulations because they want these students to be treated like their counterparts on campus,” she said.

Miss Sibanda said after Covid-19 hit the country, the MSU was forced to close and postpone examinations.

She said the two properties were now turning into white elephants with no income being generated.

“My boss said he could not keep me since I am not bringing any income for him from students. I’m only looking after empty buildings and if Covid-19 persists, I will be out of the job soon,” she said.

According to a survey conducted by this publication in Senga and Nehosho suburbs, a room without a bed costs US$20, while that with a bed costs between US$30 and US$45 per person. Properties in which students have access to Wi-Fi, geysers and solar panels or a generator go for up to US$50 per person.

A landlord in Senga suburb Mr Tawanda Zimunya shared his story.

He said he extended his four roomed house and now it has 10 rooms to attract as many students as possible.

Mr Zimunya said most landlords in Senga were benefitting from MSU students.

“When I retired from Unki Mines, I took my life savings and extended my house in Senga and it had become my cash cow. I was charging US$20 per head per month and I would enjoy plus or minus US$400 per month which was enough to pay for water and Zesa bills plus Wi-Fi for the students with enough to look after my family,” he said.

Mr Zimunya said even before the suspension of examinations, MSU was no longer allowing students to stay off campus as it put in place measures to control the spread of Covid-19.

“Now we are just busy looking after empty houses and thieves are now taking advantage and stealing linen and other things because they know some people are looking after two or three houses,” he said.

A shopkeeper at Senga main shops said even sales have gone down.

Mrs Edith Ncube who works at a butchery and a grocery shop said their sales were boosted by MSU students but that is now gone.

“As you might have seen, there are a lot of tuck shops, shops, and butcheries all specialising in groceries and were all targeting MSU off campus students. But the institution is closed and we have suffered in potential revenue from sales,” she said.

Some 124km away from Gweru, MSU also set a base in the mining town of Zvishavane.

The Zvishavane campus is also closed and property owners and business people there also feel the gap.

Zvishavane Town secretary, Tinoda Mukutu said the closure of the campus was also affecting revenue collection as landlords depended on students for rentals.

MSU public relations director Mrs Mirirai Mawere said the institution had a well-organised network for both on-campus and off-campus accommodation.

She said there were wardens who dealt with students’ accommodation affairs in every suburb in Gweru.

“The University suspended examinations and has been closed since the announcement of the national lockdown by President Mnangagwa. We have students who prefer off campus accommodation who are accommodated in Senga or Nehosho,” said Mrs Mawere.