Kutama, Zimbabwe – Something rare is happening in Kutama, a small farming village about 85km west of Zimbabwe‘s capital, Harare.
Kutama is the birthplace of Robert Mugabe, who ruled the southern African country for nearly four decades.
During every election season since the country’s independence in 1980, Mugabe’s posters used to be seen everywhere here – from tree trunks to car windows. On polling day, the result would always be the same: an overwhelming Mugabe win.
But the 94-old-year is not on the ballot this year.
After resigning in the wake of a military intervention last November, Mugabe was replaced by his one-time close aide and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
On Monday, people in Katuma and across Zimbabwe will head to the polls in a closely contested general election that will see more than 20 candidates running for the presidency.
Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s current president and leader of the ruling ZANU-PF party, and Nelson Chamisa, of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) alliance, are seen as the top two contenders.
Mugabe was a son of Katuma but Katuma has nothing to show for it.
There is no running water, while electricity is a luxury. Grinding poverty is all too visible, with most scrambling to make a living from the land growing maize, tobacco or keeping cattle.
Most of Katuma’s residents say they do not miss the former president. In fact, they say they are happy he is not on the ballot.
“The people around here, they did not like him any more,” Tinashe Magudu, a tobacco farmer, told Al Jazeera.
During Mugabe’s time in power, election periods used to be a time of heightened tensions amid fears of communal violence. But days before the vote, the mood in the village centre is one of calm.
“There is no violence. There is peace,” said Magudu, 27. “ There is freedom to say whatever you want to say. There is no reign of terror. It is quite good.”
In previous years, it used to be rare to see opposition posters in Kutama, but now MDC banners are a common sight. Furthermore, opposition candidates come here almost dailies to hold election rallies.
“When people used to campaign in the past, there was violence. But now, they are doing what they are doing and it’s being done in peace,” Agnes Mazhambe, a local vendor, told Al Jazeera.
“If there are rallies happening, it doesn’t really matter which rally it is – people just come to their rallies and return home peacefully, so I see this as different from before,” she added
Many in the village have long hoped for a new beginning and a change in their living standards.
“What I’d really like to see with this election is a change in the economy,” Mazhambe told Al Jazeera. “Things needs to change in our country so we can get money – if we just get money then things will go well for us.”
Kutama is not just the birthplace of Mugabe, it is also home to the school that the former leader attended – but most parents are unable to send their children to Kutama College because of the prohibitive fees.
Those wanting to change the situation were either too afraid or were not given the party tickets they needed to contest elections – but now things have changed, they say.
“The political space has been open with the going out of the previous president,” Nhamo Maradza, who is running for a seat in the local council with ZANU-PF, told Al Jazeera.
A trained accountant and a farmer, the father of two has lived in Kutama for more than 20 years. He says he never thought the day will come when he will be free to run for an elected office in his village.
“It gives people a lot of confidence about the future. We have endured a very difficult time with for the past 20 years having to go with one leader,” said Maradza.
In advance of Monday’s crucial poll, many in Kutama express optimism about a brighter future.
“We hope the one who is coming now after Mugabe can bring change,” Mazhambe, the vendor, said.
“I hope that he can bring change to the people so we can see the difference between Mugabe and him.”
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