For the first time in six years, good rains and peace have come to Zimbabwe's troubled region of Matabeleland. Cattle, the base of the Ndebele people's traditional economy, are fattening up on thick grass where a year ago there was only dry scrub. Many peasants are actually harvesting corn. The severe hunger of the drought years is fading.
The Army is withdrawing from the countryside as attacks by antigovernment ``dissident'' gunmen have virtually stopped. Curfews in the rural areas have been lifted, and in most places villagers are free to come and go.
``There has been a great change in the attitude of the police and Army,'' says Michael Ncube, director of a nongovernmental rural development center near Bulawayo. ``They are no longer talking tough to people.''
The new mood in Matabeleland dates to Dec. 22, when the region's political champion, Joshua Nkomo, agreed to merge his opposition Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) party with President Robert Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front), known generally as ZANU. On Saturday, 3,000 ZAPU delegates voted to approve the unity accord.
Ironically, ZANU was born out of a split within ZAPU a quarter of a century ago over what some members, including Mr. Mugabe, felt was Dr. Nkomo's too moderate stance in the fight for majority rule.
The two parties had united in the 1970s under a ``patriotic front'' during the guerrilla war against Ian Smith's white minority Rhodesian government. But the alliance split in 1982, two years after independence, when Mugabe dismissed Nkomo from the cabinet for plotting against his government.
The current deal to merge was struck after nearly two years of volatile negotiations. Its goal is to unite Zimbabwe's majority Shona people, who mainly back ZANU, and the minority Ndebele, ZAPU's principal base of support, and to end the violence which has left deep scars on this nation's 8.5 million people.
Officials of both parties hope the unity accord will lessen the chances of interference from Zimbabwe's big neighbor, South Africa: Pretoria is seen here as having exploited Zimbabwe's political and economic troubles to keep the country off balance.
The agreement also paves the way for the one-party state advocated by Mugabe. Combined, the two parties already control 99 of the House of Assembly's 100 seats.
Although the congresses of both parties have ratified the accord, sharp differences remain over how to proceed with the merger.
ZANU leaders continually talk of ``integrating'' ZAPU into an ``expanded'' ruling party. Nkomo's lieutenants bristle at the notion. ZANU's goal is to build a new party, beginning with local party elections that would lead to a new congress next year when a single central committee would be chosen.
Since the 11-point unity agreement bestows upon President Mugabe full powers over the merger, how it will be put in place is his decision.
``We are counting on the fact that Mugabe appears committed to the spirit of true unity,'' says Dumiso Dabengwa, a ZAPU central committee member and former top guerrilla commander. ``We are not joining the old ZANU-PF. We are creating a new one.''
Already, Nkomo and several top ZAPU officials have joined the government as ministers and deputy ministers.
For the moment, the agreement has won cautious praise in Matabeleland because of its immediate impact on the security situation. ``Before unity, even if you were in your homes, you couldn't feel safe,'' said Regina Bango, a mother of two in Maphisa, a village about 75 miles south of here. Maphisa and other villages in the district of Kezi were hard hit by the dissidents and security forces over the past six years.
Small groups of dissidents roaming the Matopos hills still harass isolated settlements in the area. Two men were badly beaten by dissidents on April 3. Last month 32 cattle and two horses were killed at a white-owned farm in the Kezi area, reportedly by the same gang that murdered 16 missionaries last October.
Yet the level of violence has fallen dramatically. Some ZAPU officials hope the rest of the dissidents will stop their raids if the government offers amnesty.
ZAPU leaders are holding a series of rallies to sell the accord to their rural constituents, many of whom have been embittered by waves of political violence over the past 20 years. The fact that the new party bears the same name as the ruling party complicates their task.
``When we go to the people, the first thing we see is fear and mistrust in their eyes,'' says Mr. Dabengwa. ``They are quite open in their bitterness about the name.''
Other ZAPU supporters discount the name's importance. ``Even if they call it a tree, it's just a party,'' said Josphat Mabhena, a secondary school headmaster. ``Only politicians care about names. The people want to see peace and development.''
Indeed, the success of the unity agreement in Matabeleland, say Mr. Mabhena and Catholic church officials, will depend on whether the government's development programs, largely suspended during the years of violence, will start anew, and whether the current outbreak of peace lasts.