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What a way to live
Saturday 29th September 2007
Dear Family and Friends,
Standing outside over yet another smoky fire late one afternoon this week, a
Go-Away bird chastised me from a nearby tree. I'm sure this Grey Lourie is as
fed up of me intruding into its territory as I am of being there - trying to
get a hot meal for supper. For five of the last six days the electricity has
gone off before 5 in the morning and only come back 16 or 17 hours later a
little before midnight. "Go Away! Go Away!" the Grey Lourie called out
repeatedly as my eyes streamed from the smoke and I stirred my little pot. My
hair and clothes stink of smoke, fingers are yellow and sooty but this is what
we've all been reduced to in Zimbabwe. Our government don't talk about the power
cuts anymore and don't even try and feed us with lame excuses about how the
power is being used to irrigate non-existent crops. We all know it's not true
and the proof is there in the empty fields for all to see.
Something else our government aren't talking about anymore is the nationwide
non availability of bread and the empty shops in all our towns and cities.
Everywhere you go people are struggling almost beyond description to try and
survive and yet the country's MP's, both from the ruling party and the
opposition, do nothing to put an end to this time of horror. I have lost count
of how many weeks this has been going on for but it must be around three months.
None of the basics needed for daily survival are available to buy. There is no
flour to bake with, no pasta, rice, lentils, dried beans or canned goods. People
everywhere are hungry, not for luxuries like biscuits or snack food but for the
staples that fill your stomach. When you ask people nowadays how they are
coping, mostly they say that they are not, they say they are hungry, tired and
have little energy. This is a national crisis almost beyond description and
people say they are alive only because of " the hand of God."
This week as Monks and then ordinary people in Burma took to the streets in
their thousands calling out 'Democracy, Democracy' in the face of the police and
soldiers, we can't help but wonder why something similar does not happen here.
The chant could be shorter and even simpler than in Burma and it could just be:
'Food, food,' but without leadership it seems as elusive as ever.
I end with a story about a man who is epileptic and visited the local
government hospital for his regular check-up this week. It took four hours
before he was seen by a nurse who scribbled in his book that this was a known
case and that the hospital pharmacy should dispense his prescription of 90
phenobarb tablets at no charge - as they usually do. This major provincial
government hospital had no phenobarb however so the man went to the biggest and
busiest pharmacy in the town. They said the phenobarb would cost 1.2 million
dollars - this is ten times more than the man's government stipulated minimum
monthly wage. I offered to help and took the prescription to another pharmacy.
The exact same tablets cost 250 thousand dollars - nearly five times cheaper.
When I gave them to the man, his eyes shone with tears and he thanked me - 'I
thought I would have to die' he said.
What a way to live, and to die.
Until next week, thanks for reading, love
A bad deal?
Saturday 22nd September 2007
Dear Family and Friends,
The eyes of the world have been on Zimbabwe for the past week and it is
heartening to know that we are not alone and humbling to think that people care
about our plight. In fact, everything about life in Zimbabwe is pretty humbling
these days. As the weeks pass and conditions deteriorate ever further, it is
hard to understand how people are surviving and beyond belief that we have not
erupted into food riots and violence. When you see schools still desperately
struggling to maintain standards and continuing to educate our children and
institutions scavenging for food for their residents, it is truly humbling.
After three months of price controls the food situation in the country is
perilous and even those who were able to stock their pantries and cupboards are
now in trouble. In a main supermarket in my home town this week there was air
freshener, window cleaner, some vegetables, Indonesian toothpaste and imported
cornflakes from South Africa - one single packet costing more than half of a
teachers monthly salary. There was also milk being sold from a bulk tank to
people who bring their own bottles and the queue went through the empty shop,
out the door and along the pavement. The line broke up suddenly before 10am when
the milk ran out and the huge shop was suddenly completely empty - nothing left
to sell, no more customers. This situation was a mirror image of conditions at
three other major supermarkets in the town and so we look desperately into
another week of struggle, praying for relief.
The voices of ruling party MP's have finally begun to be raised and although
its taken far too long for them to speak out, perhaps their criticisms will lead
to desperately needed change. An un-named Zanu PF MP was blunt in stating the
obvious this week: "We are likely to lose next year's elections if they don't
revise their policies," he said. "There is nothing on the shelves; people are
going for days without bread, cooking oil, even sugar and soft drinks," he
fumed. Other ruling party MPs who broke the silence over this government imposed
starvation said: "they should go back to the drawing board; companies are
closing down and people are losing jobs. This nonsense should stop and we are
listening to what the people are saying."
While the nightmare of finding food, carrying water and cooking outside on open
fires continues, there have been major political developments as the opposition
and ruling parties voted together this week to amend our Constitution for the
18th time. The move has been met by many with scepticism, disbelief and
suspicion. People are saying the opposition have betrayed their supporters and
sold out. Others are waiting to see what this really means; hoping against hope
that whatever concessions have been made now will have been in exchange for
longer term gains.
Two things have stood out for me this week. One is the words of South African
Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said: "Africans must hang their heads in shame for
having allowed such a desperate situation to continue almost without anybody
doing anything to try and stop it." The second is a small quote I heard during
the bombing of Lebanon last year, it seems particularly apt now: "A bad deal is
better than war." Perhaps that is where we are now?
Until next week, thanks for
reading, love cathy.
Against all the odds
Saturday 15th September 2007
Dear Family and Friends,
Day after day Zimbabwe is on fire. Smoke rises in almost every direction, the
wind carries trails of black debris and every evening the sky is smudged with
ash. Night after night there is a great orange glow on the horizon and long
after the moon and stars are overhead the fires continue to burn unchecked and
out of control.
Out on an early morning errand this week I stopped as a Slender Mongoose ran
out into the road. We stared at each other for a minute or two and it was a
breathtaking sight. The dawn sun highlighted the depth of colour of his rich
chestnut fur. The little mammal stood quite still on the tarmac, his
black-tipped tail lifted slighted, ready to run. Then as suddenly as it had
appeared, the mongoose was gone - running off into the only patch of unburnt
vegetation still left in the nearby grassland. This little African mammal, once
a common sight but now rarely seen, is surviving against all odds.
About two hundred metres along the road I passed two men who were carrying
sickles and had catapults hanging round their necks. They were accompanied by a
pack of hunting dogs who trotted all around them. The intention of their outing
was obvious - the sickles to cut grass used to lay lines of fires, the catapults
to kill birds, the dogs to catch mice and other small animals that flee from the
flames. In an hour or two these men will destroy huge swathes of vegetation,
remove essential habitat for birds and mammals and from the devastation will
perhaps get enough meat for one meal. Their activities go unchecked and when
they've had enough the men and their dogs head home leaving the fires to burn
themselves out, sometimes many kilometres away.
Arriving at my destination I sat across the desk from a smartly dressed woman
in her office. As I conducted my business we asked the questions all Zimbabweans
are asking each other: have you got water today? Is your electricity on this
morning? Have you managed to find bread? All the answers to all the questions
were the same from both of us: no! We agreed that things were now 'very hard'
in Zimbabwe but to an outsider this would undoubtedly be the understatement of
all time. We have got up to find no water in the tap to drink, to bathe or to
wash our clothes; we've got no electricity to cook food and no bread, cereal or
milk to give to our families for breakfast. Despite it all and against all odds,
Zimbabweans are still carrying on: clean, polite, hardworking, dedicated - a
credit to a country so close to the edge.
At the end of three days of sixteen hour power cuts this week I finally heard
the news that has given Zimbabwe such a lift. Against all the odds and with
nothing in their favour, Zimbabwe beat Australia in the 20/20 cricket world
cup. Patriotism burns strong, very strong, in our hearts and gives belief that
against all odds, we will emerge from these darkest of days.
Until next week,
thanks for reading, love cathy.
Saturday 8th September 2007
Dear Family and Friends,
This week I write with three short anecdotes from small town Zimbabwe. They are
not connected to each other in any way except by example of life in a country
which, by all reasonable accounts, is barely functioning. These are all true
stories, and putting them down in black and white makes the absurdity, and
fragility, of our lives here frighteningly real.
Milk is like gold in our town, as it is almost all over the country. When you
appreciate that the shops are empty and there is no food to buy, no protein, no
meat or eggs and now not even bread, you understand that people are desperate
for nourishment. A phone call to the local bulk dairy marketing outlet this week
went as follows:
Q: Hello, Do you have milk please?
Q: What about lacto (sour milk)?
Q: Any cheese?
A: (Bored) Nothing
Q: Ice Cream! ?
A: (Slightly annoyed) No, we have nothing. We are playing football in the car
I happened to be waiting for a friend outside a respectable
local restaurant in the town this week. Business inside has come to a virtual
standstill. They have no cold drinks, no alcohol, no bread or rolls, no
sandwiches or snacks to sell. As I waited a decrepit pick up truck, belching the
smoke of paraffin mixed with diesel, shuddered to a noisy halt next to me. A
very well dressed man in dark suit and red tie struggled to open the battered
door and emerged looking harassed. Many eyes watched, intrigued and eager to see
what the strangely shaped bundle in the back was. Covered with a filthy,
tattered piece of black plastic, there was a gasp as red tie man pulled off the
plastic to reveal an enormous rib cage and section of beef carcass. No
refrigeration, no hygenic wrapping, no protection from dirt and dust, just a
great, bloodied chunk of nyama (meat!) Red tie man looked at the half dozen
spectators, sweat beading his forehead and we all knew that he had probably been
through hell to get this meat. Someone jokingly asked red tie man if he was
having a braai (barbecue) and someone else asked if they could come! "This is
for the restaurant," red tie man volunteered. "It's come straight from the
abbatoir you know" he said defensively, in answer to our silent but raised
A geyser in my roof burst this week and when the plumbers got it out the
original price was hand written in marker pen on the side of the tank alongside
a dated sticker from the shop where it had been purchased. The date stamp was
from a local hardware store and was machine printed: "02. 2000" was still
legible. The price, written in clear red letters was one thousand, nine hundred
and eighty five dollars. The plumbers gave me a quote to repair the geyser by
welding the numerous leaking joints, flushing the sludge which had gathered
(thanks to our filthy and very intermittent local water supply) and reinstalling
the tank. The quote was for twenty six million dollars. To replace the geyser
with a new one, the plumbers quote, before labour, was for one hundred and
twenty million dollars. In just seven years the price had gone from under two
thousand dollars to 120 million dollars - which, in reality is actually 120
billion dollars because 3 zeroes were slashed from our currency a year ago.
And so we stumble into another week wondering what absurdity awaits. A
devaluation of 1200% as announced yesterday by the Minister of Finance? A
supplementary budget of 37 trillion dollars as produced this week? The leader of
the opposition charged for 'disorderly conduct' because he toured empty shops
followed by journalists?
Until next week, thanks for reading, love cathy.
Saturday 1st September 2007
Dear Family and Friends,
When you arrive at a shopping centre these days you are immediately bombarded
by Zimbabwe's new mobile shop keepers. They come in all ages and sizes: men,
women and teenagers. There are some of the usual, expected gaggle of street
kids, vegetable vendors and beggars but this new breed are people doing serious
business for serious amounts of money. Most of them have mobile phones with ear
pieces, are wearing dark or mirrored sunglasses and can calculate huge sums of
money before you've even worked out how many zeroes there should be on the
There is little point going into the supermarkets because two months into the
government's control of prices, there is almost nothing left to control. Staple
foods have disappeared completely, tinned and dry goods, dairy produce,
perishables, toiletries, soft drinks - all are gone. The most common sight in
supermarkets now is empty shelves, freezers and fridges, massive queues for
bread and employees wandering around chatting amongst themselves with nothing to
do. This week, for some obscure reason, red jelly powder is plentiful in my
local shops, but very little else. And so shopping in Zimbabwe has taken to the
pavements and alleyways. The black marketeers don't display their goods, they
just rattle off the lists of what they've got: sugar, flour, rice, cooking oil,
margarine, eggs, cigarettes, soap, washing powder. When you say what you want
(or rather what you can afford) they disappear into alleyways, flats and nearby
offices and emerge with the groceries concealed in dirty plastic or old
newspaper. One quick peep under the filthy wrapping, money handed over and
you're done, stone broke but with one item in hand.
The prices on the black market are astronomical, usually at least ten times
more than the stipulated figures and if Zimbabweans were poor before the
governments' price controls started, they are much, much worse off now. Most
people are simply going without the usual requirements of a balanced diet and
are barely existing on what little they can find and afford. The black market
dealers are, so far, getting on with their business completely unhindered by law
enforcers - despite the regular and visible presence of numerous Police on our
The black market dealers are the new warlords in our neighbourhoods - they are
in control - of goods, availability and prices. They are fast becoming the
nouveau riche of Zimbabwe and in just a few weeks have amassed vast fortunes.
They have no overheads. They don't pay rates and levies, don't pay taxes or VAT,
don't have employees and so don't pay wages or make contributions to medical and
social welfare schemes. The black market dealers also pay nothing towards the
maintenance of the roads, pavements and alleyways where they conduct their
business and so the deterioration of infrastructure increases.
The leaders in our government, who clearly do not shop at the same supermarkets
as the rest of us, continue to be unwilling or unable to see this diabolical
state of affairs. This week came the announcement that using the Presidential
Powers Act, the price controls have been extended for another six months: no
increases in the prices of goods, services, salaries, charges, wages or school
fees. The black market dealers, and their behind the scenes backers are laughing
all the way to the bank.
Until next week, thanks for reading, love cathy.
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