Long time no blog. Getting a featured blog is a lot to live up to, so I have been a bit intimidated by the 'new blog entry' button.
I'm here to tell you all a little bit about the state of affairs in my home country at the moment. For those of you who don't know already, Zimbabwe is a little country (actually not that little) in southern Africa that was part of a British colony up until 1980, when we celebrated Independence with our glorious leader, Robert Mugabe. This was a good ten years before I was even born, and life was good, and getting better with each passing year. Zimbabwe, (even as a colony when it was known as Southern Rhodesia), was the 'bread basket of Africa' and everyone wanted to dip their fingers in. Now, because it was all before my time, I only know the stories of life before independence, and of course I only know it from a white colonist descendant view point. I know their was racial segregation, and land allocation etc and of course everything was in favour of the white man at that time.
After independence, things were even better for some time - there was more equality and slowly things started to balance. Sure, there was still racism and salary discrepancies, but education and job equality was coming right as more black people became educated and qualified and lifted out of the depths of poverty that the white man had put them in.
Zimbabwe had the most beautiful cities, lined with flowering jacaranda and flamboyant trees, fountains, clean streets. Literacy was at a world class level of 99%, and even people in the rural areas enjoyed the benefits of a blooming economy. We had minerals, we had a booming tobacco industry, we had the best beef ranches in southern Africa, we had the latest technology and a thriving media business.
However, things did not continue to flourish or go according to plan, and somewhere the economy took a dip. I speak this as an observer, as someone too young and ignorant to understand at the time, and now only looking back do things start to make sense, so please feel free to chip in or correct me with factual information.
In 1999, at the age of 9 years old, my family moved from our home town of Harare (the capital) to Mutare (along the eastern border, near Mozambique) where my dad had a 7 year contract with a timber company. It was hard for the whole family to move, as all our family and friends were in Harare. But Mutare turned out to be the best thing we ever did. My parents made new friends in this new, small community, and I had the benefit of traveling across the mountains to school. This caused several Mutare families to band together and form a car pool called 'The Lift Club'. Because Mutare was one of the bigger cities in the area, it also had the only private high school (it was long ago established that you needed to go to a private school if you wanted a chance of attending university) and so many farmers from surrounding areas sent their children to the private school there. This was great for me, as I established new friends from quite a vast territory, friendships that have carried on to this day.
But in 2000 we started to have power outages. It might have been sooner, I'm not sure. I only noticed in 2000. Mild, at first. A one hour cut once a week. Rumour has it that the government had failed to maintain the coal plants in Hwange (to the west of Zimbabwe) and the hydroelectric stations in Kariba (to the north of the country) and now had to load shed. One hour without electricity still seemed like a small price to pay for living in such a great country, and so we continued. In hindsight, we should have taken it as a warning sign of worse things to come.
It was also around this time that the roads started deteriorating without getting repaired. Having lived all my life in the country, I didn't know this was out of the normal. I thought everyone just suffered with pot-holed roads. The road we lived on was particularly bad, but thinking back on it now it would have been a pleasure to drive on compared to the state the roads are in now.
By 2002, our power cuts were so common that it was no longer out of the ordinary to be without power. Lack of electricity and municipality supplied water was something Zimbabweans simply worked around. We descended back to the age of doing everything manually. We didn't even have a computer room, all our notes were hand written, our lectures taught on a blackboard with school supplied text books and brown paper bound note books for doing our homework. We would have classes in the morning, an hour lunch break and then compulsory sports and cultural activities in the afternoons, on school grounds. This was around the time families started to leave the country. The majority started to move to Australia and New Zealand, but my family stubbornly stayed put. In 2004, at the age of 14, my classmates started to get pulled out of the school, to get sent to boarding schools further afield. By the end of 2004 it was clear why - parents hadn't paid fees and the school went into liquidation. I believe the looming 2005 elections played a part too. People were beginning to see that Zimbabwe wasn't as lucrative as it had once been, and a mass exodus ensued. At the end of 2004 I was also pulled out of my school and sent to a boarding school a good 2 hours drive from Mutare. It wasn't so bad - many of my friends had moved there too, and I was lucky to have my application accepted as many people were turned away.
Things went from bad to worse - I only got to go home 3 times a term (once a month) due to petrol/diesel shortages. I would get on the bus and travel for up to three hours one way, for a measly two nights at home. My parents were young and still struggling to afford two school aged children and a baby, with all the expenses of sending me to a fancy private boarding school. If I recall correctly, it was also around 2005 that land siezures started occurring. Our president had promised to return the land (that the white farmers had bought) to the black majority. However, the land wasn't bought off the white farmers. The farmers were threatened and tormented and beaten and killed. Their farm houses were set on fire, their animals poisoned, their crops ravaged and destroyed. The 'war veterans' (many of them too young to have even fought in the war) squatted on the property, and there was not a damned thing anyone could do about it. Many many many farmers left to start new farms in Zambia, or moved into the cities and took on a different business.
My uncle was one of these men. All my years growing up we would take a week or two holiday to their remote farm in Banket where they had both tobacco and cattle. We would tour the silos where the tobacco was stored and dried, we would watch the calves being born and help the farm hands feed them. We would go fishing on the little dam, and climbing on the kjopies in the bush. We would take the motorbikes for a ride around the farm and spend hours playing with the dogs in the huge garden. And then we heard the news that the war veterans had lined up outside the farm gate, taunting and threatening. They burnt the crops and killed some cattle, and stole the rest. The police couldn't do a thing. This was legal. My uncle tried to continue to farm under such circumstances, but eventually the leader of the war vets told him he had 24 hours to get himself and any property he wished to retain off the premises.
Fearing for the life of his young family, he packed them up and shipped everything he could into town. The house was set on fire shortly after, and millions of dollars of farm equipment and assets were lost. He now owns a successful business in town, selling and hiring out farm equipment, but you can see he would rather be on the farm, waking up at day break and yelling 'kom kom kom kom kom' to the cows at feeding time.
Being at boarding school, the effects were barely felt until you had to go back home on a weekend. Due to the lack of farms in operation, food was now scarce and the shops were starting to empty. People who could afford to would travel across the border just to do their grocery shopping. Of course, not everyone COULD afford it. Zimbabwe went into a heavy economic slump. We no longer had viable goods to export, and now a majority of our money was going towards importing goods. Shops began to close left, right and centre. Unemployment soared, hyperinflation became rampant. I recall the petrol queues extending for kilometres, and hours spent waiting to put even a drop in your car. Of course such a valuable resource was extremely expensive, and so traveling at all came to a halt for many people.
No electricity, no water, no decent roads, no fuel, no food.
My grandparents had just written their will, shortly before the situation became extreme. They had several hundred thousand dollars to distribute to each of their children and grand children - their entire life savings. They shared this information with us and I remember being quite excited that this small fortune would one day be mine - I could buy a house, a car!
It was not to be so. That money was lost forever to the Zimbabwean government, stolen right under their very noses, under the guise of inflation. That two hundred and twenty thousand dollars I stood to inherit couldn't even buy me a loaf of bread. My grandfather, a mechanic by trade, who should have been retiring peacefully and enjoying his twilight years in a rocking chair in the garden, watching his grandchildren play, had to go back to work. He is currently a few years shy of his 80th birthday, and he is still steadily working a 9-5 job with heavy machinery and an ailing body. His employer doesn't even want him, what use is such an old man? But where else can he go? How else is he supposed to feed his wife?
It is cruel.
Being at boarding school didn't completely shield me from the harsh realities of the outside world. Fresh milk was no longer available, so the 400 or so students had to make do with powdered milk in their teas and coffees, in their cereals. The nearby bakery had closed down, so flour had to be imported to make bread for all the students for their breakfasts and lunches. Meat suddenly became soy, and servings got smaller and smaller. When there was no electricity (which was about 4-5 days a week), all the students would go to the main dining hall to do their homework in the evenings, where the generator was running. There was no hot water for showers and eventually there was no water for showering at all, and parents were asked to supply their children with buckets. These buckets we took and filled up from the swimming pool, and we used the cold chlorinated water to wash ourselves in the evenings.
This wasn't terribly pleasant in winter, and I recall opting to only clean myself on days that I had done sport. Gross.
Instead of having fire drills we had terrorism drills in the eventuality of the farm violence moving across to the school. We were located in the middle of several farms, fairly far from the nearest town, so it was a legitimate cause for concern. Luckily, we were never in any danger, and I applaud the school for managing to stay open over such difficult times.
In 2008 the schools closed for the elections, and everyone was sent home out of fear of violence. There was definitely a lot of inter-party violence, with people going missing, getting murdered, having 'accidents' etc. We were all raised to not get involved with anything to do with politics, as it was a surefire way to lose your head. This fearful mentality persists today, and I shy away from anything to do with politics. Thus my understanding of it is very basic.
I remember the huge wads of cash people had to travel with, and had to spend immediately after earning it, as prices would go up hourly in the shops. My mother at one point was quite ill, and her doctor told her to go and do blood tests. She went to the bank and drew her three hundred million dollars which was the daily withdrawal limit, and went to the clinic. The clinic told her that the cost for a blood test was four hundred million. So the next day she went and withdrew another three hundred million, which again was the daily limit. She returned to the clinic and was told that the cost of the blood test was now seven hundred million.
She gave up at that point, because she could not draw enough money to keep up with the costs.
I left for university in 2009, where I spent a blissful three years living in South Africa, and adapting to 'normal' living conditions. Public transport, stable prices, reliable banks (comparatively) etc. When I returned on holiday after the first year I found that Zimbabwe had officially taken on the US dollar as its main currency. Suddenly life seemed well again!
Once again there was food on the shelves. Sure, it was imported and it was expensive, but it was there! New shopping complexes started opening up, and businesses that hadn't shut down started doing well again! There was still no electricity 5-6 days a week, and no municipal water, and the roads were still shit, but at least the people weren't completely out of options. There existed a huge informal sector. Street vendors. Every Tom, Dick and Harry were growing tomatoes and meilies in their gardens and selling it from the side of the road. There were also the creative vendors who would sell Zim flags, funny hats, pool toys etc at the intersections. Somehow they were there every day, with the same wares, making the same jokes with those big toothless smiles, trying to flog their gadgets to the drivers. Then there were the artisans who would weave baskets or brooms out of thatch, or carve intricate little wooden statues, or fashion wires, beads and bottletops into intricate little toys. Everyone had something to offer, anything to keep their family fed another night.
There are also heaps of children and single mothers who stand at the intersections and beg for food. Sometimes they will stand there with pleading eyes and outstretched arms for the entire duration of a red robot, no matter how many times you shake your head or offer your apologies. Sometimes they will move on and ask the next driver, sometimes they will curse you and spit on your window.
You look at these amazing survivors, who somehow stretch their lives to fit within the pitiful few coins they'll garner in a day, and then you watch them get swept aside as the presidential motorcade of 20+ cars and motocycles clears the road for the president's trip home. And you wonder if he is blind to these people. He who earns more money than he could ever spend, not seeing HIS people begging and suffering and dying, at the mercy of the slightly better off people who still suffer. DAILY. Do you think he has ever been a day without electricity, or water, or fuel in his cars and jets? Do you think he has ever had to see the empty shelves in the shops, or the potholes on the roads that are not on the direct route between his house and his office?
When I returned in 2012 I started off at a lowly job, interning for a newspaper company. IT was in the middle of town, and many buildings were still empty and derelict from the years of hardship forcing everyone to shut down. But things were starting to come together again. The US dollar helped stabilise the ridiculous inflation and businesses slowly began to open again. It was very hit and miss, with a vast majority of the country still not able to afford new services. Many companies closed down just as fast as they opened up.
I recall that as we only got US notes and not coins, we often had a problem with change. Usually you would be forced to buy a pencil or a piece of candy or have an 'iou' signed for at the bottom of your reciept for any change that couldn't be given.
Over 2012 I jumped form job to job until I was employed in a retail position at an IT company in 2013. At my time of joining, I was a sales person and cashier of sorts, and about 99.9% of my daily dealings were in cash. The costs of the good we supplied were extremely high, and only the rich and elite could afford our products and services. Thus I met a huge number of VIPs and had a vast network of influential connections. As the years wore on and things stabilised more, we were able to reduce our prices and appeal to a larger consumer group. This was good for business. But we had one fatal problem - using a foreign currency was going to inevitably cause problems further down the line. Namely, cash flow. At the beginning of 2016 was the first time I realised it was becoming a problem. More and more of our customers had started swiping their cards to pay, rather than handing over US cash. This meant we had to invest in more POS machines, and we had to slightly increase our prices again in order to accommodate the outrageous bank charges. I was also trying to buy a car, and I recall having to go to the bank 5 or 6 times to withdraw my daily limit of cash in order to make the purchase. Our accountant had forced us all to open up bank accounts, as she said she could no longer pay us in cash. Many of my colleagues had been here in 2008 when the banks had hyperinflated all our money to absolutely nothing, and were reluctant to open a bank account again. Understandable. As the year wore on, there were rumours of the Zim dollar being reintroduced to ease the cash flow. We were told it would go at a rate of USD $1 = 1 bond note. Massive protesting occurred, the people did NOT want a revival of the Zim dollar. Also understandable.
But the government forced it upon us. In November 2016 the bond note was released, and banks for the most part stopped issuing USD. We were told we were not allowed to refuse the bond note, even though a majority of companies were needing the USD to import goods. The banks had stopped letting us transfer cash outside the country, after an inital delay of 4 weeks from application of transfer to actual release of money. Nope, it had been dried up. If you wanted to travel outside the country you were allowed to make payments of up to $50 per day with your bank card, and draw $20 from an ATM. This is currently still the state of affairs. Infact, if you wish to withdraw your money from the bank (even locally), you will have to make daily trips to the bank and withdraw your daily limit of $50 ($30 bond, $20 US if they have).
For a company like mine, which deals almost exclusively in imported computers, we had to increase our pricing by 20%, as we now had to buy US cash at a 20% premium. Not only that, but the payments still take 3 weeks or more to clear, and then the stock takes just as long to be shipped and cleared. Of course, on top of that there is duty and tax and inspection fees. So now not only were our customers expected to pay 20% more for their goods, they now had to wait a minimum of 6 weeks for their order to arrive. I'm sure you can easily see how this is not conducive to business.
And for all the above, I haven't even gotten to the most infuriating part of this entire piece. The Zimbabwe Republic Police. In the last 24 months they have taken to mounting road blocks along every major road in Harare. Sometimes not just one, but sometimes 2 or 3 in the space of 10km. At first they weren't too much of a hazard - 'excuse me please may i see your license'. But they are now inspecting every part of the vehicle.
ZRP: 'Your reflectors are 1mm too small. That will be a $20 fine'
Me: 'I don't have any cash'
ZRP: 'Call someone to bring you money'
Me: 'I'm in a hurry, can I not have the Form 263 which allows me to pay within 7 days'
ZRP: 'No, we do not have the forms, you mus pay a spot fine'
and so you are forced to either part with the $20 you have just driven 5km out of your way on your lunch break to queue for, or you are to call a family member/friend to bail you out, or you sit in your car for several hours refusing to admit guilt until they give up on you and let you go.
If you think the above conversation is exaggerated or fabricated, you have only to visit the Facebook page 'Dear ZRP...' which is Zimbabwe's public outcry for help, and is filled DAILY with such utterly ridiculous stories.
It has come to the point where if I want to leave the house I need to travel either early in the morning or late in the evening (because didn't ya know that crime only happens between 7am-5pm) or you have to extend your trip by an extra twenty minutes of driving on pot-holed back roads to reach your destination without passing through road blocks. People are too scared to leave their own homes because the ZRP have milked the people dry. Here is a list of offences you can be fined for:
- not having honeycomb reflectors of a certain size and shape on both the front and back of your car (and by the way, built in reflectors do not count apparently)
- not having 2 sets of double sided honeycomb reflective triangles in your car
- having a non functional light (be it reverse light, park light, brake light, tail light, headlight, number plate light or indoor light)
- having dirt on your car (yes!!)
- having worn out tyres
- having a biscuit (or 'space saver' spare tyre) or none at all
- having spot lights placed in line or above your headlights (regardless of if factory fitted or not)
- having an exhaust that points to the left (it may set the curb on fire, duh)
- having a fire extinguisher that is not securely fixed in a visible area within the driver's reach (wtf where should it actually go) and it needs to have been serviced every 3 months
These all seem like fairly minor issues, and will hardly cause your car to be unroadworthy. At the very least, give us seven days to sort the issue out, because it is entirely possible that that brake light only blew a few minutes ago before you got a chance to replace it.
It may seem like a small checklist of things you can remedy, but bear in mind that the ZRP are ruthless, and will claim your brake lights aren't working. Of course, you call their bullshit and you get out the car to see. The police man will claim to have pressed the brake, and so you pay your fine of $40 for both brake lights, and proceed home where your husband then tells you that in fact both lights are working and you have just been robbed. You can return to the roadblock and call them out on it if you like, but they'll claim you could have just come straight from getting it repaired at the garage. They'll also claim you did not stop at the stop street, and the other officers will back them up. You could have sat at the stop sign for a full 20 seconds, making sure they see you stationary, and they'll still claim you didn't stop.
In short, it doesn't matter how roadworthy your car is, they will find a way to take your money. Each road block has a daily target of $1,000 to take home in cash.
Yesterday I went shopping and noticed the price of something I regularly buy has gone up by a dollar. Not a huge difference, but when you watch the price increase by $3 over the period of 12 months you start to feel your pockets tighten. When groceries that used to cost you $100 now cost you $150, and yet your salary has not increased to accommodate these price changes...
I look at this country and wonder how people stay. How people let themselves be robbed of everything.