Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Latest in Zimbabwe

I have just come back from 10 days in Bulawayo, where the situation is critical.

Water is available on only two days a week, coming on at about 5pm, and going off again at about 10am the next morning.

Electricity cuts are scheduled for 6 out of 7 days – usually for between 3 to 6 hours a time.

The occasions when you have both water and electricity are therefore rare, and are normally during the night-time hours, so those are the times when you are able to put on a washing machine load, or have a hot shower. People have reorganised their lives around these things, getting up at 2 in the morning to put a load into the washing machine, or to fill up their water containers. You do things when you are able to: having a hot shower, even having a 'bucket-shower' if you want hot water, flushing the toilet, cooking your main meal, filling thermos flasks with hot water for tea. For a single person, or a couple where both are working full-time, life must be a nightmare, as you simply don't have the flexibility to do all these basic things when you need to.

The supermarkets are empty – shelves quite simply have nothing at all on them. The few products that are left (mainly cleaning materials, local wines, olive oil, some jams…) are spaced out on the shelves to give a vague illusion of plenty. There is no meat, no milk, no cheese, no mealie meal, no bread, no flour, no rice, no pasta…. The large commercial fridges are empty.

Other shops have less and less for sale; or they have 'diversified' – a baker's shop which used to have iced cakes in the window, now has toiletries and hair dyes in their place!

The informal traders have some of the local seasonal fruit and veg, but only in small quantities. Many things are sourced by word of mouth, by just being in the right place at the right time. One man I know was in Mweb (an ISP), and a customer was telling his friend behind the counter that so-and-so had chickens available; he asked if he could get one too…! Someone comes into work and says that a certain shop has pork… and everyone rushes out to try and get some.

I was offered 6 eggs, and my very generous friend gave me 10 instead. I intended to give the extra 4 to my domestic but then, as I drove into the supermarket, on impulse I asked the car park attendant if he would like an egg! He was chuffed (and my domestic only got 3 instead of 4)! In what normal society does this happen?

In ordinary society, if you are invited to friends for dinner, you might take a bottle of wine, or some flowers, or even some chocolate. There, you take some pasta and a tin of tuna – people have so little food (even if they have money to buy it, there is none available) that just one extra mouth to feed is a problem.

Fuel is pretty much unavailable, unless you have access to foreign currency (forex), and even then, it is very difficult to source. You buy when you can, and if you don't have, you go without. The roads – particularly outside the towns – are noticeably emptier. However the road-worthiness of the cars still going is worse than ever – car parts or new tyres are a luxury which people can't afford or can't obtain, or both.

Some fortunate middle-class people have 'made a plan': buying 5000 litre water containers, and rigging them up in their back yards, either filling them when the water comes out of the mains, or filling them from bowsers which in turn have been filled from properties with boreholes. Some people have bought generators (but you still need the petrol or diesel to run them). A number of people cross the border to Botswana once a month to do all their shopping: this used to be a luxury, now it is a necessity.

Poorer people just don't eat, it seems. The World Health Organisation calculated the average life expectancy for women to be 34 years, and 37 years for men. This is the data for 2004. With the combination of AIDS, poverty and malnutrition, this figure is surely much lower now in 2007.

The level of hardship is unbelievable. Churches, while still preaching the Gospel, are mostly now concerned with meeting humanitarian needs.

My overall impression was that people are putting their heads down and focussing on day-to-day survival, as is to be expected. What continues to surprise me, though, is the amazing resilience of people: the ability to talk and empathise with a complete stranger in a supermarket, the sudden smile which breaks over someone's face as you greet them – friend or stranger, the little (and large) kindnesses among so much hardship.

I know that many people in many countries have to deal with such problems on a daily basis, but the sad thing is that Zim just wasn't like that 10 years ago, and things have gone downhill progressively since then. Please pray for Zimbabwe and for Zimbabweans.