Magazine article New Internationalist

From Pastures Brown

Magazine article New Internationalist

From Pastures Brown

Article excerpt

Time spent in greener pastures makes one realize just how brown and sparse one's own can be. After a two-month working trip to South Africa, my perspective on the suffering of Zimbabweans underwent much correction.

I was carrying back various basic food items. It is unthinkable to travel to Zimbabwe without such things: mealiemeal (maize-meal), sugar, rice, cooking oil and so on. I was not in a good mood because I had missed the buses and that meant paying about 400 South African rand (about $43) extra for my luggage in a minivan. The buses are more generous - they allow the first 50 kilos of luggage for free. Plus there was the daunting thought of an 18-hour journey in an 18-seater death trap: Better that, though, than letting the people back home starve.

After a nightmarish 24 hours on the road (we had to change burst tyres twice) we got to our destination: Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. I was infuriated to discover that someone had helped themselves to my sugar. I would have to replace it one way or another and I did not look forward to that experience.

In the beginning I wondered why I had been so worried about returning: for someone just arrived from outside Zimbabwe, life actually doesn't look all that bad. For some time after arrival it is quite bearable. But for Zimbabweans permanently resident in Zimbabwe, it is a nightmare.

I went into town the day after I arrived to find a totally different Bulawayo. The osiphateieni (street money-changers) had all lost their jobs since almost all Zimbabweans are now using forex (foreign exchange). Their services just aren't needed any more. The money-changers have now switched to selling sugar and chicken feet and gizzards imported from South Africa.

Instead of empty shops, I found well stocked (by Zimbabwean standards) rand shops. These are shops with licences to sell in foreign currency; they get their name because the rand is the main currency in use. But all shops ask for foreign currency, even the ones that don't have the licence. Because of the sky-high prices charged by the rand shops, the black market in the very basics for food operates at full throttle. It centres mainly around mealiemeal, sugar and cooking oil, divided up and repackaged into smaller packets that an ordinary Zimbabwean can afford. After a day spent scrounging around for the scarce forex, a weary head of the household buys one kilogram of mealie-meal for the hungry family back home; tomorrow will take care of itself.

I joined a queue to get into one of the rand shops. The doors were closed. …

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