Living in one of the world's most failed states can be a challenge.
|It’s mid-winter in Zimbabwe. The sun doesn’t rise until 7 a.m. It’s difficult to get up and get dressed in the semi-dark. Over the years I’ve learned to lay my clothes out in the bathroom the night before, in order of wearing. Even my “takkies” - my down-market trainers - have socks in them. Once dressed, I wash quickly in cold water, and head for the kitchen, preceded by four enthusiastic dogs, all anxious for their breakfast. The dogs are black and hard to see in the darkness, especially going up the stairs. They tend to stop suddenly and wait for me to catch up to them on the stairs. I hang grimly on to the banisters and wade through the dogs. There’s an anguished squeal when I inadvertently tread upon a black doggy paw. Sorry, Leroy!
We seldom have electricity in the mornings. Formally it is called “load shedding”. Privately we have a much ruder word for it. Still, if the power’s off in the mornings it might come on mid-afternoon. However, this anxiously anticipated event doesn’t usually happen until evening and even then there is no certainty there’ll be power to cook the evening meal. The dogs are fed their breakfast with what was left over from their nightly food.
“Do I have the only vegetarian dogs in Zimbabwe?” I wonder, as I put their dishes in front of them. No. I’m sure there are many other dogs that have had to learn to eat whatever is put in front of them. Our dogs used to have pets’ mince in their food, but this is unobtainable now. No one knows how much longer dog cubes and dog meal will be available either. Nothing is certain in these uneasy times.
We’re fortunate in that we have a small gas cooker. Obtaining the gas is, of course, a major problem these days. As I fill the kettle from the tap I think of the many children and elderly folk who won’t even be able to have a cup of tea or a piece of toast for breakfast because of the lack of electricity.
I live in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. I spend a couple of mornings every week in a home for elderly, disadvantaged people. Keeping the home running is becoming more and more difficult. Most of the old folk have very little money and no family in Bulawayo, or even in Zimbabwe, to help them financially. The home relies on charitable donations from the public. The support and help the ever-generous Bulawayo people give to those in need is wonderful. Enterprising committee members of the home have turned a disused carport into an outside kitchen, with an old wood burning stove. It works quite well, especially as several kind souls provide the wood at no cost to the home. I take something for the old folk each time I visit. Last week it was a pocket of oranges, this week it will be a pocket of potatoes. I used to cook a large meat dish every week but meat of any kind is not available at present. Some days I used to bake cakes and biscuits, but with the shortage of flour and sugar baking is impossible. The old people love visitors. Time is the most precious gift you can give the elderly. I spend a lot of time reading to some of the patients. They enjoy it, even though they tend to doze off whilst I’m reading.
Our breakfast seldom varies. I scramble some eggs, cut three slices of bread, and slice up a tomato. The kettle has boiled, so I make two cups of coffee. Eggs and coffee are not available in the shops at the moment. There are three eggs left from the half dozen that I managed to acquire through “the friend of a friend of a friend”. I can, and do, breakfast quite happily on cereal, but my husband loathes what he calls “dry fodder”. Milk is not too much of a problem at present, although very expensive. Current gossip claims the President’s wife has “acquired” a dairy farm, and consequentially the price of dairy products has shot sky high, with no sign of being affected by the current 50% price slash of most commodities.
My husband clatters up the stairs and turns on our satellite radio, which works on batteries we charge up when we have electricity. We always listen to the BBC World Service during breakfast. Floods in Britain. We sit silently, listening and comparing our water situation with that of the Brits. At least their problem can and will be overcome. Bulawayo’s water problems, unless addressed immediately by our Government, will mean the death of this pleasant and friendly city in the not too distant future.
“What are you doing today?” asks my husband over his mug of coffee. I smile at him. He asks the same question every day. “After I’ve tidied and cleaned the house, I’m going to queue for bread, and check out the supermarket in case there’s anything on sale. After that, the day is mine to do with what I will!” We both laugh.
“Don’t forget to fill the bath - the water goes off at 7.30 today.” I’d forgotten about the water. The water cuts are eight hours long, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We’ve been warned that twenty-four hour cuts are inevitable in the very near future. Bulawayo will run out of water in October. Nobody seems to know what will happen after this. Harare appears to be indifferent to anything that happens to the country’s second city, or anywhere in Matabeleland for that matter. After the terrible massacre of over 20,000 rural Matabele in the 1980’s by Government forces, the province is largely ignored. Bulawayo’s cash strapped but dedicated municipality makes valiant but often fruitless attempts to fill pot holes, repair old leaking water pipes, cope with the antiquated sewage system and make the city’s pathetic water supplies last until the rains come in November.
My husband gets on his bicycle and disappears down the drive. The dogs escort him as far as the gate. There is no fuel to spare for the daily trip to and from work by car. Most people either walk or cycle, depending on age and fitness. At the moment, there is no fuel at all. Still, my husband has lost some weight and is looking very fit and trim for a man his age.
It’s much warmer by the time I set off to the local shopping centre. The dogs are indignant at being left behind and start howling loudly. Soon all the dogs in our close have joined the chorus. I have four kilometres to walk, most of it uphill. Oddly enough, it’s also mainly uphill on the way back. I’ve never been able to work that out, actually. I suppose that what goes up must go down. En route I meet and greet other people I’ve got to know, also off to do some shopping. Gladys falls into step with me and we chat about inconsequential things. Gladys works as maid for a professional hunter and his family. They are very good to her, and she is happy working for them. She is going to buy maize meal if she can find any. It’s unlikely, but she is cheerful and optimistic that she might be lucky today.
Despite the early hour, the queue is long. It consists of people of all races and ages. There are lots of children, sent by their mothers to the shops. They are thin and shabby, but laughing and jostling each other in the manner of children the world over. Few children of working class parents attend school now, as many parents cannot afford the every increasing school fees. It’s hard enough to clothe and feed growing children. It’s so sad. In the early 1980’s, education was free, as was health care. In 1980 Zimbabwe was the envy of most African countries. Today we are the laughing stock of the continent.
One of the children has brought a homemade football, shaped with plastic bags and newspaper bound tightly together with twine. Much laughter ensues as the children play with it. Fortunately, there is no traffic, so they can play in the parking lot whilst several of them take turn to keep their places in the queue. The little girls don’t join in, watching demurely as their siblings play. Daniel, the elderly security guard watches them benignly. I can’t recall a time when Daniel wasn’t around and we’ve lived in the area for twenty-five years. He’s a man of great dignity and presence and has become a good friend to most of us regular shoppers.
Mrs. Ngwenya, next to me in the queue, nudges me and points to a bundle of rags on the pavement near us. I look at the bundle and realise that there is a man lying on the hard concrete, huddled under a filthy and ragged overcoat. Only his long, dread-locked hair is visible. His hair is as dirty as the rest of him. People are walking around him as he lies, oblivious, on the pavement. He attracts little attention; most people have too much on their minds to concern themselves with him, apart from avoiding a possibly verminous encounter with him.
Mrs. Ngwenya, who is a retired nursing sister and a kindly and motherly soul, is concerned about the man. “Do you think he’s dead?” she asks me in a horrified undertone. .I say I don’t know. A policeman lounges against a shop window nearby, chatting up some giggling teenage girls. Mrs. Ngwenya squares her shoulders. “Please keep my place in the queue. I’m going speak to that policeman.” She walks over to the scruffy guardian of the law, who is not pleased at having his amorous dalliances interrupted. He realises the eyes of the people in the bread queue are now fixed on him, waiting to see what he’ll do. So, sighing loudly, he reluctantly heaves himself upright. He saunters slowly over to the prone bundle of rags and gives it a hefty kick. We watch open mouthed as the bundle of rags suddenly leaps high in the air, sprouting hitherto unseen arms and legs, racing away through the parking lot and down the road. Rastafarian tresses and strips of rags flying, he doesn’t even look back at his tormentor. The policeman laughs jeeringly, as do the sycophantic and admiring young girls waiting for his return. He gives us an arrogant and challenging stare. We all look away, pretending nothing has happened. It’s not wise to be perceived as being critical or antagonistic in any way towards a belligerent policeman or an edgy person in a military uniform.
An hour and a half in the queue and at long last I emerge triumphantly with two loaves of bread. Two loaves per person is the ration. It’s awful bread, coarse and dry, but there is no flour to make my own bread, nor could I spare the gas. I also bought a packet of soup and a packet of pasta shells. I looked into the empty freezer that used to contain dressed chickens and chicken pieces. How I would love roast chicken for supper! Sadly it’s a pipe dream. Chicken farmers require chicken feed for their poultry, but the feed is all imported. So – no chicken products. There is no meat of any kind in the shops and all butcheries have been closed for the past two weeks. It is uncertain when they will be allowed to re-open.
I have to call in at the local pharmacy to collect blood pressure tablets. Beatrice, the pharmacist and her husband, Jacob, welcome me with friendly smiles and we enquire solicitously after each other’s health and our families. Beatrice’s smile fades when I request a renewal of my standing prescription. “My dear – I have none. I haven’t been able to find any. I will phone around for you, but I don’t think we’ll have any luck. I’m not certain when we’ll get any more.”
Fortunately, I know that the tablets are mild, and I should be able to do without them for a while, anyway. Not for too long, though. I firmly reject the mental picture of what might happen if I am unable to get the pills for too long. For some bizarre reason, I visualise myself bursting like a pricked balloon and making an awful mess everywhere. A revolting thought. Pulling myself together, I thank Beatrice and bid her and Jacob goodbye. It’s time to walk home.
Even the lightest load seems incredibly heavy walking back home. It’s quite hot in the sun, and as I pass the Methodist Church, I sit on the low wall in front of it to catch my breath. An old man on an even older bicycle cycles past me, going quite fast even though it’s uphill. He gives me a patronising nod, which I return with a feeble smile. Abashed, I get to my feet and carry on walking. In the distance I see the old man, now standing on the pedals of his bike, pedalling manfully. I hope he doesn’t suffer from high blood pressure. His face was rather flushed.
The dogs’ ecstatic welcome is reassuring and flattering. I haven’t been away for too long, but I suppose it seems ages to them. They bounce around me, hopefully expecting their weekly bone ration, something they haven’t had for weeks, months even. When I get inside, I give them each a dog biscuit. There are no bones, and haven’t been for some weeks. The dogs are disappointed with the dog biscuits. Fergus the Scottie takes his with “long teeth” and disdainfully drops it on the kitchen floor. However, when Guinness the elderly Rottweiler makes a tentative move towards the biscuit, he quickly gobbles it up. Georgie, Fergus’ sister, takes hers politely, and eats it very slowly, enjoying the frustration of the other three dogs that have already eaten theirs and are watching her hungrily. I give them another biscuit. There aren’t many left in the box, and I haven’t seen any in the shops.
It’s nearly lunchtime, and still no power. My husband doesn’t come home for lunch. I give him a lunchbox to take to work, consisting of anything I can find. Raw peeled carrots, a piece of cheese, a banana and - if he’s lucky and I’ve been able to find any - a roll filled with tomato and cheese.
I can’t get on to the computer to e-mail my friends, or download their e-mails to me. The servers seem to be thrown out of kilter after power cuts and it is sometimes late in the evening before we can connect. A really long power cut can mean several days before the servers return to normal. It’s frustrating. We are very fortunate to have a diesel generator, but the lack of fuel limits its usage.
I finish my remaining chores and decide to take my lunch outside and eat it on the patio. It’s cereal again, but with a banana sliced into it. I’m not particularly hungry, so it’s quite adequate.
We are more fortunate than many folk in Bulawayo. Every day there are more homeless people aimlessly milling about and more young children playing in the streets or selling brooms and feather dusters for their desperate parents. This is tragic. Health and education are the two most important things a child needs. Almost certainly his potential will not be achieved if he lacks either.
We live in uncertain times. We try to live for the day, but have to plan for the next day. The uncertainty about our safety and the future is terrifying. Life is neither pleasant nor easy anymore. When will it end? How will it end? What will happen to us before “things improve”? Who knows? There was a notice in the British Council Library some weeks ago which read: “Take note. The light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off until further notice”. Black humour at its very best…
Benjamin Franklin said “Certainty? In this world nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Well said, Benjamin. But it is not a particularly comforting phrase.