New Internationalist

From pastures brown

Issue 423

View from Bulawayo by Mgcini Nyoni

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: mealie-meal (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.

The street money-changers had all lost their jobs since almost all Zimbabweans are now using foreign exchange

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 osiphateleni(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 mealie-meal, 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. I guess they were busy hiking the prices inside, because when I finally got in the prices were much higher than what I had been told the foodstuffs would cost. Standing in the queue, I casually remarked that things were now a bit better since you could find some basics in some shops. The old man standing in front turned to me with a glare.

The silence that followed my statement was ominous. People were not just hungry, they were also afraid

‘I am a cleaner at the NRZ [National Railways of Zimbabwe], my son, and we have not been paid in three months. What’s the use of having exorbitantly priced goods that no-one can buy? If I had not rented out my spare room, I would be dead by now.’ He was silent for a moment. ‘My sons in South Africa do not send me anything.’

I thought of all the Zimbabweans I had seen sleeping under bridges, in churches, wherever they could, and wondered if some of them were the cleaner’s sons.

‘And the Old Man had a million dollar party amidst all this hunger.’1 The silence that followed my statement was ominous. People were not just hungry, they were also afraid.

I gathered that government workers occasionally got vouchers which they could exchange for some goods in some shops. The shops do not give any cash back, so they have to take goods to the value of the voucher. That helps them in a limited way: they will not starve to death. But the vouchers are useless for paying for other needs, like transportation. I met some government employees selling some of the foodstuffs they had collected from shops in order to get hold of cash.

Feeding oneself in Zimbabwe remains a nightmare. If one has a family, then the nightmare can sometimes become unbearable. Thank God for the rains. We are a nation of farmers; we will plant maize on every piece of available land. For some time after the rains have been there will not be total starvation. But what happens after the little grain is gone? Then the struggle to survive resumes in earnest, because the food being sold in the shops is beyond most Zimbabweans’ reach.

Mgcini Nyoni is a Zimbabwean poet, playwright and screenwriter.

  1. The reference is to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s characteristically lavish birthday celebrations for his supporters. Mugabe has held power in Zimbabwe since 1980.

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