Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Bleak Christmas for Zimbabwe

The accelerating economic decline means most people won’t even be able to afford the small luxuries of Christmases past.
By Dzikamai Chidyausku
There will be no real Christmas in Zimbabwe. Yes, December 25 will come and go in this largely Christian country. But there won’t be the kind of merry Christmas that Zimbabweans recall from earlier times, even in the pre-independence years of white minority rule. This Christmas, even though it comes at the height of summer will be bleak indeed.

In the old days, that is until about five years ago, families in the rural areas anticipated the return of fathers and uncles from work in the cities with bags full of goodies. Every child would get new clothes - colourful frocks for the girls, trousers and T-shirts for the boys - and a pair of trainers.You were a king if you received a pair of black BATA Tenderfoot trainers.

The atmosphere would be taut with anticipation. On Christmas Eve, the children would scrub themselves clean in the river and the soles of their feet would be cleared of the calluses from their long barefoot journeys to school.

In my village, welcoming father back home at Christmas was something akin to a celebration of manhood. Besides the clothes, there would be plenty of biscuits, sweets, fizzy drinks and the latest music cassettes.

On Christmas Day, we children would wake early and clean the yard before rushing to the river for another bath, while mother prepared tea in bucketfuls, with fresh milk from the cows in the pen and cupfuls of sugar. Everything would be plentiful on that day. Thick slices of bread, buttercup yellow with margarine and scarlet red with Sun Jam would be eaten as if there were no tomorrow. A goat and some chickens would be slaughtered, and both meat and rice – a luxury - would be plentiful. Then would follow the pilgrimage to neighbours to show off the new clothes. Guests would drop in and we would sing and dance until beyond New Year's Day.

In towns, the story was much the same, but perhaps with richer and more exotic fare than the bread and rice that meant so much to my family.

Not this year. Most of the 11.5 million Zimbabweans still in the country - some 3.5 million others have fled abroad - will sleep on empty stomachs this Christmas night.

The harsh impact of a crumbling economy, meagre salaries and food shortages will combine to ensure that Zimbabweans have the most miserable Christmas ever. Unemployment is approaching 90 per cent and inflation has topped 500 per cent, and there are now so many zeros on most price tags that calculators, designed for only eight digits, are useless for our daily calculations. Pickpocketing, once almost a national pastime, has gone out of fashion, as stealing a full purse will not buy you a single sweet or cigarette, and you need a carrier bag full of Zimbabwe dollars to buy a bottle of beer.

At the Christmas of 1980, the first after independence from Britain, a top-of-the-range shirt would have cost five Zimbabwean dollars. Now the cheapest costs in excess of 1.2 million. In just over six years, our currency has lost 99.9 per cent of its value.

In the past 15 years, average life expectancy has fallen from 60 to 30 years.

With the majority of people still battling to rebuild their lives after the disastrous effects of the ruling ZANU PF government’s Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out The Rubbish) six months ago, in which hundreds of thousands of people saw their homes destroyed by government police and militias, few can afford the goodies normally associated with Christmas Day. The situation is so desperate that even tea and bread have become luxuries for most Zimbabwean families.

“We have been selling the bricks from our destroyed homes to get food, but I don’t know what I will eat on Christmas Day,” said Norman Muchero, an unemployed labourer whose home in the Harare working class suburb of Whitecliff Farm was razed by bulldozers under the supervision of soldiers and police. He now lives in a cardboard, plastic and corrugated iron shack barely two metres high. He expects to spend Christmas desperately trying to mend the leaking holes in its roof to protect his family of four from the heavy rain of the summer thunderstorms.

Muchero remembers that, despite his poverty last year, he managed to buy his family new clothes and a treat or two to celebrate Christmas. “At least I bought a few drinks and bought some clothes for the kids from my odd jobs," he said. "They were happy. But this year I just don’t know what I will tell them, because there will be nothing.”

Life has always been hard for most ordinary Zimbabweans, but if they had tightened their belts in the months before Christmas, there would be enough to celebrate the holiday and hope for brighter prospects in the new year.

But Zimbabwe's desperate economic and political crisis, which began when President Mugabe ordered the invasions of prosperous white commercial farms in 2000, leading to massive food shortages, has changed all that.

Three meals a day are merely memories, and travel almost impossible, because when petrol is available, it is prohibitively expensive. So this year, even those who have jobs will be hard put to get back to their traditional rural homes. Most people in work earn less than 2.5 million Zimbawean dollars [25 US dollars] a month. The World Bank has dubbed the economic crisis the worst ever seen for a country not actually at war.

Even a highly qualified Harare schoolteacher like Munetsi Gobvu, a 35-year-old fending for his wife and four children, anticipates hunger for his family this Christmas. This month, Gobvu will get a “13th month” bonus payment, so he will have an extra 3.5 million Zimbabwean dollars to take home.

But the Gobvus are still close to destitute. “My children will be lucky if I have enough money to buy bread this Christmas,” said Gobvu, who has taught in government schools for the past ten years. “My first-born will be going to high school next year and they want 14 million Zimbabwean dollars for the boarding fees.”

What with other outgoings for school education and food for the family and medicine and doctor's fees for his sick mother, Gobvu’s finances are in deep trouble. “Don’t insult me by talking of a Christmas party or toys for my children," he said IWPR. "I’m sinking further and further into debt. I’m totally disillusioned.”

The grim joke about inflation goes, "We're all millionaires now - Zimbabwe must be the richest country in the world."

The plight of people like Gobvu got worse when the pace of inflation accelerated in reaction to the government’s budget in late November, in which rates and other municipal tariffs were increased by up to 2,000 per cent.

Before Operation Murambatsvina, some 70 per cent of all able-bodied people were unemployed. That figure has leapt to nearly 90 per cent because the “clean-up” operation all but destroyed the informal sector - small carpentry businesses, roadside shoe repairers, barber shops on upturned beer crates, fruit stalls - where people earned small livings.

The economic crisis has not even spared the army, which Mugabe relies upon heavily to suppress discontent. A private soldier earns only 2.5 million Zimbabwean dollars a month.

“I won’t be taking my normal Christmas off this year, because I have nothing to bring my mother,” said Thomas, who became a soldier two years ago. Almost all of his salary goes on the rent of a single room in an outer suburb. “To think of the Christmases that I used to enjoy when I was young pains me," he said. "Now I am working, but can’t afford all that.”

Dzikamai Chidyausku is a pseudonym used by a journalist in Zimbabwe.