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

Maria's Daily Struggle

The plight of Maria Makoni highlights the grim realities of life in a country suffering dire shortages of just about everything.
By Hativagone Mushonga
Sisyphus was the anti-hero in Greek mythology who was condemned by the gods to push a rock up a hill for eternity, for whenever he neared the top, the rock rolled back and he had to begin all over again.

For many Zimbabweans, Sisyphusian futility repeats itself daily as they struggle to survive.

For Maria Makoni, the day starts at 2 am when she has to get up and fill buckets and empty containers with water.

She only has about two to three hours each day before the water is cut off.

And when there is clothing to iron, she has to do that too before the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority cuts off power.

Maria, a former cross-border trader, lives in Burdiriro Township on the outskirts of Harare, which suffers the longest water and power cuts in the capital.

By the time the rest of Zimbabwe is waking up to a new day, Maria’s back is aching from carrying 20-litre buckets from the communal water tap outside her house, and her eyes give you a blank weary look. But her woes are just about to begin.

She now has to prepare her four children for school. This is the time she dreads every morning. Maria walks slowly into the kitchen wondering what she is going to feed them for breakfast.

There is no bread in her house, as most bakeries, including Lobels, the largest in the country, have suspended operations now that the country has run out of wheat.

In normal times, she would have given the children maize-meal porridge thick with peanut butter and sweetened with white sugar, but unfortunately she has neither peanuts nor sugar in the house. Maize meal she has, only after bartering a few old clothing for some at her rural home, Chivhu, 150 km south of the capital.

During her own school days 20 years ago, she never went off to class on an empty stomach. Her parents managed to feed her and her many siblings three square meals a day. Now all she can do for her own children is force tasteless porridge down their throats. There won’t be the customary cup of hot tea with milk and thick slices of bread, buttercup yellow with margarine.

The children no longer carry lunchboxes. There is nothing to put in them. In her school days, Maria’s mother would have put four slices of bread with either jam or peanut butter, or the occasional egg and a slice of cold meat when her father had just been paid. There would also be orange juice or raspberry or cream soda. None of these are available in Zimbabwean shops any longer.

With no sandwiches or juice, which has run out in all supermarkets, Maria prays that her children will be able to concentrate in school, but she can already see their bellies, especially that of the youngest, distending - a sign of under-nutrition.

Could it be kwashiorkor? She dreads it. The city health department has already reported increasing numbers of children being treated for malnutrition in Harare’s poor suburbs.

As soon as the children leave for school, she has to spend most of her day going around from one shopping centre to the next hoping to come across deliveries of basics like sugar, cooking oil, bread, maize meal and beef. She spends her day jumping from long queue to long queue. The queues yield nothing, for no deliveries are coming. But as they say, the poor are rich in patience; and so she stands, hopefully, in the queues. And in the evening she returns home with nothing except her dusty legs and dirty feet.

Luckily, Maria has a small backyard garden and can at least cook “covo”, green leafy vegetables, for her children and husband.

Until very recently, Maria was a cross-border trader. Then a humiliating experience at the South African border post in Beitbridge in August this year made her think again: South African police fired water cannons on Zimbabweans to make them stand in a straight line.

“I have never been so humiliated in my whole life. When they turned that water hose on us, I just could not believe it. Do you know how painful that water is? At first we thought they just wanted to frighten us but when they fired the water at us and I was thrown against the wall; that was it for me. I cried for myself and I wept for my family - at least my children did not have to watch their mother’s humiliation,” she said.

The incident did not stop her, however. It was the Zimbabwean government that ended her small business. Just as she had recovered from the humiliation at the border post, the authorities began to charge duty - in foreign currency - on footwear and clothing items, including underwear. These were the very items she had been buying in neighbouring countries for sale back home.

Like thousands of other cross-border traders and travelers, she was caught unawares by the new tariffs, which came without warning. A government decision in July to outlaw imports and exports of basic commodities like maize meal and sugar¬ had been aimed at small-scale traders like Maria, but it had been reversed.

Now, however, according to a Zimbabwe Revenue Authority notice, duty for a range of goods would be 60 per cent of the purchase value in foreign exchange, plus an additional ten US dollars per kilogram.

This new policy has put paid to the cross-border trade industry and has deprived hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans, especially women, of their source of livelihood.

Maria used to import clothing items and footwear from South Africa for resale in Zimbabwe. She also bought electrical goods such as DVD players and radios.

“This is a blow for me. What am I going to do next? I also used to take advantage of my trips and bought 15 loaves of bread and some beef whenever I travelled to South Africa. But now I can’t, so life has become really tough,” she said.

For those who know Maria, she seems to have aged over the past ten months or so since Zimbabwe’s economic crisis deepened to its worst levels in the country’s history. It is not surprising that in Zimbabwe, life expectancy for women has dropped to 34 - not necessarily because of HIV/AIDS but because of an economic collapse that has brought poverty to a pre-1950s level.

Hativagone Mushonga is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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