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No Christmas joy for Zimbabwe

ByThulani Mpofu,
An unidentified man sifts through garbage in Harare. Tsvangirayi  Zimbabwe // Instead of the national Christmas Day delicacy of rice and chicken, Jeffrey Chiwanza, 31, of Bulawayo and his family will do with the bare minimum.

He says he, his wife and two young children will probably have the now common one-off dish of the staple cornmeal porridge and boiled vegetables, served probably in late afternoon to cover breakfast, lunch and dinner on a day traditionally reserved for dawn-to-dusk feasts in this Christian country.

“There will be no celebration,” said Mr Chiwanza, a small trader.

“It has been a tough struggle for survival this year, so we will not have anything special. Instead of spending on gifts, good food and new clothing just for one day, I am battling to save enough money to pay school fees for my kids.”

Unlike last year, Mr Chiwanza will not undertake the customary bus journey to his rural home in Gutu, 400km east of here, because of prohibitive transport fares. If he gets any money at all, he said, he will buy corn meal and send it to his parents in Gutu, thus cutting back on transport expenses.

His situation is hardly different from millions across the country, who are barely surviving amid a 10-year economic crisis that the United Nations estimates has left more than two million people in urgent need of food aid.

The world’s highest inflation rate – more than 230 million per cent annually – and the resultant price spiral has made basic commodities too expensive for most Zimbabweans.

An unfolding nationwide cholera crisis, in which almost 1,200 people have died and more than 20,000 have been infected since August, means more could spend Christmas Day grieving or sick and without medication.

Of Zimbabwe’s 13.3 million people, 50 per cent are classified as syncretic, which means their beliefs are part Christian and part indigenous. About 25 per cent are strictly Christian. About 24 per cent believe in indigenous faith and one per cent are Muslim.

Before the economic crisis, Zimbabwe, like elsewhere in the Christian world, celebrated Christmas Day with much fervour and extravagance. People spent heavily on European-style Christmas trees, the best food, presents, new clothes and special parties. Shops opened early and stayed opened late to enable shoppers to stock up.

In cholera-hit Harare, the government is discouraging residents from hosting Christmas parties in an effort to contain the spread of the deadly disease.

Caritas Zimbabwe, a Zimbabwean humanitarian agency, and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, the official overseas development and relief agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said in a joint statement that sickness, hunger, starvation and death will make Christmas bleak for the majority in Zimbabwe.

“People are faced with an intricate web of problems. It is a bleak Christmas for Zimbabweans,” said Cornelius Hamadziripi, director of Caritas Zimbabwe.

“Communities have run out of coping mechanisms.”

The low monthly maximum cash withdrawal limits, rigidly pegged by the Reserve Bank at Z$10 billion (Dh18), have added more misery for account holders.

“This year’s festive season was always going to be one of the hardest in recent memory,” said the Standard, an independent weekly newspaper in an editorial. “But actions by the financial authorities have ensured a season of misery all round… Parents will have a choice to shop for Christmas with their $10 billion and be faced with the challenges of how to get their children in school.”

In far-away Britain, Zimbabwean exiles, on whose cash remittances their relatives have depended for years, held a unique demonstration on Saturday, dubbed “Mugabe’s Cholera Christmas” outside the Zimbabwean Embassy in London.

The protest featured “Father Cholera”, dressed in a Santa Claus outfit and a mask of the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe. “Father Cholera” delivered a Christmas message: “There is no cholera in Zimbabwe,” in a jab against Mr Mugabe, who last week courted criticism when he said Zimbabwe no longer had the disease despite the fact that the UN was, at the same time, raising its reports on the death toll.

Back in Bulawayo, a salesman with a gift shop said business has been slow this year.

“We have to be realistic,” he said. “We cannot expect people who have had no money to spend on basics like food throughout the year to suddenly have enough to buy a toy for their kid or a simple Christmas card for their spouses. The focus is on survival.”

 
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