What you need to know:
- It seems that 2008 was, in fact, a trial run and there is an anxiety by some people in charge to see whether the good people of Zimbabwe are capable of surviving even worse.
- While there, we managed to sell all the books that we had, which guaranteed that we had enough money to attend another friend’s daughter’s ballet recital. And the ballet recital is, perhaps, a clear indication of what Harare seems to be.
- The middle class is non-existent. They are those who really have and those who absolutely have not but no in-between. Like Nairobi, it does not stop people with a fridge, a television and a Twitter or Facebook account stating ‘we the middle class…’
During the holiday season in 2007 and early in 2008, as Kenya was undergoing a post-election crisis, Kenya’s SADC sibling Zimbabwe was in an economic crisis. One hundred rand (then about US$10), would be exchanged for Z$17 million on the alternative market. An egg cost Z$3 million and because we had decided to spend Christmas holidays in Zimbabwe rather than South Africa, when I considered treating the Heir to some corn flakes, I had to quickly change my mind as a packet was Z$15 million. Luckily he is made of sterner stuff and he ate uji for the two weeks we were in town.
I would talk with family and friends that I had much admiration for Zimbabweans who survived then because that was the height of the crisis. Things could not get any worse, surely? I may have been wrong. It seems that 2008 was, in fact, a trial run and there is an anxiety by some people in charge to see whether the good people of Zimbabwe are capable of surviving even worse. And this time, it’s not the now defunct Zimdollar that is being disrespected. It is the mighty American dollar.
We arrived in Zimbabwe on Monday, July 25. A friend from high school picked us up from the bus. The shepherd’s pie, tasty salad and full-bodied South African wine that we had for dinner did not prepare us for the cash crisis we would experience in the next few days. Over the next few days we would see just how bad it could get.
Two days after our arrival, I had a literary discussion at the German Zimbabwe Association. We went into Harare CBD so we could withdraw some cash from my South African account. None of the ATMs dispensed cash. Fortunately, I remembered that I had a friend working in one of the offices in the CBD who decided to pay for our cab to the event venue.
While there, we managed to sell all the books that we had, which guaranteed that we had enough money to attend another friend’s daughter’s ballet recital. And the ballet recital is, perhaps, a clear indication of what Harare seems to be. The middle class is non-existent. They are those who really have and those who absolutely have not but no in-between. Like Nairobi, it does not stop people with a fridge, a television and a Twitter or Facebook account stating ‘we the middle class…’
The monies we received from the book sales ran through our fingers like water. It was maddening. One moment we thought we were rich and offering to purchase snacks and juice for the children and the next minute we were glad that there was my birthday on Saturday because it meant we would not need to spend any more money as everyone would be treating me.
We were not entirely a mooching guest in spite of the lack of money. We were able to swipe for groceries and bus tickets for the rest of the trip. The cash crisis is such that while I could swipe for groceries, I could not get cash back from the supermarket. Sadly, this meant I could not go and see a lot of aunts and uncles as public transport does not swipe.
But my inability to visit relatives seems minor when I hear some heartbreaking stories of people who live here. I was a guest in Zimbabwe and have another place to go. I think about the graduates who were on First Street in the CBD and had requested permission to march because their degrees are useless as there are no jobs for them.
I am thinking, too, of my friend Tapiwa, who interviewed five graduates, one of whom has 20 years teaching experience and another who has a degree in Architecture — married with children — but are begging him to tutor his nine-year-old twins for $200 a month. What happens to them in a city where a two bedroom flat costs $500 a month? What happens to the cab driver I met who has a car and wants to survive with his four children but can only charge $3 because no-one is willing to pay more than that for a five kilometre trip, essentially making his cab rides two dollars cheaper than Uber in Nairobi without cheaper foodstuffs?
I am thinking, too, of my friend Tom telling me that because of lack of cash, if a businessperson needs $1,000 to do transactions, they have to do a transfer to cash traders by the bus station for $1,200 so that they get the $1,000 they want.
Here is hoping that as Zimbabwe seems set on repeating 2007/2008, Kenya steers clear even as we get into election season.