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The Big Saturday Read: Stories of home - we need new roads


Although I am home quite often, this particular trip had uncomfortable echoes of 2007. Back then, when I travelled to Zimbabwe, things were becoming increasingly difficult. The country’s currency, the Zimbabwe Dollar was in free fall. There were serious shortages of basic commodities. The people were just about getting by but they were despondent about the future. It was a like a slow train wreck where everyone on board knew it was heading for a crash but while some jumped out, the rest remained, hoping somehow for a miracle. Large numbers of people were leaving the country, seeking sanctuary in neighbouring countries. Those who could afford to fly overseas made their way there.

The hopelessness was compounded by the fact that prospects for the opposition appeared bleak. The MDC, which was the largest opposition party since 2000 had split in 2005, resulting in two formations which were at loggerheads. The ruling ZANU PF party had won a massive majority in the 2005 parliamentary elections. With their two thirds majority, they could afford to amend the Constitution, which they did. ZANU PF had carried out Operation Murambatsvina, an urban clean-up operation that had a profound effect on the urban population. Although the economy was collapsing, ZANU PF had sufficient confidence that it would prevail in the general elections. It forced the country into an election without the reforms demanded by the opposition. Like now, the opposition parties were demanding electoral reforms. And like now, too, ZANU PF were in control and unwilling to implement any reforms, preferring a bare minimum to give a false impression of progress.

Ten years later, little appears to have changed. It's as if the country hasn't moved an inch. The economy is perilously close to the edge. The people are living precariously, unsure of what the future holds. They are just about surviving, albeit under a dark cloud of cynicism. In the absence of an official currency, Zimbabwe is facing serious liquidity challenges. Since 2009, the country has operated a multi-currency regime, with the US dollar being the dominant currency of exchange. However, the US dollar has largely disappeared from the market. To try and solve the liquidity challenge, the government introduced a surrogate currency, the Bond Note, which is only valid locally on the basis that it is equivalent to the US dollar. This command-type fixed exchange rate is largely a fallacy.

When these bond notes were mooted and then introduced last year, there were protests from the social movements and critics, arguing that they would barely work unless a fundamental overhaul was made to the way Zimbabwe was governed. Commentators predicted that Gresham’s Law would come into operation and suck out the US dollars from the system. According to Gresham’s Law, bad money drives out good money from the system. In other words, when poor money is placed into a system, market actors will try to hold on to good money which they believe to be a better store of value. It is fair to say that in this regard, Gresham’s Law has since come to pass as the US dollar has largely disappeared on Zimbabwe’s open market. But this was not rocket science. It was all too predictable and the authorities should have known.

However, rather interestingly, the “bad money” – the bond note - is also fast disappearing from the market. This is why the liquidity challenge has continued to haunt the market. Banks are still short of cash and there are long queues in banking halls and at cash machines – and in some cases people have to queue overnight. The withdrawal limits are very low, with supermarkets giving a maximum cashback of $20 and oft-times just $5 – in bond notes. People in the rural areas are the most vulnerable. They have to incur costs to travel to the cities but since they cannot return to their villages without cash, they have to sleep in queues hoping to get cash the next day. Sometimes, the bank manager is sympathetic and he offers each customer a basic amount, for example, $10 each, to enable them to buy a few items and pay for their fares back to their homes.

When I went to the village, most people I spoke to told me that they had last held or seen a US dollar note more than 4 months ago and that they did not even have the bond notes. At some banks, the shortage of US dollars and bond notes means customers are being getting bags of bond coins. Bond coins were introduced nearly two years ago on the premise that they were necessary to reduce the problems of change in an economy where the lowest denomination was the US dollar bill. This not only affected the problem of change but also prices which were often set at high values designed to obviate the need for change. The coins were considered necessary to resolve these challenges.

But why have the bond notes seemingly disappeared from the market? A colleague in the financial sector says the amount of bond notes was only ever a drop in the ocean anyway, and they were unlikely to solve the problem, given its scale. However, it also seems bond coins have become substitutes for the bond notes which are now also scarce. Some speculate that while government has said it isn’t printing bond notes, it has nevertheless minted more bond coins. Another explanation, it seems, is that bond notes are being used for speculative purposes. Perhaps just as US dollars are good money in relation to bond notes, bond notes in turn are good money in relation to bond coins. Although bond notes and coins are of equal value, notes are easier to hold and carry while coins are more inconvenient. Between the two, one would rather hoard bond notes compared to bond coins. Those who are hoarding US dollars have now also resorted to hoarding the bond notes, which are being used in black market transactions. The result of the hoarding is that bond notes are also becoming scarce.

To their credit, Finance Minister and central bank Governor, Patrick Chinamasa and John Mangundya, respectively, appear to have largely kept their promise that they would not print more bond notes. They could easily try to resolve the shortage of bond notes by simply printing more. But that would be a reckless short term solution to a systemic problem as it would only lead to further devaluation of the bond note in relation to the US dollar. For although the fixed exchange rate between the surrogate currency and the US dollar is pegged at 1:1, the truth is that the bond note is already trading at a lower value to the greenback. People accuse the central bank Governor of not keeping his pledge that he would resign if the bond notes failed. In most people’s view, the bond notes have already failed to resolve the challenge for which they were designed and the Governor must honour his word. He is unlikely to heed that call, resignation not being a term in the vocabulary of Zimbabwe’s public officers.

I met a trader at Siya-so, the hub of Harare’s growing informal industry in Mbare. He buys raw materials for his business at $68 per unit if he is buying in US dollar. The same unit costs $74 in bond notes. For him and his peers the difference between the US dollar and the bond note is as clear as day and night. He asked for the US dollars I had, in return for the thick wad of bond notes that he kept in his small satchel. They were in denominations of 5 and 2 dollar bond notes. It made business sense for him to convert them to US dollars. I was happy to help out someone doing something productive. In any event, it was painful to use the US dollar to buy groceries when there was someone who could make better use of them in his business. If he were buying the US dollars from a dealer, he would have had to pay a premium, which in turn he would have to factor into the prices of his finished products. In the end, the consumer would have to shoulder the burden.

There are some positives though the in the midst of all this adversity. Most businesses now use swipe machines for electronic payments. Just a year ago, it was a nightmare to do a card transaction in Zimbabwe. The systems were almost always down or slow and inefficient and card payments were often rejected a few times before a transaction was carried out. This time however, it was evident that things have improved vastly. I only encountered a problem once at Wedza Centre where the swipe machine malfunctioned and I had to reluctantly use the US dollars I had to buy fuel. The only problem is because business value cash more, the prices for cash and electronic transfers are often different. This attests to the fact that the real problem remains unresolved, despite improved payment methods.

Then there is also the problem of fraudulent transactions. A friend who uses an international bank card also warned me to check my bank statements carefully this month, after using them in Zimbabwe. He was shocked when he discovered that he had been charged twice, sometimes three times, for the same transaction in Zimbabwean shops. When he called his UK bank to enquire into the matter, he was advised that this was becoming a common phenomenon in Zimbabwe-related transactions – that the account would be debited more than once for the same transaction.

Tau, a young driver wanted to buy a spare part from his vehicle. The trader told him that it cost $60 in bond notes and $65 in bank transfer. But he was prepared to offer the same part for $50 if Simba had US dollars in cash. There is no clear method by which these values are being ascribed depending on the medium of payment and there could be any number of permutations at play, each trader fixing their own rate as they deem fit. This doesn't make sense, I say to Tau. "Pakaipa!" he says, "Pakaipa mdhara" shaking his head. It's the familiar cliche which in one word encapsulates the multiple challenges of home. And he says it with a grin, as if it's normal. It seems people are to beaten and so tired that there is nothing else left to do but laugh at their conditions.

But one thing is clear: despite government efforts to fix the rates, the market is also setting its own prices, a reminder once again that in these matters, in the end, the market leads and the state follows. It was not the government that introduced transactions in foreign currency in 2009. That is what the market was already doing and the government simply followed suit and formalised an already existing system. In the current case, the government continues with the pretence that the US dollar is equivalent to the US dollar but the market has already identified that the two are different and has ascribed values, albeit indiscriminately.

When President Mugabe spoke at the World Economic Forum event in Durban, South Africa he shocked many people when he declared, without any hint of irony, that Zimbabwe had the second most developed economy in Africa apart from South Africa. Many people were dismayed by what they feel is gross ignorance of how Zimbabwe’s fortunes have declined in the last 30 odd years under his rule. Others laughed at the statement, pointing out that it reflected the President's delusions in old age – he was remembering the glories of a bygone era.

But as I drove through Borrowdale Road the other day, I realised how easy it is for the President to believe that Zimbabwe is well developed. As most Zimbabwean motorists often remark, the best road in the country is the one that takes the President from the airport to his home. That entire route is perfect. It’s smooth, there are no potholes and at night there are new, bright lights on either side, right up to his doorstep. And whenever his motorcade travels through the city, every other traffic stops to give way. He drives through uninterrupted in his custom-made Mercedes limousine, complete with tinted windows. From that angle and on such a road, his view of Zimbabwe is a truly artificial one, one so far removed from the dark, potholed roads of the rest of the country where humans, animals and rubbish cohabit in hellish conditions. If he took time to drive through Chitungwiza, Mbare, Kuwadzana or even the Mandara, Hatfield, Vainona areas, he would have a very different experience, and perhaps a different view of where Zimbabwe is right now. As someone remarked, driving on most of Zimbabwe’s roads is a hazardous activity and at best, an extreme sport.

And it is on those roads that one observes the acute anger and frustration of a nation. A friend suggested that since people are so angry with a powerful leader and government that they can’t do much about, they take their frustrations and anger onto weaker targets. The roads are often a theatre upon which the drama is displayed. Motorists are impatient, there is no courtesy and everyone is seemingly in hurry to go somewhere. It’s as if there is a racing competition and it’s a miracle that there aren’t many crashes given that cars will be trying to dodge the large potholes and therefore often encroach onto the opposite lanes. A motorist can overtake when he’s just yards away from turning into another road. It makes no sense at all but this is normal behaviour on Harare’s hectic roads.

And it’s not just the motorists. Young women in the busier and rowdier sections of the city are subjected to all sorts of harassment and ridicule, which sometimes turns into violence. The self-appointed moral police are groups of jobless youths who hang around the city’s public transport pick-up points. They have given themselves the role of moral enforcers. If they disapprove of the style or length of a woman’s outfit, they express it through all sorts of means including jeering and sometimes, physical force. It’s all very undignified and demeaning but it goes on every day as if it were normal. These young men are taking their anger and frustration onto the wrong targets when the cause of their problems is well known.

On the commuter omnibuses, the main form of public transport, the drivers and touts are loud, rude and generally given to recklessness. Even the farmer who carries sacks of potatoes from his farm to the market takes better care of them. But passengers have become accustomed to this rough treatment and they go along with it. In some ways it’s like a metaphor for how Zimbabweans have generally grown used to and tolerated a government that treats them like second-class citizens. Privately, everyone complains that it’s unbearable, but they bear it anyway and life goes on as if it were normal.

There is a relatively more recent brand of public transport operators – they call them Mushikashika or “Go Faster”. These are small ex-Japanese second hand cars which transport people between short distances, usually within the city centre or to nearby suburbs. As the name suggests, they are utility vehicles which are supposed to transport passengers quickly from one point of the city to another. They are small and therefore quick to fill up unlike the traditional commuter omnibuses which carry more people and therefore take too long to fill up. A popular route is from the city centre to Avondale Shopping Centre or Parirenyatwa Hospital, where they take people to and from the hospital to see their sick relatives. One distinctive feature about them is that they have absolutely no respect for the rules of the road and they don’t care. When you drive along their routes, you have to be on high alert. It is not unusual to see a tout or driver’s assistant hanging precariously at the back of the vehicle, as they drive along. The police watch and do nothing about it. It’s now normal.

The village is a place that always brings much nostalgia. The rains were abundant this year and even at this time of the year the bushes and open fields are still green and fresh. In previous seasons, there would be very little to do in the villages. But on this occasion, people were still very busy in the fields, harvesting their crops. This time the complaint was that the rain was too much. Although this affected some crops, villagers say nzara yemvura iri nani. In other words, while the rain can be destructive, one is bound to get something of value compared to when there is a drought. Not everyone is fortunate as some lost everything to the rain but they believe they will survive through to the next season and their livestock haves good pastures to feed on. The rivers and streams still have some water flowing and this pleases them for the sake of their livestock.

When you visit an African village, you never leave a homestead with an empty stomach. However little they have, the families will scrounge and find something to feed their visitor. They will slaughter their last chicken to make sure the visitor goes away well fed and happy. This time, there was much food in abundance – all produce from the fields – boiled groundnuts or roundnuts, boiled pumpkin, roasted maize, prickly cucumbers, guavas and much more. And no matter how full you were, customs requires that you eat what you are given, or at least a portion of it. You cannot say no as that might be deemed disrespectful. Kudyira charango, as they say – just a token to appreciate the hospitality of your host. They know that you’re full but they appreciate it if you can reciprocate by eating a bit of what they offer. It would be rude not to try what you are offered. There is a certain beauty and romance about village life and you have to respect the customs lest they think you have been corrupted by the ways of the city or my case, overseas. Vekumhiri, as they call us. Muchiri kudya here izvi? (Are you still eating these things, our food?) They ask, with mischievous laughter, as they offer nyimo and nzungu. One has to demonstrate that they have not lost their ways, that you are still one of them, the boy who grew up with them in the village! And so you eat and eat, until the stomach begins to complain …

But the young men and women in the rural areas are living under a dark cloud, much like their cousins in the cities. At Firimoni, the local shops near the village, the young men gather after a day’s work in the fields. Here they drink alcohol, listen to music, sometimes watch television when there’s football and generally catch up as they share stories from their villages. Our arrival from the city brings a great deal of smiles and cheers. It means there will be more alcohol and much to talk about. But they also share their frustrations. It’s hard out there in the rural areas for young ambitious men.

When I’m at the village, I usually sit down with the elders like Mdhara Chimowa and listen to their stories - chronicles of how things have been since the last time I was there. They carry a great deal of wisdom and talking to them, one can feel the pulse of the community. The rural folk are as tired as their urban counterparts. They see very little hope under the present regime. “Zvakanyanya,” is all that most of them say, shaking their heads. It is their way of saying things are getting more and more difficult, that things have become unbearable. It is difficult for them to speak out here, because there is always a fear that someone is always listening and that any slip up could lead to punishment by the authorities or their self-appointed agents. But a story is told that one evening, a group of young men challenged a local man who had chanted a ZANU PF slogan as they peacefully drank their alcohol. They told him that he could not bully them. It’s the kind of spirit which, if sustained, could make a difference as the election season draws nearer.

Back in Harare, tobacco farmers were having trouble with the police. Frustrated by payment delays, some farmers became agitated, demanding their dues after days, sometimes weeks of waiting. The police reacted in the typical heavy-handed fashion and beat up the farmers. After toiling in their fields for months, and tobacco farming is known to be a labour intensive enterprise, the poor farmers found themselves at the wrong end of an overzealous police force. It was a pitiful sight. Tired of waiting, some farmers have become victims of exploitative vultures. An observer told me that young men and women with bags of cash were approaching tired and frustrated farmers, offering them cash for their tobacco but at a huge discount. “The cash is here,” he said. “There are wealthy characters, some of them foreign businessmen, who are sending their middlemen to buy tobacco from the farmersfamers at a fraction of its value. The farmers are coxed to sell their tobacco at a heavy discount, but at least they are happy to go away with some cash. The businessmen then deal with the tobacco and take the difference.” In the end, it is these vultures who are making money from the tobacco.

I had lunch with a friend who works for a financial services company. He explained some of the challenges that the banks are facing, especially in their dealings with government. The fact of the matter is that the government is broke and it is passing its burdens onto the banks. He gave an example of payment of public servants’ wages. When the wages are due, government credits the accounts but it does not deliver the cash. When public servants come to the bank to withdraw their wages, they expect the bank to have their cash. It is up to the bank to go around looking for cash but this is hard to come by. In the end, customers have to queue for hours, sometimes days to withdraw paltry amounts that the banks can afford. The government would have simply shifted the problem to the banks and unaware that the government is not performing its obligations to the banks, customers blame the banks for failing to deliver their money. How long this can go on for is anybody’s guess but sooner or later it will reach tipping point. “There will come a point when all these banks will simply having nothing to give,” he said.

When you drive from Harare to Wedza, there is a popular stop-over called Mushandirapamwe, just a few miles from Waddilove Institute, one of the oldest educational institutions established by Wesleyan Methodists many years ago. There is one big building which has been there for as long as I can remember. In it is a small convenience shop, a bar selling all types of alcoholic beverages, an eating house. Behind it there is a row of Blair toilets. Motorists stop here for many reasons, some to replenish their stocks of beverages or to relieve themselves. Some just stop out of habit. It is also a junction where another road leads to Mahusekwa, kwaChihota. The volume of traffic and passengers at Mushandirapamwe attracts vendors from the surrounding areas. This is a rich farming area, with abundant rains and locals come to sell all types of vegetables. As soon as a vehicle arrives at the Mushandirapamwe, vendors literally swarm around it, hoping to do some business. We often stop here and I end up buying more than I would have intended. I look at the men and women, boys and girls and feel for them. I often say I will buy a bundle of vegetable from each of them, believing that to be a fair method where competition is stiff.

The other day a man was selling tsenza – a tuber which is popular at this time of the year. I didn’t want tsenza, but he pleaded. Just one will do, he begged. How much is it, I asked. Fifty cents, he said. So I took him aside and asked what he was doing to escape this life of selling tsenza. “I do not want to grow old selling tsenza, mkoma” he said. He passed his secondary education some years ago and tried Harare but it did not work out. So he returned to the village and from there he sells whatever he grows. He has been specialising in tsenza but that is not the life he wants. I asked him again what he was doing to change his life. We know what we must do mkoma but the situation is hard here. People are scared. Just last week, the village heads were taken to Marondera and we do not know what they were told. Some of us are prepared to do the right thing but the big job is to convince others that they are safe” I bought two packets and wished him well.

Driving away, I replayed the conversation in my head. It reminded me of the challenges that rural people face and how their choices are emasculated by the system. It is in the rural areas where the democratic forces have a big task. There is no need to spend time in the urban areas where most are converted. The big job lies in reassuring the rural masses, people like the tsenza seller who desperately wants to escape that life but it also alive to is also well aware of the challenges that he faces in his community.

But here too the opposition movement and civil society must look in the mirror. They need to look at the messages that they are sending to the voting population. ZANU PF is happy when the opposition sends negative messages to the people. Such messages demonstrate weakness in the face of a bully. In the end people do not have confidence that the opposition can protect them. They go into an election already pronouncing defeat on account of rigging. The people have to be reassured that the opposition is confident, despite the odds. The more the opposition bleats about the conditions, the more hopeless their supporters and fence-sitters become. They want to know that their leaders have strategies to overcome rigging and a stolen election. In the past, very little has happened after a stolen election except mere talk. If the leaders are unsure and timid, the voters are likely to adopt the same mode and go for the safe option. Speaking to the people in the rural areas, they want their leaders to exude confidence. Such confidence eventually seeps into the population that despite the odds, there is a chance. Ditch negativity and adopt a more confident and assured approach.

ZANU PF is always in your face. One of the more conspicuous features on Harare’s roads and car parks are the cars emblazoned with images of Grace Mugabe and the ZANU PF flag. These cars have been around for some time and they have become a normal sight for Zimbabweans. It’s as if Grace Mugabe and ZANU PF have been in campaign mode all along. In most countries election seasons come and go. For ZANU PF, every day is campaign day. After controversially winning the 2013 elections, it seems all ZANU PF has ever been concerned with is how to retain power in the next elections and it has therefore been in campaign mode from August 2013. The opportunities are vast - public events such as independence day celebrations, funerals of those declared national heroes, even the opening of an internet cafe, all one ever hears at these events is why ZANU PF should rule forever. I ask my friend about these cars, if it’s normal. “Standard, wangu,” he says, with a shrug. In other words, it’s normal. But where are they getting the money from when the country is so broke? “Vane bag,” he says, street language which says they have the money. And it is that “bag” that ZANU PF often uses to lure desperate young people. But like in 2007, ZANU PF is far too comfortable despite the conditions and the opposition appears to be in disarray. 2008 produced an electoral outcome that shocked ZANU PF. It is interesting that 2018 presents yet another election. Much depends on whether the ruling party and opposition have learnt anything from ten years ago.

Back at Siya-so, it’s always a hive of activity. I was last here in October and when I arrived, the boys who know me swarm around the car, saying “Mdhara auya!” and we laugh as we shake hands. They know I am not there to buy anything as I often visit just to chat and see how they are getting by. Zvakanyanya mdhara, they say, echoing the sentiments from the village. It is hard. The other then asks ko mudhara mota iya makaisa muhomwe? I did not understand. Then my brother who was with me explains to me that they are asking iof I sold the car I had the last time I was there. Kuisa muhomwe translates literally to pocketing the car. By this they mean selling the car and of course pocketing the cash. I always enjoy the language of the youths in these parts. I am always learning something new. MaSuper chete mdhara munenge maSparker, says the other, asking for the popular opaque beer – Chibuku Super. We sit down and talk and I hear their stories. I ask myself how often the politicians come down to listen to the stories of these young men. They could learn a lot. MaSparker mdhara, they say as we drive away.

The roads of Zimbabwe are treacherous. Every so often there is a horrible accident that claims many innocent lives. These accidents are man-made. They are symptoms of a decaying infrastructure. There are potholes all over and in some cases, there is little evidence that there used to be a road. The poor state of the roads is a metaphor of the challenge that Zimbabwe faces – that as a nation, the road upon which we are is travelling is treacherous. You look around and it’s hard to see what direction the country is taking. As one punter pointed out as we tried to navigate our way through Highfields, what we need is new roads. And by this he wasn’t just referring to the physical roads. It was a more profound statement that Zimbabwe is in need of a new leadership that will take it in a new direction.

As I boarded my flight, all the experiences of the previous two weeks came flooding back. I smiled as I remembered one of Chenjerai Hove’s stories with the line, “Don’t worry my sister, this is our home”. It is hard at home. But somehow, incredibly, people are getting by. I could hear their voices in my head, “Don’t worry my brother, this is our home”.

waMagaisa

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