Posted on October 1, 2004

Desperate Measures In Zimbabwe

Michael Hartnack, BBC News, Sep. 29

With 90% of the country’s 11.8m people living on less than $1 a day, Zimbabweans are trying to deal with extreme poverty in a number of desperate ways.

For two million people, the answer over the past four years has been emigration, either the road to Harare International Airport, or to the Beitbridge border post with South Africa.

Along the route, prostitution flourishes, despite the threat posed by HIV/Aids. Starving women sell their bodies for the deposit on a cool drink bottle: U$14cents.

Meanwhile roughly 500,000 former employees of evicted white farmers are fending for themselves as hand-to-mouth goldpanners, vendors of stolen firewood and odd-job-men.

Turning to religion

A spirit of war-weariness is settling upon the country once called “the bread basket of Africa.”

National output and foreign currency earnings have crashed, and inflation has hit 600%. Economists talk of “200% unemployment”.

Less than a million people have formal sector jobs. The National Council for the Welfare of Children estimates there are at least 5,000 children living on the streets of the capital alone.

In desperation, some are turning to the Vapostori, or apostles, a religious sect which practice a mixture of Christianity and veneration of ancestors.

A seven-year old prophetess, Tespy, who says she is “the third voice of Jesus,” was once followed by 2,000 people on a donkey cart pilgrimage from Guruve on the Zambezi Escarpment to Mazowe, 30km north of the capital.

“Blacks, coloureds, whites, Muslims and born-again Christians — they all come,” Barbara Thomson, an Irish-born widow who has lived in Zimbabwe for 45 years and says she is “consulted” by four or five people a day, told BBC World Service’s Focus on Africa magazine.

“Money is their big worry.”

Frequent visitors are pensioners fearful that long-dead grandparents and great-grandparents will be angered by the sale of family heirlooms.

Every fourth week, Harare’s Senior Citizens Club holds an auction where its 200 members — mostly white septuagenarians — turn their treasures into cash.

Some receive pensions as low as US$10 cents a month and would starve but for charity and remittances from relatives abroad.

Groups of well-wishers, driven underground by a government clampdown on independent voluntary organisations, distribute up to 700 meals a day to private homes.

In the same way, churches sneak relief food into townships to evade pro-government militia and agents of the Central Intelligence Organisation.

Broken spirits

Meanwhile, the Harare-based Samaritans organisation, which used to deal with hundreds of suicide emergency calls a month, has been hamstrung by the soaring cost of phone calls — phone boxes no longer work because hyperinflation has rendered coins worthless.

The organisation cannot afford a toll-free number. It is also short of volunteers, following the emigration of many educated, middle class Zimbabweans who were their traditional recruitment pool.

And a counsellor at the Samaritans said that many people are finding they cannot face the poverty — and are giving up altogether as money-related crises drive them to suicide.

“Their spirits are broken by poverty,” she said.

“They give up and do not call us.”

Many elderly people deliberately kill themselves by refusing to eat. Meanwhile children and teenagers are also driven by despair when their families are unable to pay fees which range from US$ 60 cents a term at government primary schools to US$12 at secondary schools.

Some young girls buy anti-malarial tablets or steal pesticides, hoping for a swift end but die after suffering weeks of agony as their liver and kidneys are destroyed.

“In the rural areas women hang themselves, or pour paraffin over themselves and their children and set themselves alight,” says the counsellor.

“In town they turn to poison. Families pretend it was an accident to try and avoid the stigma and the expense of rituals to propitiate the spirit.”