Zimbabwe’s collapsing reality

The World

As sick an upset as this child sounds, he’s lucky, he’s made it to a hospital and this week the hospital has some of medicines it needs to treat him. I’ve made it onto this ward by posing as a foreigner who’s come to learn how charities can help the sick of Zimbabwe. Away from the microphone the nurses tell me they’re often missing the most basic supplies. Today they just received the first shipment of latex gloves they’ve had in weeks. Few medical professionals will speak openly about the crumbling health system. The Head of Zimbabwe’s Physicians for Human Rights is one of them. He spoke to me at his home, �I think it’s in a state of near collapse and some have said it’s already collapsed. Some are struggling to still keep the system running.� The energy and enthusiasm of youth masks the reality of life inside Zimbabwe. In this township outside Hariri, the children shout and jostle, using up every last second of daytime to play. When nighttime comes there’s often no electricity to light the streets or their modest homes. Tonight there is enough power for this man to cook a meal, a kind of porridge and vegetables. The menu was the same for breakfast. He may be a professional, an educated and trained teacher, but he’s eating like a poor man. LL �do you get tired of eating the same thing over and over again?� The man, �There’s nothing you can do.� Run away inflation is shrinking the buying power of his paycheck; it’s $12 million Zimbabwean dollars, now only the equivalent of about $4 American dollars a month. The government estimates the inflation rate is 8,000%, some estimates put it as high as 50,000%. �I can’t even afford to feed the family,� that’s his biggest worry; his wife is pregnant and he’s supporting his mother and brother and all that worrying is hurting his ability to do his job, �When I get into the classroom I am thinking about what my family is going to eat today so I end up selling some sweets to the schoolchildren so that I supplement my salary.� He would leave like many others to go teach in South Africa if he could. But he cannot even afford the price of a bus ticket. Still he’s doing better than many others. A bony finger sweeps through a tub of water, a ghostly face peering up from behind a tattered curtain. This is the entrance to one man’s home, at least what home is now. it’s not even a shack, more a lean-to made of bits and pieces of corrugated iron, cardboard, cloth and wood. He says, �We live by selling firewood,� she says, �if they see us they come for us and take it away and harass us. there’s no other way I can make money. I live with this misery day in and day out.� This misery she says was visited on her by local officials of the governing party. They came to this tiny village of 50 families last fall and knocked their houses down. When the villagers rebuilt ramshackle huts, the officials came back and knocked those down too. The people here say they’re targets because they support the opposition. At 79, this woman was already having a tough time caring for five grandchildren, an entire generation of parents have been lost to AIDS. Now the children range around in the muck and the mud, barefoot and dirty. The oldest puts a protective arm around her sister, �She can’t go to school,� she says, �since she lost her shoes and her uniform when their home was destroyed.� Back in Hariri the leader of the opposition can only lament his nation’s fall from promise as the jewel of Africa, �When I look around the situation in the country, I see a catastrophe, a tragic comedy of what this country should have been and what it is not.� For these villagers nothing remains of Robert Mugabe’s promises when he came to power, there is no justice nor prosperity here. An old man moves towards his shack, stepping inside to check on his wife. She sits on a towel staring forward, she is blind and frail. She cannot forget what happened to them when they tried to rebuild, �They are coming again, broken down.� He slams his fist into his hand, a symbol of the heavy fist Mugabe uses to keep his power and to keep his nation on its knees. This lawyer has felt those fists as well, she was beaten after lawyers demonstrated against the government in May. She has fought Mugabe’s regime in the courts and the streets for years, but she believes he has staying power, he won’t step aside any time soon, �If he’s not, he’s not going to go anywhere, why would you? He’s got the power of state behind him, he’s got his Chief Justice holding him, the commanders of the various armed forces are all beholden to him. Why on earth would you want to get out of power? He’s got it all.� At sunset on the outskirts of Hariri, the birds sing out over the graves in a cemetery the size of nine football fields. Many of the plots are freshly dug, bright plastic flowers are tied to simple crosses made of sticks. Many of the dead weren’t yet forty. Life expectancy has fallen sharply. For women it’s not 34, for men, 37. Doctors Without Borders estimates 3,500 people are dying every week from AIDS related illnesses. Most who are still living with HIV can’t get the drugs they need to survive. Inside Zimbabwe almost everyone struggles from cradle to grave and whispers at the hand of a leader who once promised them so much.

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