Searching for fuel and other tales from Zimbabwe

Long queues at a petrol station
Long queues at a petrol station (© Eric Beauchemin)

Zimbabwe’s economy used to be one of the most vibrant in Africa. But by 2003, the country’s economy had collapsed. It’s estimated that up to a fourth of Zimbabwe’s 11 million people had fled the country. Three-quarters of the remaining Zimbabweans were living on less than one US dollar a day. Petrol, food, cash and even hope were in short supply.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: October 1, 2003


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Searching for fuel and other tales from Zimbabwe”. Because of the severe restrictions placed on foreign journalists, Eric Beauchemin traveled undercover to Zimbabwe.

You queue for mealie-meal. You queue for money. You queue for petrol. You queue for sugar. Everything else you have to queue for.

Sometimes you sleep without eating anything. It’s really bad. The situation is really bad.

Honestly, I’m fed up. If I had a way, I would fly out of this country. Just have wings and get my children under my wings. Get gone to anywhere, I don’t mind where.

Zimbabwe is collapsing: up to a fourth of Zimbabwe’s 11 million people are believed to have fled the country. Three-quarters of the remaining Zimbabweans live on less than a dollar a day. Petrol, food, cash and even hope are in short supply. The crisis began in the late 1990s when so-called war veterans demanded compensation for their part in the struggle to liberate their country from British rule. The president, Robert Mugabe, promised them land and money. But there was no money, and inflation began to skyrocket. Growing opposition to President Mugabe’s rule led to the formation of the MDC or Movement for Democratic Change. President Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party has resorted to vote-rigging, intimidation, torture and even murder to remain in power. Today, Zimbabwe finds itself on the brink. The country’s economy – once one of the most vibrant in Africa – has been devastated. So too have the lives of almost every single Zimbabwean.

John is a retired school headmaster. He and I went off to find fuel. In today’s Zimbabwe, petrol stations are empty. The only gasoline available is on the black market.

Ah, we’re having it tough here. Can you imagine you retiring from job? I did 42 years of work. I have not been paid. Only to get paid, I’ve got to struggle to get paid. After having worked for so long. They want me to die. How do I survive?

John retired last year. He belongs to a class of people that have almost disappeared in Zimbabwe: the middle class.

I had a little savings, but you notice that you can stay for almost a year without receiving your terminal benefits, and in the interim period, you have to fend for yourself. So are you using your savings to survive? Yes. Well, you sell this and that. You go to the extent of selling your property. Have you been doing that? I have had to sell my old car. Without that, I would not have been able to survive. Do you think you are going to have to start selling furniture and things like that? If it goes on and I don’t receive the money, I would have to start selling furniture. There are no two ways about it. How much did you say your pension was? I don’t even know what it is at the moment. Why not? I’ve not been told.

John and I are trying to find fuel. In today’s Zimbabwe, petrol stations are empty. The only gasoline available is on the black market.

I’m one Zimbabwean. I’m a teacher. That’s enough. Can you tell me what life was like for you about 4 or 5 years ago when the situation was better here in Zimbabwe? Let me say 5 years ago. I began teaching in 1985 and I tell you, life was just easy for me. As for my family, I think they were the most comfortable. They had all that they needed in terms of clothing, food, and everything else. My kids go to A schools, but now they go there through struggle. I chose those schools because I could afford them. Now I cannot pull them out. They are used to those schools, but I tell you, I’m struggling.

It’s dangerous to speak in Zimbabwe, so I’ll call this teacher Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s youngest child attends a school outside of town. Her school fees doubled recently and are likely to increase again in the coming months. But Elizabeth’s biggest problem is transport.

She has to be driven to school, driven back home. Now there is no fuel. You can see there is no fuel. So I really struggle. I’m even confused now. I don’t know whether to pull her out or what. But when I talk about pulling her out, she tells me, ‘mommy, you say at your school there are no books’. She doesn’t want. Now, I’m confused.

Jack is a 45-year-old fireman.

Nowadays, I cannot afford to have 3 meals. Only 1 meal. That is only at night. During the mornings, we only have some tea without any bread. Just tea only because we cannot even afford to buy sugar which is not available. We cannot even buy bread, which is too expensive. And my salary is too little that I cannot even afford it. What is your salary? At the moment, I am getting 102,000 dollars, but when I started working in 1982, I was earning almost 190 dollars on which I can even afford to buy bread, having tea in the morning, lunch in the afternoon, tea in the afternoon, and again supper in the evening, which means we might even have 4 or 5 meals a day and buying all the luxury which I can afford. But at the moment I cannot even afford to do that.

Hyperinflation is making the Zim dollar worthless
Hyperinflation is making the Zim dollar worthless (© Eric Beauchemin)

Inflation is now running at 500% a year; economists predict that it will double by the end of 2003. Last month, in Bulawayo – Zimbabwe’s second biggest city – the exchange rate for 1 US dollar was 2500 Zim dollars. Today’s it’s 3500. And in the capital Harare, it’s 6000 Zim dollars.

If I can even be given 500,000 dollars, I think I cannot even afford to have it with my children, with my 5 children, because definitely we are in misery, misery. Are your children going hungry? True. It’s true. Sometimes we sleep without eating anything. We are waiting for the other day. We are wondering where we will get some money to buy the food, going places, looking for some food from other people. It’s really bad. The situation is really bad.

Elizabeth (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: But how are you making ends meet if you have so little? [sigh] I’ve always wondered. It’s through God’s grace, I tell you. I’ve always wondered how we make ends meet because we really struggle. At times you find I wait there by the road. There are buses from Lupane. So people from there had a little bit of some harvest. So we wait for them. When they drop here from buses, at times, they sell us maize and all that. You can imagine, a teacher waiting all the day on the road to get a bag of maize [chuckle]. There are other things that we should be doing, honestly, but we can’t.

When I go to work, I move on foot. It’s about 13 kilometres. Walking. I go there to work at 8. So sometimes I wake up half past five, move on foot to work. I arrive there sometimes at quarter to 8, 10 to 8. Then we knock off at around 6 o’clock in the evening. Then I walk back until I arrive at home, around past 8. The children, they are seeing the situation. Even saying, ‘oh daddy why are you working. Why don’t you stay at home? Why don’t you say today you are sick?’ But I say, no I’m trying to get that little for you so that you might survive.

EB: Does this also mean that your social contacts, your contacts with other people have been reduced? They’ve been reduced [chuckle]. They’ve been reduced because any movement means it’s a cost, a higher cost than you can afford. You are now limited to a smaller area than you are used to. EB: Does it also mean that you are walking a lot more than you used to? Yes. But the walking has done me good. You see, I feel more energetic than I used to, [chuckle] sitting in a car. It’s a change in the lifestyle, you know. EB: Is it necessary to look at the positive things in this crisis? Yeah, like I’m saying. The other advantages are if you used to just drive around and not seeing other people. Now you walk around and you can know the people in the neighbourhood [chuckle]. You see. EB: Do you commensurate with them about the crisis? Yeah, you are able to communicate more with those you would not have communicated with. So people begin to see commonly what the difficulties are.

EB: You said that you walk 13 kilometres to work in the morning and 13 kilometres back. There are thousands and thousands and thousands of Zimbabweans who are doing the same thing, having to get up very early in the morning, getting home late at night because they have to walk such long distances. Do you talk to these people? Do you simply think to yourself? What happens? What’s it like? Well in fact, these days, it’s not surprising to see a chain of people, a queue of people moving on foot from work home, home to work. and people sometimes talk on their way, going to work or coming from work, talking about the hardships they are facing in this country. Even if you meet a person who you have never seen in your life, you will hear him telling you ‘ah, life is so difficult’. EB: Does it help to be able to talk to other people? Yes, I think it does help. Most probably, we might have a change in these people’s hearts. Sometimes these people were used to make this government what it is today, by voting into power and having all. But if you start talking, most probably people might have another attitude against this government, so that they will see we were told lies about what was to happen, which is no longer happening.

If you go to the banks, they tell you that there’s no money. The situation is bad. You are given only sometimes 5000 dollars. You go again to the bank the other day. They tell you today we don’t have money. Instead you will be spending that 5000 dollars boarding some buses, going to town, until you finish all the 5000 without even buying for the children.

There isn’t any cash. You know this other day, I bought some cash from an emergency taxi owner. I was up above here. I needed 100,000. So he says to me, ‘if you bring me 5000 and a check, then I’ll give you 100,000’. So I had to pay him 5000 to get 100,000 in cash and give him a check. That’s how we survive.

People have to queue at the banks, day in, day out, only to be given 5000. EB: Have you been queuing at the banks also? Yes. We don’t only queue for money. You queue for mealie-meal. You queue for petrol. You queue for sugar. Everything else you’ve got to queue for. You have got to find out if you see a queue, what is this queue for? Otherwise you are going to queue for a queue that does not sell what you want. EB: Have you ever had to queue in your life? No. The queues started about 3 years ago. Before that, everything was available. We don’t understand why the position has changed suddenly to this.

People definitely talk. They are no longer afraid to talk. Almost everybody is feeling the pinch. It’s not something which is hidden, which is done without people talking. They are not even afraid. They are even saying everything which is happening. But the government is just quiet. It’s just looking at the situation going, deteriorating every day without doing anything about it.

Graffiti in favour of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)
Graffiti in favour of the opposition MDC, Movement for Democratic Change (© Eric Beauchemin)

My fiancé is part of the opposition party, and people have got to know that. So at times, even at work, you find some duties you are asked to do are those that want to fix you, to see what you are going to do. Say there is a meeting where the guests are going to be ZANU-PF. You are made to be the person who is going to receive those guests, entertain them, take them to whatever. You know, how do I entertain a ZANU-PF guest? How do I entertain him? I have nothing to say to him. I have nothing to say to him. But you are asked to have something to say to that person. You don’t just get to a guest and sit and look at him or look aside. Then he wonders, how are these people hosting? How do you feel about defending ZANU-PF? Defend! Ah, there’s no way I can. Even when I’m asked to give a duty that will ask me to defend it, honestly, I will try and avoid that. I can’t. I can’t because any sane person would wonder how you defend such an obvious critical situation. Yes, I wouldn’t. EB: So what do you say to them? At times, I just go quiet [laughter]. At times…Funny enough, I’m just one brave person. Sometimes, I just go, ‘how are we going to live in this world’, and you find the person responds very positively. And I wonder, is it really true? Is he going to come back at night and [laughter]. At times, I find myself talking, discussing the truth with the person. EB: And how do people respond? To my surprise, nobody has ever responded negatively to this. Each time you talk about the economical problems, the political problems, everybody seems to be on the same side with you. Everybody says it’s so bad. It’s so bad. We are tired. But well, the next day, you find people say it’s so good. And you wonder.

Some people who are business people, they feel the situation should go on like this because they will be more richer. They are not even worried. They feel happy if the situation should remain like that, especially those who are on high ranks. They are the ones who are benefiting a lot. But they’re criminals. Definitely the business people are criminals. Prices are stipulated but these prices, they are not taking care of them. Then the government doesn’t even care whether it had a stipulated price. Even if it is caught, we are told, oh this businessman was caught. He goes in the back door. He buys the policeman and then he is left to carry on with the same price which he was using. They don’t even care. Sometimes I regret to say I am working because what I am doing, there’s nothing which I am getting.

John’s 3 children have all emigrated, in search of a future.

They couldn’t get employed. If it were not for the political, economic situation, they shouldn’t be out there. Actually we don’t like them to be there. Neither do they want to be working as far as all that. It definitely makes me very sad. Although we are consoled by the fact that they are living their own lives. They shouldn’t live our desolate lives.

Oh, my wife is having a lot of problems. At the moment she is having some BP. EB: What’s that? High blood pressure. The doctors say she thinks too much. She’s depending on pills. She now goes to the doctor every month for blood check-up, but my wife is not even feeling well, but I know it’s just because of the situation. She’s thinking about the situation. She’s thinking about our life. Life was so rosy. Definitely life has deteriorated that if she looks at her kids, she feels sorry. Why are they on earth because sometimes they sleep without eating and she feels bad why they are there. So it’s not a happy woman at the moment.

Child playing with a tyre
Child playing with a tyre (© Eric Beauchemin)

At times honestly I sit alone, try to think. And I really feel very sad. At times, I feel like crying. My little girl always says, ‘what do you think about, thinking about now, you don’t look happy’. She will always question, but at times I really sit down to think and say how will I survive honestly? Give myself another year, will I survive with these kids? I don’t think I will.

I even feel bad about why we are an independent country having such problems. I thought most probably when we are independent, we might be free to do whatever we wanted and even having better lives for ourselves. I’m really regretting why we have this independence, which has gone so bad, really bad for us.

At times you don’t really know what to think, what to feel about your own country. You just feel you hate it at times. You really feel that it’s no longer the Zimbabwe that you know. It’s a prison. You tell the truth: you live in fear. So is that not a prison where you cannot tell the truth, when it’s so obvious? It’s like I was not born here. I hate it for sure because it’s harassing us so much.

I’ve said to myself, am I the only one affected by all these problems, or somehow am I getting mentally disturbed? Because I find that most of the time, I am carrying the hurt in me. And I wonder how I will do away with it.

I’m really regretting of what’s happening at the moment. Of course, this country is rich. It’s having almost everything. But there are only very few individuals who are having that heaven here in this country. The majority of people are really suffering.

If it got worse, we don’t know what’s going to happen. A terrible explosion. You know when people are angry, it’s simmering, and once it gets to its hottest, it can exude like in a volcano. So from that point of view, we are really afraid. EB: Is there a real potential for violence? At the moment, yes, there is. There is. There is.

I think the country has gone down so much that maybe it will never come up again. I don’t know. Economists may know better, but just being me, I think the worst has come to its end. I can’t see Zimbabwe come up again. Maybe one day. I’m fed up. Not even tired, I’m fed up. Honestly I’m fed up. If I had a way, I would fly out of this country. Just have wings and get my children under my wings. Get gone to anywhere. I don’t mind where, but where I wouldn’t see this situation of the economical and political problems that are facing this country.

“Searching for fuel and other tales from Zimbabwe” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands presentation.