The deepening crisis in Zimbabwe

One hundred trillion Zim dollars
One hundred trillion Zim dollars (© Flickr/Adam Selwood)

The deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe occasionally draws headlines elsewhere, and the news is never good. The economic situation has gone into steep decline, in part due to the expensive costs of participating in an expensive war in the Congo, in part as a result of the invasion and seizure of nearly 4500 white-owned commercial farms. But the ruling party’s drastic approach to land reform is only part of the picture: a drought, rigged elections, fuel shortages, hunger, human rights abuses, widespread violence against any accused of dissent or opposition, it’s hard to imagine how people cope from day to day. Three people in Zimbabwe describe how their lives have been affected by the latest developments in their country.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: September 29, 2003


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “A Good Life” with Ginger da Silva.

I want to tell you: our government is killing us. Otherwise I will die of hunger. I’m sick. I don’t have something to eat. Things are very expensive, and they are not there in shops. There’s no food in Zimbabwe. We are starving.

The deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe occasionally draws headlines elsewhere, and the news is never good. The economic situation has gone into steep decline, in part due to the expensive costs of participating in an expensive war in the Congo, in part as a result of the invasion and seizure of nearly 4500 white-owned commercial farms. But the ruling party’s drastic approach to land reform is only part of the picture: a drought, rigged elections, fuel shortages, hunger, human rights abuses, widespread violence against any accused of dissent or opposition, it’s hard to imagine how people cope from day to day. Radio Netherlands’ Eric Beauchemin just went to Zimbabwe. Because of severe restrictions against foreign journalists, he travelled undercover. But despite the risks, some people were willing to talk. In this edition of the programme, we hear from three people in Zimbabwe willing to describe how their lives have been affected by the developments in their country. Because it’s dangerous to say anything that might be taken as critical of the government or the ruling party, we withhold their real names. The first is a doctor, a foreign immigrant who came to dedicate his life to helping people in Zimbabwe. He’s still practicing in a major hospital. Eric Beauchemin asked him how the health service had deteriorated in the last couple of years.

That’s a very big question. It’s difficult to know where to start. The situation has gone so severely bad, particularly in the last year, and I would say in the last month, that I would say we are almost unable to do the basic job that we are supposed to be doing, by which I mean doing routine operations, dealing with emergencies, treating patients without any high technological backup, just basic things – dealing with intestinal obstructions, dealing with appendicitis, dealing with trauma victims. EB: What is the problem? Is it staffing? Is it drugs? Is it lack of funds? It’s a combination of all these factors. At the moment, the central hospital in Bulawayo is completely out of intravenous fluids. Patients are having to buy them themselves, which means of course that relatives have to run around and get them from private pharmacies. It means also obviously that patients coming from outside of town, if they arrive without any relatives, then they are in no position to get any fluids. A kind soul might have to find some. But this is very, very much basic stuff. EB: Because of the economic crisis and the cash problems, it would be difficult even if people did have money to be able to purchase these things. At present, those with money seem to be able to find these things. Exactly where I’m not sure, probably private pharmacies, but the problem cited by the hospitals is lack of cash. There is a flow problem, a production problem, which I think depends on foreign exchange. That is with the fluids, their containers, the plastics and the systems involved with sterilisation. The question of staffing is extremely dire. The orthopaedic department is run by one middle-grade doctor. There’s no consultant. Orthopaedics accounts for at least half of the surgeries that is done at the hospital. The neurologist is threatening to leave. There are only two surgeons for a catchment area of over two million people. The services, particularly with the lack of fuel for transport, means that patients who are supposed to be coming to the central hospitals for referral are simply not arriving. If you look around the hospitals, they are relatively empty. Contrary to what the public seems to think. They are not overflowing, and part of that if of course people have lost confidence. They know that when they come to hospital, not much is done. EB: What about in terms of nurses? Have a lot of nursing staff left also? Huge numbers of nurses have left. Initially, when I came to Zimbabwe in 1986, I would say there was an excess of nurses. That was a bit of a problem then. There were too many cooks spoiling the broth. But the absolute reverse is the case, and many wards only have one sister on at night or even no sister at all. Also the other problem is the level of teaching has deteriorated drastically as the more senior nurses have gone to more lucrative jobs, particularly in Australia and the UK. Then the result is that the training that the rest get is deficient, and one sees this in deteriorating standards. And latterly, the government has enforced regulations that nurses have to go through the youth training programme, which is the so-called militia, and many of these young folk either simply don’t want to learn anything or think that they know it all already or are of such a mindless mentality that they are totally incapable of learning anything. So, I really fear for the standards of nursing in this country. EB: What have been the consequences for patient care? Dire, absolutely dire. I mean, long back, there’s always been problems about getting people to observe patients, particularly at night, record observations. But latterly, the understanding of the need to do those observations is lacking. People don’t seem to understand why they are doing things, even if they are doing things and have absolutely no clue as to what to do even if things do go wrong. You find, for example, oxygen masks put on somebody’s face when they’ve had a tracheostomy, where the air goes through a different hole, things that one of have though were fairly basic, quite apart from leaving drips not working, failing to understand when somebody’s stopped breathing. Being called to see a patient who has been dead some eight hours is not unusual. EB: Does it mean also that a lot of people are dying in hospital? It’s difficult to say how many more are succumbing because of a lack of facilities, lack of equipment and provision of drugs because the huge impact is of AIDS, HIV disease, and that has severely increased the death toll in hospital. But, as I was saying, because the numbers are much fewer, in hospital, deaths may even be less now. The important thing is what is happening outside, what’s happening in the districts, and what’s happening to those patients who simply can’t get to hospital. That’s the big unknown. EB: You also work in the districts. Do you have some observations about that? Yeah, I’ve had a programme of going out to the district hospitals for the last 14 years, and it’s very clear to me that these patients are having increasing difficulties of getting to hospital, as I mentioned, the transport but also the financial difficulties. Those that don’t have transport have to get there. They often have to find their own medicines, their own equipment, and this is incredibly expensive. So nowadays, I’m doing operations in the districts which I wouldn’t have done years back because they are not of my specialty, but I know that if I don’t do them, they certainly won’t get done. EB: You said at the very beginning that the situation has deteriorated quite markedly in the past month. Why has it become so serious? Well, I think somehow before, there was crisis management. Things would run out. Somebody would find a fund of money to get an extra supply of equipment, for example, of IV fluids. But now it seems either the willingness or the determination to do these things has evaporated or simply that there’s just no cash. I think there’s also a demoralising effect that people shrug their shoulders and say, ’well, there’s nothing I can do’ and give up and walk away from the problem. But I have noticed a significant deterioration. It’s multi-factorial. But whereas in the months gone back, I could make do, fiddle around, get things, now I’m almost in the position where I simply can’t do my work. EB: So, will you continue? That’s a very difficult question to answer. I don’t want to give up. I don’t want to be defeated because my purpose of being in the country is to look after patients, and to retreat into the private sector as many of my colleagues have done is not really why I am here. It’s perfectly obvious that the patients who can’t afford private medicine are the people who need the medical care. It’s another unfortunate factor that the government hospitals – because they treat police and army for free and also the youth militia surprisingly – these are the people who are getting to hospital, and the common folk just don’t get there.

Of course, it’s not only public health that’s being affected by Zimbabwe’s state of turmoil. Education is suffering too. Teachers have always been highly regarded in Zimbabwe, particularly in the rural areas. Because of a recent pay hike, teachers now earn about 200,000 Zim dollars a month. Currently, that’s about 40 US dollars or four times as much as the average worker. But, like everyone else, they’ve been caught up in the country’s cash crisis. People have to queue at banks up to three days to withdraw 5000 Zim dollars or the equivalent of 1 US dollar. Teachers have to skip classes to get cash to go to banks. It’s a problem for Rosemary who’s an assistant head mistress in a rural area outside of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second biggest city. She has to cover for the teachers in her school.

If they don’t have money, then they won’t come. There’s no way I can say ‘where were you?’ and so on because I can’t expect a teacher to work when he hasn’t got his pay to get his provisions too. So they spend time and time looking for money because the banks don’t have the cash. I’m getting my money in bits, you know, getting 20,000 when I am supposed to be earning about 250,000. In the end, I don’t know where it has gone to. You see what I mean? That’s the greatest problem now with the staff. The parents look up to me that I should be at school because if they heard the deputy is not there, then there is chaos in the school. I can manage a school on my own. I can find of dealing with the children, seeing that the teachers are not there because I have an agreement with the government that I have to make sure that things go well. Even when it’s tough, I have to be at school. Besides, if you are earning more, they look up to you that you can suffer like them. That’s what they have in their minds. She cannot complain because after all, she is earning a lot. So she’s comfortable. And the parents, when they come to school, they say ‘where were you?’. They know that the teachers are looking for money, but I’m there, they are happy. Even the children, when they come to school and they find nobody, there could be chaos in the classroom, the resources that the parents are finding so hard to get, they are struggling to make ends meet. In the community, even if there is a doctor, the parents trust the teacher more. They want the teacher to be exemplary because they are thinking their children learn a lot from the teachers as professionals rather than from all other professions who can be there. As a teacher, we have that responsibility to make them see things that they ??. We try.

 But many factors are beyond the teachers’ control. The seizure of white-owned commercial farms has affected educational resources. Many of the best farms have been taken over by officials of the ruling ZANU-PF party. Poor landless peasants who were supposed to have been the main beneficiaries have managed to settle on some farms, but the process has been chaotic, and there has been no rational planning for services. The consequences have been severe both for the new so-called mushrooming schools and for the regular schools that are losing students, staff and resources.

What we are seeing is that the regular schools are being affected and that the farms around have taken some of the children because there are new schools mushrooming, operating in the farm houses which were the ones occupied, the commercial farmers. The farm houses are being turned into either clinics or schools. That’s how these mushroom schools have been formed. As a result, the results of our schools are dropping because sometimes the children are registered for exams in our regular schools but during the year they will be in these mushroom schools where they don’t really get adequate assistance and help so that they are fully prepared for the exams.

In many mushrooming schools, a single teacher has a dozen or so pupils ranging from 5 to 13 years. Rosemary has tried to explain to parents that their children might be better off staying off with relatives in the towns, at least until the end of the school year. But, like many other aspects of life in Zimbabwe, education has become so politicised that many parents accuse her of opposing change and supporting the political opposition.

Once you start explaining like that, these people who are enthusiastic about farm occupations, you get into trouble. Politically you are viewed as if you are against this thing coming in. You don’t want them to go and live there and so on. As a civil servant, we are supposed to be seen as supporting, but you know deep down that this is not going to work. Where I am, I’m a deputy head, we are supposed to take turns to go and check on the children who are there, whether that teacher is doing something. I would say the teacher is working when I know that he’s not working. I’m supposed to say that. I cannot say there are no resources because they will tell you ‘why can’t you provide the resources?’ At the same time, where I am, the people who are providing the resources are the communal parents. There’s very little help coming from the government. The SDAs, what we call the parent teacher associations or school development associations, they sit down and plan that we want to build this. Let’s set up a levy to built this. Let’s set up a levy about buying books. Now if I check those books and say they are going to be…children have moved into the farm, they can’t take it because it means that these few who have remained in the communal, they think they are a different lot from those in the farms. You see there are two factions now. And if I go to the farms, to those parents who are in the farms, who are busy doing their farming, who think they can do it, and tell them, ‘you know, this school has nothing. Please, let’s sit down and start planning, really planning for your school. As small as it is, we can start small. Maybe you will grow.’ They tend to be hostile. You just pretend most of the time that things are working when they are not. EB: But the people who are suffering the most are the children, of course, the pupils. The children, the pupils are suffering.

Even though their parents may want the children to stay at the mushrooming schools, Rosemary sometimes finds the kids themselves run away and go back to the standard schools where at least there is some structure.

Sometimes, some of them run away. I have to be careful. You will see the child is not happy where she is. She will say ‘my parents don’t know I’m here. Today I met my auntie this side.’ EB: Because the children want an education. Yes, yes. Maybe they are spending most of the time with no books. They’re actually playing. EB: So, they’re not getting an education basically. No, no, they are not. EB: Is there anything that can be done to improve the situation? What could happen is that they could come back to the regular school. I don’t know if the parents could manage to be migrant farmers because right now they don’t have permanent dwelling places. Their homes are sort of shacks. I think parents can do with that, but leave the children in the communities until such a time that then the farmers and the government come to think of a developmental strategy where they’ll say ‘we are going to have a school here, a clinic there’ and build real structures and source for books and so on, whatever is needed in the education and the health for the children. EB: What you are saying is that these schools at the moment are too small to be sustainable, to survive. They are too small. They have nothing. They are not really working at all. It’s a non-starter. They’re under districts, but in terms of who is actually funding these schools, there’s nobody. District councils don’t have the funds to fund those new schools. So they are nowhere.

Rosemary is already seeing the consequences. People are managing as best they can. An even greater under-reported tragedy is the fate of the people who used to be employed by the commercial farmers.

They are not employed and with this drought, they haven’t had anything from their fields. They’re really suffering. Most people are unemployed and there’s a lot of poaching and so on in the farms because most of the farms have wild animals. So they are poaching as a way of getting some meat and so on. Maybe they can resell it, but there is too much of crime now because people are unemployed and they are hungry. EB: Are they really hungry or are many people receiving food assistance? It depends on the size of the farm. If you have to get a 50 kg bag from an NGO once a month without any other assistance. Our traditional families tend to be big. So it can’t sustain them for the whole month. But at the onset of drought, the government was trying to match the NGOs so that each family every month was getting something from the government and something from the NGO. But I should guess now the government’s supplies are running out or something. Sometimes they will get it after three months. We could be having more NGOs working within the communities but, as you know, sometime earlier this year or late last year, there was some kind of way where the government was making approval and disapproval, that this one can work here and this one cannot work here. So you find that there are few NGOs working within the community. EB: But this also means that if people are going hungry, the children are going hungry too and then it’s very difficult for them to learn and to study because they’re thinking more about their stomach than their head. Yeah, it’s very difficult for them. Some are even fainting at school, but what can we do? There was one organisation, an NGO, which is now sustaining the children because it has actually brought this mixture. It’s a brew. It looks like our traditionally brewed beer, but it’s not alcoholic. It’s a high protein food. They have it at school. We are supposed to give a child one litre per day. When we have that, it’s OK. With this AIDS thing, we find that most of the children are being raised by grannies who are now very old. If we get the rains, they even can’t work in the fields. As an administrator, you have to look at such things. Even if an NGO says ‘why are you at this stage when you are supposed to…’, you tell them that some of the children, I have to give them toys or sometimes I call the parent and give them the mixture so that they stay with it. Weekends, what happens, they might go for a weekend without food. Then the child doesn’t come to school at all on Monday. That’s how bad it is. EB: It’s really bad. Yeah, it is. EB: Is the situation getting worse, do you think? Yes, we’re now into the dry season. In January, February, once we’ve had rains, we find sometimes that we’ve got some bit of vegetables and what, what. But now we are actually right into the dry season. The months of June up until October, they can really be horrible. It looks like there was nothing.

A sober assessment of the state of education, as well as the latest failed harvest by a school assistant headmistress.

And just a reminder that you are listening to A Good Life coming to you from Radio Netherlands. Zimbabweans are known in the region as resourceful and hard working. Mabel is a trader. When things started getting tight in the country, the country encouraged people to go north, to the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC. There, they were told, goods were needed. They would do good business, and Zimbabwean traders would be welcome because of the support their government troops had given the DRC during the civil war. The reality that Mabel found, however, was quite different than what she expected.

What happened: I went to DRC. I take my 560 from my husband. I ordered things in town. I went to DRC as I heard that the government says we are supposed to go and sell, make our business, small business in DRC. What I met there in DRC is not good. They arrested me. They take all my things. We were in prison there for two months. EB: Why did they arrest you? They said we are not allowed to sell there in DRC. EB: What were you selling? I was selling blankets, clothes. EB: So they took you to jail and what happened in jail? In jail, we were not eating the whole day. They were frustrating us, tell us, ‘you Zimbabweans, we don’t want to see you here because your president has stolen our diamonds. So we don’t want to see you here.’ They were threatening us, waking us up early in the morning, even at night, 12 o’clock they were coming to knock for us. EB: You spent two months in prison. What happened afterwards? Afterwards, there in prison, they didn’t give us a chance to phone home, to give the messages that we were there. We end up giving another one of the guards money. He shares to take us out of prison without permission at night. We ran away. We crossed the border with no stamp. Even my passport, they didn’t stamp it. We reached Zambia. There in Zambia, they arrest us. They said ‘where are you coming from?’ We said ‘we are coming from DRC’. They asked us ‘why they arrested us because the DRC is a friend of Mugabe’. EB: How long did you stay in Zambia? In Zambia, I stayed 26 days. EB: Did you stay in prison there also? Yes, in Chingwale (??) Prison. EB: Why did they imprison you in Zambia? Just because there in DRC we didn’t stamp passports. We were running away. So they said we were supposed to stamp the passport in Chilabombwe (??). EB: What were the conditions like in the prison? In Zambia? The conditions were better than in DRC. They were giving us food. The other church members, they came there in prison. They are the ones who contacted home so that they know our whereabouts. I’m surprised with this DRC. Our brothers, they died there. They said they were our friends. But now, they arrest us. They want us also to die there. EB: How did you get out of prison in Zambia? I was with the other woman whom I cannot say the name. The church members phoned the husband. The husband came from Beitbridge to collect us from Chimbole Prison. EB: When did you come back to Zimbabwe? I came on Sunday. EB: Did they do anything bad to you in DRC or in Zambia? Did they hit you? Did they do anything bad? In Congo, they were clapping us, doing hard labour, carrying this big timber. Even my chest, I am coughing blood. I was suspecting that I have Ebola because I didn’t have any treatment there in Congo. EB: What do you think it is? Is it tuberculosis? No, tuberculosis is not there. I went for X ray. They treated me. I was coughing blood, and the blood coming out from the nose. EB: Do you know why you were coughing blood? I don’t know because I went for X ray. They gave me treatment. EB: And now you’re OK? I’m not OK. I’m better but I’m also weak. EB: So what are you going to do now? I can’t trade because I lost that 506. It was the whole money which I have. I don’t have any cent. I don’t have anything for food, and my children are starving. Even in the two I was in DRC, they closed my phone at home. Even the house, they are going to close because my husband is not working. We are doing life by going to sell. I was selling near other countries like Zambia, but I didn’t face such problems like DRC. EB: How many children do you have? I have three children. They are going to school. The first born is 15 years. The second is born in 1985. Third is 1992. EB: And all three of them are going to school? Two are going to school. EB: And the third one isn’t because you don’t have the money? Yeah, I don’t have money. I don’t have anything, even jersey, the tennises. Is naked. Like me, they take everything in prison there in DRC. EB: How do you see the future? I can’t see the future from now because I’m stranded. To have food, something to eat that is coming from next doors. Me, to have food, I don’t have. I cannot survive. EB: What was your husband doing before, when he was working? My husband was retrenched from railways in 2000. So they gave money. That money is the one I take, the last one. And the other one I borrowed from other people. So I can’t manage to take that money back. So, as I am talking, the other one who borrowed me 100,000, the time I went to DRC has taken my TV, 54 inch colour TV, he has taken. He said you can’t manage to pay. You are sick. So that TV was taken. Otherwise someone is going to come and take something because I can’t manage to pay them. But I want to tell you our government is killing us. I starved in DRC. Otherwise I will die of hunger. I’m sick. I don’t have something to eat. Things are very expensive, and they are not there in shops. There is no food in Zimbabwe. We are starving.

The plight of a woman trader in Zimbabwe who, along with a headmistress and a doctor, are struggling with the present and fear for the future. Recordings in today’s programme were by Eric Beauchemin. Technical operations were by Erik Mulder. I’m Ginger da Silva. A Good Life will be back in seven days. Till then, you keep up hope and you keep well.