Jane Mukuka, a widow and mother of three, was elated when her 13-year-old daughter scored the highest marks in her elementary school this term to qualify for entry into junior high. But as a lowly paid primary school teacher, Mukuka is going to have to struggle to find the money to cover her daughter's new fees.
"From my salary I cannot afford to feed my family, how will I be able to buy luxuries such as uniforms and books for my daughter?" she asked.
The Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) compiles monthly statistics on how much an average family of six needs to survive in the capital, Lusaka. The December figure stands at about US $197. A teacher like Mukuka takes home just US $62 a month.
For Frederick Mudenda, a lecturer in the school of law at the University of Zambia, it is not about making ends meet, but "making ends approach".
"As a university lecturer my net salary is about 1.5 million kwacha, around US $350 per month, which is still not enough to meet all my needs. It just breaks my heart to think of how a teacher and a policeman survive on such low wages. I think this is what breeds corruption," he told IRIN.
The saving grace for most Zambians, as in the rest of the developing world, is either the extended family or moonlighting.
Mukuka's brother, who has a good job, has offered to buy his niece the books and uniform she needs. Mudenda has a "survival programme" based on private tuition which adds a little extra to his pocket each month. But, "there is no way you can make ends meet in this kind of economy even if you break your back", he added.
The make-shift stores on the roadside and in people's compounds, which sell anything from individual cigarettes to a few vegetables, are a testament to how hard Zambians try and cope.
Life, however, is becoming progressively tougher. Zambia, along with five other southern African countries, is in the grip of severe food shortages following two consecutive droughts. The price of maize meal, the staple food, rose by more than 30 percent in December alone.
With more than 80 percent of Zambians living below the poverty line, malnutrition was already endemic among the children of the poor. Those families no longer buy the standard 25 kg bag of maize meal, but a more affordable re-packaged palm-sized amount known as a "pamela".
Some 2.9 million Zambians are estimated to be in need of food aid before next year's harvest, but current stocks are not adequate to meet the demand after the government rejected US-supplied genetically modified maize on environmental and health safety grounds. A 300,000 mt consignment of maize the government asked the private sector to import for distribution has not yet arrived.
The Economic Association of Zambia (EAZ) has called for the government to raise public sector wages to help cushion the impact of rising food prices or risk the collapse of the extended family as a welfare support net. "The government should streamline the public service and pay the remaining workers at least a living wage ... one which is above the poverty datum line stipulated by organisations such as the JCTR," EAZ president Muna Hantuba told IRIN.
The government, however, says it does not have the money. The withdrawal of mining giant Anglo American from Zambia last year ended hopes that copper would once more be the country's growth engine. President Levy Mwanawasa recently highlighted the problem of debt repayments that are undermining more productive social spending.
Zambia currently pays between US $200-250 million in debt servicing each year to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other Western donors.
Western donors who bank-roll more than 36 percent of the national budget say they are aware that the debt burden has stifled economic growth, but have tied deeper debt forgiveness and aid to the continued privatisation of key public enterprise such as the Zambia National Commercial Bank and the state power and telecommunications utilities.
Further privatisation is rejected by the trade union movement and opposition parties. They are concerned that it would lead to more job losses in an economy where the vast majority of people are either unemployed or scraping a living in the informal sector.
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