Zimbabwe: Where a dollar won't buy you a banana

HARARE, 29 March 2007 (IRIN) - Poverty levels around the world are usually measured against the value of one United States (US) dollar a day, but calculating that value in Zimbabwe can be a nightmare; one US dollar is officially pegged at Zim$250, but in the parallel market it will buy Zim$25,000.

If you convert money at the official rate, then Zim$250 can only buy a sweet, which cannot sustain life anywhere; in Zimbabwe it is not even enough to buy a banana, which costs Zim$600 (US$0.02 at the parallel market exchange rate), nor is it enough for a one-way ticket to town by minibus-taxi, which can set you back by Zim$5,000 (US$0.20).

It is on this meagre amount of Zim$25,000 a day that Zimbabweans struggle to beat the cost of living and feed their families in an economy with the world's highest annual inflation rate - more than 1,700 - where the prices of basic commodities shoot up by significant amounts every week.


Portia Shiri, an accounts clerk at one of the country's leading clothing retail stores, says she is lucky she has not started a family. "I earn [Zim]$100,000 (US$4) a month, and if I had children I shudder to imagine how I would feed, clothe and educate them." Her transport to work costs Zim$200,000 (US$8) a month, double what she earns. Besides this, she still has to fork out Zim$50,000 (US$2) every month on rent for her room.

"Most of us have resorted to walking to and from work," said a tired Shiri. The downside to walking the 14km to work is that shoes wear out quickly and are too expensive to replace.

"At work I need to eat but my workmates and I have resorted to skipping lunch because the cheapest take-away snack costs [Zim]$5,000 (about US$0.20), which means I would have to cough up an extra [Zim]$110,000 (US$4.40) every month. We have started making jokes about our eating habits, and if people eat breakfast, skip lunch and then have their supper we liken it to a football formation of 1-0-1. The toughest among our group endures the 0-0-1 football formation, in which they skip breakfast and lunch, and then have a meal in the evening."

Shiri has not even taken into account the monthly groceries yet. Essentials such as a two-litre container of cooking oil costs Zim$60,000 (US$2.40) and a 10kg bag of the staple food, maizemeal, costs Zim$30,000 (US$1.20), which together amount to almost her whole salary.

"There are so many things which we forego, and this includes decent clothing ... we have to devise methods of ensuring that we continue to go to work, because this keeps us going in the face of economic hardships," she added.

Washing clothes is also too expensive; a single bar of soap, imported from South Africa, costs Zim$33,000 (US$1.30). Most household essentials are sourced from South Africa as many manufacturers have either closed down or relocated to other countries in the region.

Like many others, Shiri tries to make ends meet by selling household or food items to neighbours and friends, and collects payments at the end of the month. "When exhaustion sets in, we just take a day off and lose wages, depending on the number of days taken off."

Josphat and Charity

When Josphat Hove, 36, qualified as a male nurse in the mid 1990s, his family celebrated because nursing was a highly paid profession. He married Charity, a primary school teacher, and a year later moved to the middle-class suburb of Ashdown Park, in the capital, Harare, where they rented a house.

The couple came from impoverished homes but had been educated by missionaries; they decided to fund the education of their siblings and cousins. "At the time, life was affordable and we were so proud to be giving back to the community, and we had hoped that after six years we would then start saving for our house. By 2001 it became clear that we would not be able to buy our own house," he said.

A few years later, with three children and earning a combined salary of Zim$1.1 million (US$44.00), the couple may be millionaires but are struggling to make ends meet. They were forced to park their old vehicle when fuel reached Zim$22,000 (US$0.88) per litre and became unaffordable.

They had been the envy of their relatives when they moved to the relatively affluent suburb of Ashdown Park. "We cannot move out of the neighbourhood and seek cheaper lodgings elsewhere because our children attend the nearby schools, which means we can cut down on their transport costs. However, the price we have to pay is that rentals alone account for Zim$500,000 (US$20) a month."

Admitting that his family was living from hand to mouth, Hove said electricity and water chewed up $200,000 (US$8) of their monthly income. Their transport costs came to a whopping Zim$400,000 (US$16), wiping out their combined earnings, which meant they had to seek money for food and general expenses in other ways.

"My wife has become very innovative because of the hardships and she sells cakes and sweets to her pupils," he said. "In addition, she buys foreign currency from our meagre earnings, which she uses to travel to South Africa and buy scarce commodities, which she brings back home for resale. She sets aside a small portion for our consumption. I also run a small but thriving garden of green vegetables, from which I supply the local neighbourhood. My other free time is spent at a local doctor's surgery, where I do part-time work."

Most working-class Zimbabweans can no longer afford simple luxuries like going to a movie. Taking a stroll on the evenings when they can find time to be together is about all they can afford. For their three young sons, a ball fashioned out of plastic shopping bags provides all the entertainment they need.

Peter and Susan

In the nearby affluent suburb of Malbereign, Peter Kuwaza works as a gardener at a large house, where his wife, Susan, is employed as a maid.

Their combined earnings amount to Zim$200,000 (US$8). They are fortunate to have generous employers, who provide most of their food and toiletry requirements.

Their children live with their grandparents in Gokwe district in the central province of Midlands, but the couple are unable to visit them regularly: a one way ticket costs Zim$70,000 (US$2.80).

Susan Kuwaza misses her children. "When we get paid, we buy as much as our meagre wages can buy. We store the groceries, then take them to our children at the end of the year. As a mother, I would like to see my children as regularly as possible but I cannot afford to look after them in Harare."

In January, when they failed to return from their annual visit to Gokwe, their concerned employer feared the worst and travelled to Gokwe, where he found them stranded because bus fares had gone up.

With hunger stalking Zimbabwe, the Kuwazas say they are happy to work for food to feed themselves and their children.