In Zimbabwe Food and Clothing are Luxuries

With inflation at 1200% the decision to buy
clothing means not buying something else, such as food.

(This is the fourth post from Mutare, Zimbabwe where the General Commission on Communications of The United Methodist Church is meeting. With representatives from Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the United States, this is the first meeting of the Commission (board of directors) outside the United States. The Commission supervises United Methodist Communications, the communications agency responsible for communications services for the global church.)

Ezekiel Makunike, a veteran journalist and an instructor in our workshop, told how 1200% inflation in Zimbabwe affects everyday decisions. He rode a public bus from Harare to Mutare, a trip of four or five hours. He had 10,000 Zim dollars, approximately $40 U.S. at the official government rate of 250 to 1. At a stop approximately halfway, a young man offerred buns for 3,000 Zim, more than he could afford from his allocatted 10,000 Zim for the trip. Bus fare alone cost 7,000.

He said, “I decided there will be food at the workshop, so I would remain hungry until then.”

In fact, with runaway inflation, the fare would increase four-fold in a few hours. With inflation travelers would need to allocate $45 for the same trip the next day. Goods purchased in the morning could be unaffordable later the same afternoon.

One national leader who asked to be quoted anonomously told me, “The decision to buy a shirt is a family decision because everyone in the family will be affected.”

An informal rate is considerably better than the official bank rate, but escalating costs continue to make money less valuable. It was particularly newsworthy the first week of the new year as school began. In Zimbabwe this is equivalent to the start of a new school year in the U.S. Families were buying mandatory school uniforms and costs–45,000 Zim or $180 U.S.–were hotly debated because they required considerable sacrifice. At these prices uniforms were beyond reach of poor families. Some parents chose to purchase uniforms made by community women rather than pay higher prices from clothing stores. Parents called for government investigations into retail prices.

School fees and supplies put school costs out of reach for many families. Yet, they struggle to keep children in schools. It’s a remarkable sight to see hundreds, if not a thousand children and youth walking to classes in the city and across the countryside. Education is valued by Zimbabweans and they are sacrificing to make it possible for their children.

One of the work projects our Commission members participated in was delivering 50 pound bags of a cracked grain mixture that is boiled into porridge for noon meals at schools in rural Zimbabwe.

Electrical workers, who are civil employees, went on strike in Harare, the nation’s capitol, for higher wages because they make less than one-quarter the official poverty level. Several thousand homes in the city went without electrical power and street lights and traffic signals went dark.

There is considerable discussion of the difficult conditions in the country today but it’s circumspect. I heard no overt criticism of government. But, I remember a day some years ago when the Brazilian government proclaimed a bank holiday and instituted a new monetary policy to halt 1200% inflation. I was in Brazil at the time. It took several weeks but inflation was tamed–at least the raging inflation that made life a daily struggle.

The question that continues to perplex me is how long Zimbabwe can continue under these inflationary pressures. I suppose it is anyone’s guess. In the meantime the vast majority of Zimbabweans are struggling with tough choices, should they eat or buy a shirt, pay school fees and defer a visit to the doctor or health clinic. In Zimbabwe for many people food and clothing are luxuries.

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