They crept past their children – Cinderella, nine, and Chrissie, 10 – sleeping on the floor of the one-room house and took their daily moonlit stroll to the bank. The guard on the graveyard shift gave them a number. They were the 29th to arrive, all hoping for a chance to withdraw the maximum amount of Zimbabwean currency the government allowed – the equivalent of just a pound or two.
Zimbabwe is in the grip of one of the great hyperinflations in world history. The working people of the country’s once proud capital have been plunged into a Darwinian struggle to get by. Many have been reduced to peddlers and paupers, hawkers and black-market hustlers, eating just a meal a day, their hollowed cheeks a testament to their hunger.
Like countless Zimbabweans, Moyo has calculated the price of goods by the number of days she has to spend in line at the bank to withdraw cash to buy them: a day for a bar of soap; another for a bag of salt; and four for a sack of cornmeal. The withdrawal limit rose last week, but with inflation surpassing what independent economists say is an almost unimaginable 40 million per cent, she said the value of the new amount would quickly be a pittance, too.
"It’s survival of the fittest," said Moyo, 29, a hair braider who sells the greens she grows in her garden for a couple of pence a bunch. "If you’re not fit, you will starve."
Economists here and abroad say Zimbabwe’s economic collapse is gaining velocity, radiating instability into the heart of southern Africa. As the bankrupt government prints ever more money, inflation has gone wild, rising from 1,000% in 2006 to 12,000% in 2007 to a figure so high the government had to lop 10 zeroes off the currency in August to keep the nation’s calculators from being overwhelmed. (Had it left the currency alone, £1 would now be worth about five trillion Zimbabwean dollars.)
Making matters worse, cash itself has become terribly scarce. Business executives and diplomats say Zimbabwe’s central bank governor, Gideon Gono, desperate for foreign currency to stoke the governing party’s patronage machine, sends runners into the streets with suitcases of the nation’s currency to buy up US dollars and South African rand on the black market – drying up Zimbabwean dollars that would otherwise go to the banks.
Because of the cash shortage, the government strictly limits the amount that people can withdraw. Even so, Zimbabweans say they often wait in vain for hours at banks that send their customers away empty-handed.
Gono, who blames western sanctions for the nation’s troubles, has shown few signs of doing anything differently. "I am going to print and print and sign the money until sanctions are removed," he told state media.
Economists say that the only thing that can halt Zimbabwe’s inflationary spiral is a political solution that takes control over the country’s economy out of the hands of Robert Mugabe, the 84-year-old president who still maintains a vice-like hold on power after 28 years in office. A deal struck three weeks ago between Mugabe and opposition MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai to establish a unity government is currently mired in argument over the allocation of cabinet posts.
Basic public services, already devastated by an exodus of professionals in recent years, are breaking down on an ever larger scale as tens of thousands of teachers, nurses, rubbish collectors and janitors have simply stopped reporting to their jobs because their salaries no longer cover the cost of taking the bus to work.
Money sent home by millions of those who have fled abroad to escape political repression and economic deprivation continues to sustain many Zimbabweans. But the rapidly deteriorating conditions in Zimbabwe are creating pressures for a renewed exodus.
Among those thinking of leaving is Fortunate Nyabinde, whose salary of $3,600 Zimbabwean dollars a month (or approximately £18 trillion before the currency adjustment in August) does not even pay for four days of bus fare to her job at Parirenyatwa Hospital.
Yet, for now, she keeps going to work, wheeling a trolley of cornmeal porridge from ward to ward, mostly because she can eke out an extra 20 cents a day by selling basic necessities to patients: toilet paper, toothpaste, soap.
"If they come to the hospital without anything, they will have to buy from us," Nyabinde said.
Clues to the calamitous state of the country can be found even in articles tucked into Mugabe’s mouthpiece, The Herald, the only daily newspaper he has allowed to keep publishing.
The bodies of paupers in advanced states of decay were stacking up in the mortuary at Beitbridge District Hospital because not even government authorities were seeing to their burial.
Harare Central Hospital slashed admissions by almost half because so much of its cleaning staff could no longer afford to get to work.
Most of the capital was without water because the authorities had stopped paying the bills to transport the treatment chemicals. Rubbish is piling up uncollected. Sixteen people have died in an outbreak of cholera in nearby Chitungwiza, spread by contaminated water and sewage.
At the Avondale shopping centre more than 200 sweaty, grumpy people lined up to withdraw whatever they could from the bank.
Moyo, the early riser, had her usual sought after, low number – 26 – while Nyabinde, the hospital worker on the overnight shift, was far back at No 148 because she had arrived late – about 5.15am.
No 132 was Stanford Mafumera, 35, a security guard who spends most of his time either at his job or in line at the bank; he is so poor that he sleeps beneath the overhang at the shopping centre rather than pay for bus fare home to his wife and two small children. His clothes hang loose on his gaunt body, and his dusty shoes are coming apart. "Since Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, there was no cash here," he said. "We started getting cash only yesterday."
Most days, he said, he eats only a bag of corn nuts to conserve his monthly pay – worth $10 a week and a half ago, but only $5 this week because of inflation.
He was unable to afford the cost of taking his five-year-old daughter to the doctor recently when she got diarrhoea after drinking dirty water from an unprotected well.
Mafumera blamed the government’s land reform programme for the country’s woes. It chased away the white commercial farmers who had made the country a breadbasket.
"A lot of people got farms, but they can’t produce anything and this is what is causing the poverty and hunger," he said. "There’s no food."