'Even God can't help us'

HARARE – The hell of Zimbabwe's money queues lasts from dawn to dusk and makes grown men weep when they are turned away again as darkness falls.\r\n

The queues around every bank and building society in the country were more hopeful this week as the central bank had, in theory, issued a Z$50 000 (about R1652) note which is filtering into the money market on the streets.

A senior civil servant, 38, who queues every day, sometimes six days a week, to withdraw his miserable salary from the government in daily amounts of $4 a time (R40) to feed his family said:

"We come here at 6am. We eat nothing before we leave, we eat nothing during the day, we have no water to drink and then sometimes we go home without money because the bank has run out of cash". Tears spur as much in fury as in sorrow.

The bank queues are extraordinary and unique in southern Africa, and surprisingly there is only the occasional temper flare because of the astonishing fortitude of Zimbabwe’s thin, depressed urban working class who believe President Robert Mugabe, 84, will stay in power until he dies.

"The only thing we do, is stand, stand, stand and pray to God, because nothing else can help us and even God can’t help us. The government will not let us have our money."

This man, who works in the main government high rise building, just a block away from a building society, said his boss was "understanding. They all know why we are not at work, we are almost never at work, because we have to get our money, a bit each day. The queue is much shorter now because people have run out of money".

Payment of civil service salaries began this week, with the average worker, a customs officer for example, earning enough to buy two loaves of bread, when it is available.

There were at least 2 500 people in the Harare queue in the midday heat outside the Central African Building Society earlier this week. It had been larger in the cool of the early morning.

All over Harare, queues snaked around the banks in the centre of town.

A teacher, 50, who asked that her name not be used, said she was "kept alive" by an aunt in London who regularly sent pounds with people travelling to Harare.

She said she seldom went to school these days because in her area, Chishawasha district, about 45km north of Harare: "mothers have stopped sending their children to school. Some kids used to come, not for learning, but play, but for the past month they stopped. There is no teaching, no learning in any government schools now, only in church schools and the private schools, but no normal people can afford them. Which teacher can afford to go to work?"

Her salary slip showed her take-home pay of effectively ?4 (about R69) a month at the present black market rate, which is the only workable rate. "We are all hungry. Never mind anything, none of us eats enough."

The crowd erupted into laughter when asked when they had last had meat. "Maybe a year ago? I can’t even remember it was so long. We are tired of cabbage, that is the only vegetable we eat with sadza (milled maize porridge) maybe once a day.

"Today my two children, aged seven and two, are at home alone while I am in the queue. There was nothing for them to eat before I left to try and get money today," said Bertha Madzure 37, of Mabvuku, a ghetto on the eastern edge of the city.

"They are hungry, I am hungry, every day."

Zimbabwe’s central bank, run by Gideon Gono, one of Mugabe’s key allies, floods the black market each morning with blocks of crisp new notes printed from local paper, since German suppliers shut off supplies three months ago.

In the afternoon his agents collect the foreign currency, much of it sent from the diaspora, from the street sellers. It is all illegal transactions, but the government is the largest trader.

"One of the donors’ problems is that people in those queues and many more around the country do not qualify for food aid because they get salaries. Many, many of them are grossly malnourished. The salaried poor, particularly civil servants, are a problem for which we have not yet found a solution as they are not on our lists as in need of food aid," said the chief executive of the largest donor organisation in Zimbabwe.

"The government’s salaries are cruel, there is malnutrition among even those in work. I saw it last week out of town, and it is enormous and we have not counted these people in our statistics of people who need to be fed."

The UN says more than five million or nearly half the population will need food aid by January.

At least two million need food aid now and the 2008 peasant summer crops, due for planting now, will not happen because there is neither seed nor fertiliser available and the rains are just three weeks away. – Daily News Foreign Service