Land where a million dollars a month makes you poor

As the England cricket tour starts, life for ordinary people is harder than ever. Gary Lemke tells the story of one family
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The Independent Online

Driving from the township of Chitungwiza into central Harare, my eye was drawn to the empty coffins at the roadside. Smart hawkers had spotted a lucrative spin-off in the market. Wooden carvings and paintings had been replaced by something that dominates modern Zimbabwean life: death. This was 1995. Nine years on and those hawkers are thriving.

Driving from the township of Chitungwiza into central Harare, my eye was drawn to the empty coffins at the roadside. Smart hawkers had spotted a lucrative spin-off in the market. Wooden carvings and paintings had been replaced by something that dominates modern Zimbabwean life: death. This was 1995. Nine years on and those hawkers are thriving.

"The funeral trade is the biggest business in the country," my father-in-law said from Harare on Friday - the same day that the England cricket team arrived for their highly controversial tour.

People are dying there at a rate unimaginable to those who haven't got Africa in their blood. For many, money is scarce. Primitive graves are dug by the grieving; bushland is a popular final resting place. Even in death, dignity is denied.

"Can we talk on the record about the situation," I asked my father-in-law. "We can," he said, "but we can't." He talks in code. The phone is probably tapped, and emails monitored. "Buddy, you won't believe it if I told you ... people are going about their business as usual." He means things are really bad, that society is ruled by fear. As a South African I made many trips to Zimbabwe. Now my in-laws live there. Well, exist, really. We, and my two brothers-in-law, send money to them monthly. Without it, they would starve. They are the lucky ones.

The Zimbabwean dollar is only a shifting number. "Last night I went to the shops, bought two loaves of bread, three packets of dog food, a tub of margarine, instant coffee, milk and bacon. It cost ZW$210,000," said my father-in-law.

At the official exchange rate that's £17, but the minority who have jobs would be fortunate to take home ZW$1m a month. My in-laws rent their middle-class house for around ZW$800,000. But they can't leave Zimbabwe as they don't have passports: they relinquished their UK documents under government orders.

Often, the phone rings at our home. The caller display shows "international". It's the catalyst for trouble. "Mom, don't call us, you can't afford it, and we can't keep giving you more and more money," my wife says. The reply is always, through tears, "I love you and just wanted to say hello to you and my grandchildren. Oh, and dad's in agony with his knees, but we can't afford an operation."

My father-in-law refuses to face reality. "Things tick over. After work [he recently landed a full-time job], I go home, watch TV and then go to bed and wait for the morning. Things are ticking over, it's not getting worse." But emails from my mother-in-law over the years paint the bleakest of pictures.

They relocated from apartheid South Africa in 1982. My future father-in-law set up a recruitment firm, placing scores of young men and women in jobs. They put their trust in him, and he gave them hope. In recent years, unemployment has reached new highs, and his business is but a memory.

However, they will never leave. They are trapped in a world they refuse to believe can deteriorate. But it does.

My fiercely patriotic brother-in-law has two children, but he took his family to Johannesburg this year. His six-year-old daughter carries some mental scars, though he will disagree. One day this year, armed policemen arrived at her private school in Harare and shut it on government orders. The intelligent little girl is now waiting to begin her education in another country, which she knows is not home.

But enough of the privileged. Need I mention it's a white family? Yes, as "white" and "privileged" are no longer linked. "If you think whites have a good life, come have a look for yourself. Those buying Mercedes with suitcases full of cash aren't white," my father-in-law says. He doesn't need to add they are Robert Mugabe's cronies.

An election is due next year, but my father-in-law won't be voting. "We had to give up our British passport to vote in the last two. Both times we queued for hours only to find our names weren't on the roll. Strange, considering we had lived at the same address for 15 years. Next year will be no different. But things are ticking over. Sure, inflation is running at 600 per cent, but we manage," he said on Friday.

He's lying. But what should we do? Tell them there is no chance of a decent living for the foreseeable future? That would be to cut the umbilical cord that keeps them and other "privileged" Zimbabweans from death's door.

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