LAST Saturday, I attended the Mbira Festival which was organised by my friend, Albert Chimedza, at Mukuvisi Woodlands in Harare.
By Debbie Peters
It was an awesome venue for a traditional music festival with a modern twist and the audience thoroughly enjoyed themselves watching the line-up of bands.
When I left at 9pm, I realised I was hungry so I stopped at a Thai restaurant on my way home, hoping to grab a quick bite. They had actually closed their gate so I went next door to another eatery, confident that at least the Chinese restaurant would be able to serve me, given that it was still early. The Chinese owners readily told me that they were still open but the waiters told me that the kitchen was closed because their chefs had already gone home, even though it was not even 9:30pm yet.
Given that it was the first Saturday in December, Zimbabwe’s busiest time of the year when all the Diasporans come back home, it was incredible that I could not find a restaurant which serves food in Harare after 9pm.
The contrast in work ethic between the black Zimbabwean staff and Chinese owners was glaring because the Chinese are prepared to work around the clock as long as there are customers willing to part with money whilst our people are watching the clock to go home at the earliest opportunity. I have been watching the Chinese proprietors of that restaurant and they have a little girl who sits there playing with her tablet every night until late, when the last guests leave then they take her home.
There are certain things which make shake my head when they occur randomly but when they occur all at once, they become overwhelming. People in Zimbabwe are dealing with a perfect storm at the moment.
As a news junkie, I have been following the “yellow jacket” demonstrations in France with interest as French motorists protest the increase in fuel prices and the rising cost of living yet Zimbabwe motorists placidly spend their days in petrol queues without a single complaint.
I usually fill up my tank before I travel, but last month I was gullible enough to believe the headlines that Zimbabwe now had enough fuel so I had gone to Johannesburg for nine days, leaving my car with half a tank of fuel when I started reading social media posts saying that the petrol queues were back again. After I got back I panicked when I went looking for fuel and could not find diesel on that Saturday so it finally hit home that the shortage was real.
Eventually, I made a plan but the idea of spending all day in a petrol queue scared me. Then we have the police back on the roads, in the aftermath of several bus accidents where many people lost their lives. The problem with the police in Zimbabwe is that they believe their role is to just collect money from motorists. I was issued with a ticket for a radio licence while my car was parked at Sam Levy’s Village in Borrowdale.
A couple of weeks ago when I went into town and was paying for parking I was told that I had an outstanding US$1 ticket which had been issued a couple of weeks prior while I was double-parked waiting for someone near the Convent School. Like most people, I avoid going into town now but somebody had sent me cash via a money transfer agency so I went to collect.
It was my first time receiving money through a transfer agency and I could not believe the long lines of people waiting to receive money from abroad that Saturday morning. Zimbabweans survive on remittances from relatives abroad and I was amused when I was given bond notes for the 3% incentive bonus that the receivers get from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.
It takes a lot to motivate me to go into Harare city centre because my car has been clamped for as little as $2 in outstanding parking tickets and you never know if you actually owe anything because they only just need a glimpse of your licence plate to issue a ticket.
Now that they have begun issuing tickets at suburban shopping centres, I feel like leaving my house is just asking for trouble. I procrastinated on doing grocery shopping until I had to go to a supermarket in Borrowdale the other day because supplies were really low at home. Their prices used to be reasonable but they are catching up with everybody else and grocery shopping now puts a big dent in your wallet.
Despite my best efforts at watching for the lowest prices for each item, my bill came to $167,70 and I paid it using mobile money, the default payment method for Zimbabwe. After I got the confirmation of payment on my phone, the cashier told me that the payment had not go through so I needed to pay it again.
After I had spent an hour carefully scanning the aisles and selecting what I needed waiting in a long queue to pay, it was the last straw and I just wanted to go home and get ready for a book launch later that afternoon.
The manager was summoned and he told me that I had to pay again because there was a glitch in their system then the first payment would eventually get reversed. Imagine if I did not have the money for a second payment? I made them give me the statement in writing and left other shoppers who had the same issue still complaining. It took four hours for the transaction to be reversed.
Everyone uses mobile money for payments in Zimbabwe but I find that the mobile network operator takes the Zimbabwean market for granted. They make a lot of money out of this market but it has simply become their cash cow.
Each time I go to the mobile network operator’s store, I spend between an hour or two waiting in line to be served. The few times I have seen other customers complain about the waiting time, they were foreigners. I have previously spoken to the manager to increase the number of service agents when they have long lines but they did not heed my advice.
Zimbabweans have a high tolerance for queuing; people in other countries avoid establishments with long lines. The difference with Zimbabwe is that we are down to buying basic necessities now and often we do not have a choice of supplier because we buy where things are available. When I go to the US, I become a shopaholic, making frivolous purchases because Americans know how to sell but I do not make impulse purchases in Zimbabwe; shopping here is about survival. Fuel and food have become our top priorities, not shoes, clothes or the latest gadgets.
There are those who are thriving in the current economic crisis in Zimbabwe. Clearly if you are in the food and grocery business, it is a complete windfall market right now. Then there is the craze for charging for everything in US dollars at a rate of between 3 to 5 times the US dollar price. What is particularly upsetting is when a price you have previously agreed on continues to be revised upwards— even for labour! And since there is always the top-up price even for agreed-on financial commitments, you never know much you will end up paying for anything. I spoke to someone who supplies bricks whose sales have skyrocketed the past couple of months because people in Zimbabwe would rather buy bricks than hold onto their Real Time Gross Settlement bank balance because at least they can use those bricks to build a house someday.
Everywhere you go in Harare you see piles of bricks and I never thought of bricks as an investment; apparently in Zimbabwe they are an investment hedge. As for my house, there is always something going on with it because it is an older house. As soon as you fix one thing, something else needs fixing.
Last week, the water pump broke down and, by the time it was replaced, the electrician was talking about the next thing that needs replacing, but I need a break. I am just focussing on getting myself through the holidays without going insolvent. People ask me what I think is going to happen in Zimbabwe and I cannot say.
A couple of months ago I came back from the US filled with optimism about the economy, but now I am as panicked as other Zimbabweans about high prices and fuel.
I have some friends from the Diaspora who are home to attend weddings and they were asking me how I manage to live in such a difficult place but most of us have set up our homes with water tanks, generators and other basics to deal with challenges like water shortages and power cuts. In fact, most of us have comfortable homes and gardens so our problems only start when we leave our gates.
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