So when the young reporter sends me an sms saying that, as soon as he can get a seat on the bus from Harare to Johannesburg, he will come and see me, I wait with anxious anticipation. The buses are so crowded with desperate Zimbabweans coming to Johannesburg to shop or to stay; it takes him two days to get a seat.
Finally, he calls. He tells me has had to hurry his shopping because he will need to return as soon as possible. His two daughters—ages one and five—have not had milk for two weeks, and his wife, who is earning a little money by making clothes to sell, needs a part for her sewing machine.
Not long after that, I organize a ride for him to come to my house. He arrives with two large boxes filled with soap, washing powder, toilet paper, salt and other basics — all things that he says have disappeared from the shelves of Zimbabwe’s shops. At the store where he shopped in South Africa, he couldn’t find powdered milk, so he bought Cremora. I tell him that won’t do for his babies and promise we will find powdered milk before he has to board the bus back.
After I fix him a sandwich and pour a glass of juice, we sit at my kitchen table and he tells me that things have gone from worst to near impossible. Inflation is at an official rate of more than 100,000 percent (compared with some 8 percent in South Africa in December) and he says a loaf of bread costs 2.5 million Zim dollars. (The rate is about 30,000 Zim dollars to the greenback, even more on the parallel market, but that’s far too complicated to go into here. Not to mention the black market machinations).
The young journalist says he is living in an increasingly desperate community of some 250,000 “all very poor, most unemployed.” Some get by “mostly on remittances from their children in the diaspora” he tells me, “and many get by “mostly on informal trading,” travelling long distances to get tomatoes, bananas and similar items to sell.
“If you go to the shops,” he tells me, “you don’t get basics like salt, milk, and margarine and so on. So even shops where you could get some food items is beyond the reach of the majority.” He says he and his family eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, sometimes adding peanut butter if they can afford nuts to grind. When she can get flour, his wife bakes cakes. “She sells some and we eat some,” he tells me. Although he cannot work as an independent journalist, the young man tells me he still keeps his hand in, by writing letters to the editor on such topics as the role of citizens in a democracy and how their rights are being trampled in Zimbabwe.
Some newspapers from South Africa are now circulating in Zimbabwe, including the Mail and Guardian, owned by Zimbabwean Trevor Ncube, who lives mostly in South Africa after his paper in Zimbabwe was closed and there is also the Zimbabwean, a new weekly produced and run out of the UK).
After we have talked for a while, I decide to ride with my young friend to the bus station. There, hours before departure time, Zimbabweans are lined up, their wares stuffed into boxes like my young friend’s or huge plaid plastic bags being sold outside by other enterprising Zimbabweans. Most of the travelers are women bent over their containers, constantly arranging and re-arranging their goods that also include large cans of cooking oil, bags of flour and sugar, baking powder, a few blankets and hair grease.
As he has done for me in the past in Zimbabwe, the journalist approaches the travelers, first politely greeting them, and then explaining my peering eyes. He puts them mostly at ease, but I can see that they are a bit uncomfortable having a passing stranger look not only into their bags but into their lives. I don’t stay long, but I do ask a few questions, like: how often they make this trip? They tell me at least once a month. I then work up to asking them how they feel about Mugabe and whether he will win yet another term and how what they think about the prospects of the latest (and many believe the most serious) challenger, Simba Makoni.
The 57-year-old Makoni was once Mugabe’s finance minister. He was fired when he disagreed with Mugabe over economic policy. Makoni has acknowledged his own role in the economic debacle that sent the country into this unending downward spiral and remains in a top position in the party as a member of its politburo.