Saturday, December 27, 2008

Oh Happy Day!

Boxing Day dawned damp and misty. After a late night spent watching Christmas present DVDs, it took me a few minutes to shake off the mantle of sleep, and become aware that dogs were barking. And the neighbour’s dogs. In fact, all the dogs in the road.

Oh happy day! At 7.30am on Boxing Day, this can only mean one thing – the dump truck has come to collect our rubbish, and of course, to ask for a Christmas bonus. “Dump truck!” I shout at my comatose husband, as I pull on some clothes and rush to the door to take out our bins. I rarely see my husband leap up with such alacrity.

You might think we are being a bit over keen to greet the dump truck, but you'll begin to understand once you learn that our rubbish has not been collected since September.

And because we live in Africa, a continent that has always recycled and re-used everything man-made under the sun, we only have two (admittedly bulging) bin bags of rubbish to throw out, two bags that are ant-ridden and developing a distinctive pong.

My husband suggested we tell the rubbish collectors that we will give them their Christmas bonus next time they come back, to ensure that they do. But I take pity on them. The city council consists of opposition party members, and as a result it has been steadily bankrupted by the ruling elite. Council workers are very poorly paid, and of course, like the rest of us, they can’t even get their salary out of their bank accounts before its value erodes away to nothing. There is no fuel to drive the truck, and the majority of council workers (like everyone) are malnourished, in poor health and suffering.

The least we can do is give them a little handout. A few dollars produces warm, toothy grins. And it ensures that they will come back – probably next year around Christmas.

And me? I feel like a queen. I am the proud owner of two large, sparkling clean, empty bins – what luxury!

A happy day, indeed.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Taxing matters..

Income tax in Zimbabwe is no laughing matter, as the basic income tax rate (for the lowest incomes) is set at 45%. Given that the inflation rate is off the charts, you’d think the coffers of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) would be bursting with gold, silver and cotton banknotes.

The reality is somewhat different.

The absurdly restrictive banking laws (which currently allow to you to withdraw ZWD 500 million out per week from your own bank account), mean that we now exist on a largely cash economy. This has been compounded by the paucity of bank notes – these days we are living in a foreign currency cash society. Even if you manage to get hold of some rare Zimbabwe dollars in cash, nobody really wants them. And there is no point getting paid into your bank account if you can’t get the money out or use it before it devalues into nothing (a matter of days at most).

So, ZIMRA limps along on like most of the resource-starved government institutions these days. A few weeks ago some friends paid their company tax bill, including stiff late payment penalties, for the past two years. Due to the recent(ish) removal of ten zeros from our currency, their total bill came to the princely sum of 8.6 Zimbabwean cents. Pleased that this amount was within the company's scarce petty cash resources, they sent someone to pay the bill in cash. Having queued at the ZIMRA offices for several hours, he was sent home in disgrace, having been accused of attempting to bribe the tax office – they only accept payment by bank transfer, not cash.

The bank charges 30 million for a transfer, a sum which the company did not actually have in their account. However, they managed to “make a plan” and ask a client to pay it on their behalf. ZIMRA wouldn’t issue the tax certificate until the transfer showed up on their bank statement – at the time 8.6 cents was worth less than a quadrillion of a US cent – far less than the ink, paper, and time involved.

I hope ZIMRA spends it wisely. They obviously need it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

You can ring my bell...

Just a short PS from my last posting. I introduced myself to a lady who lives round the corner for the first time today, and of course we got chatting.

She told me her husband is called Fred - and this instantly rang a bell in my head - that's who all the people who get through on our phone line ask for. It turns out our telephone lines are crossed, so now whenever someone calls for Fred I tell them to phone my number, and they will get him. Meanwhile everyone who calls her trying to get me gets re-directed to her number. It works.

Howzat for a minor miracle?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cut off from the rest of the world...

Zim is isolated from the rest of the world. This can be a real pleasure if, for example, you would like to avoid the hordes of tourists when you go on safari, so that wildlife viewing is much more intimate – just you and the leopard, or lion, mongoose or whatever.

However, if you want to maintain links with the Outside, it can be a bit of an uphill struggle. There has been more than one occasion when I’ve woken up, drawn the curtains to welcome in the sunshine, and wondered why it is so eerily quiet – perhaps the world has ended but no one told Zimbabwe. The local broadcast stations are often silent, due to power outages, or perhaps someone has pulled the plug to censor sensitive topics.

No such as thing as freedom of speech here.

You are lucky to be able to talk to anyone at all.

A few weeks ago the only non-government cell phone provider, Econet, had to change all cell phone contracts into pay as you go system, in order to weather the economic meltdown in which the exchange rate goes from 1 million zim dollars to a single US dollar, to over 20 million ZWD to one USD in a few hours. Of course, the fact that top up vouchers cost more to print than they were worth meant that there were none to be found, with the result that no Econet subscriber could actually use their cell phones for outgoing texts or calls for the first few weeks. Now the vouchers are here, they are in the denomination of 2 and 5 million, with the result that one 2 million dollar voucher doesn’t even pay for a local text message. Oh, plus the fact that you need cash to buy them, and there isn’t any.

Our intermittent Zimbabwe Online broadband connection raised their fees to over US $600 per month, getting round the illegalities of demanding foreign currency by requesting shares in the Old Mutual (each one worth about 1 USD at the time) or fuel coupons (only purchasable in forex) as payment - since we were only managing to use the broadband occasionally due to failing telephone system, this monthly fee seemed a bit steep. That and the fact that a similar connection in the UK costs about US $30 per month and is faster and uncapped, ie you can send and receive as much data as you want.

Yesterday the entire Harare telephone network seemed to go on the blink, with the result that no one can phone anybody. Our phone rings from dawn to dusk with someone having dialled six entirely different digits to our telephone number. Often you answer it and there is a loud dial tone. Sometimes you can hear a plaintive voice asking for Mickey or Lovemore or whoever, but there is a still a loud dial tone. Sometimes you can hear a voice, a dial tone and an engaged tone (busy signal to you Americans!) all at the same time. Today I managed to get through to someone’s phone talking over both the engaged and the dial tone, but it would only stay connected for 20 seconds, and they couldn’t call me back. I hope they got the message in any case! I haven’t been able to get through to anyone else for a while, and I’ve been trying to send an international fax for a week now.

Might be quicker and easier to invest in some carrier pigeons. Even if half of them get shot down for food or confiscated by the government for being illegal, we’d still have a much higher chance of a message actually getting through. So any pigeon trainers among my wide and varied audience, please advise me on how to proceed.

Just don’t ask me to call you.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Laugh for fear of crying

You have to keep your sense of humour in order to negotiate Zimbabwe’s crazy operating environment these days. People are dying in droves, from cholera, from hunger, from neglect - we have had no government for nine months and no elected government for years, and now it looks like the Old Man is orchestrating a State of Emergency to unleash more repression and fear. The rest of the world, preoccupied with their own (very minor, when compared to Zim's) economic setbacks, and are certainly not going to intervene in a small country with no notable mineral reserves.

Let’s face it, life here is not all that funny, but who wants to listen to a whinging Pom, as Zimbos like to call us. (Can’t imagine why of course!)

Hence I like to keep this blog light. If you can keep your sense of humour, find joy in small things – for example, I find great comfort in a cup of tea – then you can cope with pretty much everything life throws at you.

I lost my sense of humour for a while, hence this blog went silent for a few months. Luckily I found it the other day, hiding in the back of a cupboard, next to a pile of odd socks. (A topic for another blog, another day). And now, more than ever, I think it’s important to be able to enjoy the small things, see humour in the ridiculous things we do to keep going, help as many Zimbabweans as possible to survive and prosper, and not to succumb to misery.

The “Old Man” wants all foreigners and whiteys out of the country. Africa for the Africans. (By the way, I am the only one in three generations of my family born outside Africa – will that never count for anything?) If that happens, who will speak up for Zimbabweans? OK, I am not an elected representative. And of course I’m privileged and undeniably white. But I’m still here, still doing my bit, pathetic though it may seem. I could have given up long ago, and moved elsewhere, but I love this place too much.

Well, that’s something to really laugh at isn’t it – how many Zimbabweans want to live in the West, while Westerners want to live in Africa. How’s that for delicious irony? A Zimbabwean would say that that paradox is absolutely "classical" - and I agree.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hello, hello!

Greetings are very important in Africa. Whenever you meet someone it's important to ask how they are, how their family is and how their day is going so far. And when it is your turn to say how things are with you, you have to conform to the polite ritualistic responses. ("I slept well and had a good night if you did" or "my day is going well if yours is.") It is very rude (or marks you out as a tourist) to skip or curtail the greetings process or to actually tell the truth, ie mention you had nightmares all night, are suffering from a trapped nerve or you've twisted your ankle. You can of course tell your good friends and family the truth, but only after you've reassured them several times before that all is well. Of course, this means the whole greetings ceremony has to be repeated three or four times over.

Greetings occur at the office, when you pass someone in the street, in the bank queue, at the supermarket and basically anywhere you come across anyone else. If you are going for a walk or a cycle ride, its polite to greet everyone as you pass - and you often hear children cheerily calling "How are you?" as you slog your way, panting, up a steep hill.

The greetings rituals have lost a little in translation to English. If you say "hi" to someone in Harare, they will immediately respond "fine, and you?" - which can come as a bit of a surprise. It works well if you say hello or good morning, but for some reason "hi" has become "hello, how are you and your family this merry morning/afternoon/evening?" to locals, while of course, it just means "hello" to you and I.

With the recent elections, the manner in which you wave hello or goodbye has become a political hot potato. The regular, open handed wave, is seen as a sign of the MDC party, the opposition party (who, by the way, clearly they won last month's election, hence the delay in announcing the results). The ruling party - ZANU PF- 's signature gesture is shaking your fist in threat, and the President is frequently photographed in this classic iron fisted pose.

This can create confusion and misunderstandings amongst expats. Picture myself and a heavily pregnant friend sitting in a car waiting for someone in downtown Harare in June 2000. Suddenly we see people running all around us and next thing we know an angry mob are rocking the car and shaking their fists at us. Scary. Or maybe just a rambunctious invitation to join the ZANU PF party.

A couple of weeks ago I went away for the weekend to stay with friends on a farm on the outskirts of Bindura, a small town north of Harare. As we drove past families walking along the road, we waved at them, and some shook their fists at us. Recalling that the area is a ZANU PF stronghold, we came up with a compromise gesture of hello and goodbye - the old fashioned thumbs up sign. We tried it on the next group of people we passed, and with wide smiles, they returned the thumbs up gesture. Political impasse solved.

If only we could sort out the elections that easily.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A super hotline

Like most of our major infrastructure, Zimbabwe's telephone system is -- well, there's no other way to say it -- miraculous.

Ha! I bet you weren't expecting that word, but it is true. The majority of phone lines are at least 30 years old, and given that the bills cost next to nothing in real terms, it defies belief that they work at all.

To be fair, they don't work for months on end (especially during the rainy season) in certain parts of town. Or your line can go dead for a few hours while the telephone company resets the local exchange. Or storm damage can result in fallen trees taking out your line which can take weeks or even months to fix.

But on the whole, where I live, you pick up the phone, and there's a dial tone.

Finding the number you want to call is a whole other story. Telephone directories are only periodically published and mine dates back to 1999, not all that useful. The telephone company has uploaded the directory on to their web site, which means you can find the number if you know the name of the company you are looking for - but you have to type it in as it was printed in the directory, typos and all.

This morning I dialled the number for an engineering company and the phone was answered by a cheery greeting. "Is this the number for XYZ engineering?" I asked. "No, you've reached the direct line of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission." (ZEC was appointed by the government to 'independently' count - and now, although the results have not yet been published - recount the votes for the parliamentary, senate and presidential elections that were held on 29 March. So far they've only announced the parliamentary results, which the opposition party, MDC, won. Since then the international media reported that seven ZEC employees were arrested for mis-reporting the parliamentary results, which the government is contesting. So far no senate or presidential election results have been announced, and the government media claims that these elections are still being counted, despite the fact that the results were published at each polling station on election day.)

"Oh, wait, you're at ZEC? The guys who are so busy at the moment?" "That's right," came the answer. "Well, keep counting," I quipped, "we're all waiting..."

I heard laughter as I hung up the phone. Poor guys. But now that I have their number, I might phone them from time to time to offer encouragement or advice. I'm sure they need all the support they can get.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

All the Presidents' Men

The first thing I heard was whistling and shouting. My friend Tony and I had gone for a Sunday cycle ride, enjoying the empty roads and beautiful weather. Now suddenly we were in trouble: all around there were dozens of disembodied voices calling and whistling at myself and Tony to stop. Tony was about 100 metres ahead, and being hard of hearing, he continued jauntily on his way. I paused, looking around me, but couldn't see anything beyond the school playing fields, and the empty road. Suddenly a yellow beret appeared out of the grass, and an AK machine gun was waved to signal me to cross the road and get closer. I couldn't actually see the face of the soldier, but the yellow beret denotes the Presidential Guard.

Uh oh. I hadn't heard the news and was wondering if something serious had happened, or, more likely, that they thought I was up to something serious. I shouted across the road "What's the matter?" But there was no response, just lots of rustling in the long grass, as I envisioned army snipers jostling each other to get the best fix on me.

Heart thudding, I considered the options. Tony was leading the way and I had no idea where our destination was. State House, the official presidential residence, was just around the corner, and there was no where to turn off. Obviously there was some security situation going on. But you can't stop. Stop your car, stop your bus, stop your bike, and you risk being arrested, threatened or even beaten. My friend's car had burst into flames near State House and she was ordered to push it out of the way, at gunpoint. This is not the place to be indecisive.

I continued on my way, cautiously. Around the corner another guard waved his AK to beckon me towards him. I paused, as a car was coming, and called out "What's wrong?" "This way, come over here - you must use the cycle path," he responded. I crossed the road and went down the cycle path, which, ironically, runs directly beneath the wall of State House. At the next set of traffic lights, the guards asked me to go across the lights and wait for Tony (who had been taken in for questioning - but that's another story) a few blocks away. The lights were red, and I was asked why I was stopping. I couldn't tell who was more nervous - the soldiers, or me. A nervous soldier is not someone you can take lightly.

Only a few months ago I had cycled this very route before and called out greetings to the guards, who had taken their hands off their semi-automatics to wave and wish me a good morning. Now if even a cricket started to sing, it would be instantly drowned out by the loud click of a dozen rifles being cocked.

As I paused for traffic at the median strip, a voice barked: "Go away! You can't wait here! The Old Man is coming." Ah, well, that explains everything.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Two weeks after the election and no results.. Here's why..

Zimbabwe Offline

Getting onto the internet in Zimbabwe can be a frustrating and expensive business. We have an archaic, un-maintained telephone system with corroded copper wires – no fibre optics. The government does not encourage email or internet access and charges a US $20,000 application fee to apply for a satellite link permit (and permits are rarely granted, so you could just be subsidizing the custom upgrades of the Minister’s Mercedes Benz – oops, I meant to say - contributing to an important government shopping trip initiative). Satellite access is illegal without this special permit. There are only a few internet service providers, and like the mobile phone network providers, these are all oversubscribed so that your connection speed/ability rarely matches what you pay for. Dial up is the more affordable option – it can take over an hour to download a single, text only email. If someone sends you picture or an attachment of 1 or 2 mb, it can take four hours or more to download it.

I am lucky enough to have (occasional) access to broadband – but it is very expensive at US $350 per month. So you can imagine my delight when my ADSL line went down on Monday. My internet provider, Zimbabwe Online, checked the link promptly and determined that the telephone line was the problem – and of course, that is serviced by the government telephone company.

I reported the problem to the telephone company on Monday, and spent a frustrating week at home, waiting for the engineer to come and fix the problem – you don’t want to miss your turn or you have to spend weeks pleading with them to return.

I cancelled business meetings, my daily trip to the bank (important as your daily withdrawal limit is worth less than ten US dollars and many shops and services insist on cash), exercise, food shopping - basically I put my life on hold. I can’t work without internet access, so no connection means no income, and potential loss of future income as I am virtually incommunicado. On top of that, each week spent staring hopelessly at your useless ADSL modem, hoping and praying for a miracle is compounded by the comforting knowledge that it has cost you another hundred dollars - money that could normally go a long way over here - in fruitless internet connection fees.

By Wednesday I was feeling extremely ill and really wanted to go to the doctor – but of course the telephone company said they were coming, so I didn’t dare miss my turn. On Thursday I finally caved in and went to the doc - turned out that I had tonsillitis! I rushed back home of course, in case the engineer pitched up.

On Friday, the engineer called me early morning, waking me up in my sickbed (sympathy please!). I skipped my morning shower, quickly threw on some clothes, and rushed to the gate to wait his imminent arrival. Guess what? He did actually pitch up.

Six hours later.

And he explained that none of the other engineers even go to work because their salaries don’t cover two loaves of bread, let alone the daily commute.

He didn’t have any equipment, asking to borrow a voltmeter and a spanner. He tore the cable off the wall and opened the switch box, and then said he had to go the telephone exchange for the next step, leaving all the wires exposed. I can’t tell you how reluctant I was to let him leave, but nothing ventured…

Anyway, (even) long(er) story short, I got back online Friday afternoon. An absolute miracle to get my line fixed before the weekend. Having dropped hints about his measly salary I gave the engineer all the cash I had – a hundred million zim dollars – worth about two US dollars. I took his mobile phone number, and he said he’d come quicker next time – if that actually is the case, it's a hundred million bucks well spent!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Trying to keep a lid on it..

Good things come to those that wait...

Remember when you were child, how your mother or father taught you the value of patience, saying "Good things come to those that wait"? Well my goodness, the whole of Zimbabwe is waiting with bated breath to see what the outcome of Saturday's election will be.

We go about our daily tasks in a state of suspended animation, queueing at the bank, going to the supermarket, working at the office - it all continues as if everything is normal. When we meet our friends we come back to life a bit - speculating on whether the "Old Man" (the president) will stay or go, whether there will be conflict or repression, whether we dare to hope that change is really on our doorstop. And then we get back in our cars, go to our next destination, or shut the door as our friends leave, perhaps rush to watch the international news, and go back to going through the motions of our daily lives, all emotions on hold - waiting, waiting, waiting for the outcome. What else can we do? We already have a stock of food in our cupboard in case there is no more to buy. We keep our fuel jerry cans topped up, our generators on standby, as we have anyway during the normal course of life here. We just continue with our routine drudgeries, waiting for Something to Happen.

Never has there been such an outbreak of procrastination, of repressed anxiety, of Zombiedom, like there is in Zimbabwe right now. Don't get me wrong, feelings are running high - and it may well be true that the country is on a knife edge, teetering between conflict, anarchy, and - ironically - resignation to the status quo.

Do good things really come to those that wait? We have all stood for hours in the bread queue at the local bakery or supermarket, to watch the person before us collect the last loaf, or in the bank queue before discovering there is no more cash. We so desperately want to believe that change is coming, but we hardly dare hope.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Rumour has it...

Thanks to the government's iron grip on Zimbabwe's media, local residents often find ourselves in the dark as to what's the real story. Rumours abound, are shared, leaked, exaggerated, and shared again. The city of Harare is basically one big Rumour Mill.

A few years ago, the Rumour de Jour was that the (largely unpopular) President -- Robert Mugabe -- had died, and that the government was hushing up this news. Weeks went past with no sightings of His Eminence, a noticeable absence of daily sirens heralding the presidential commute to State House, and an unusual reticence from the Minister of Information. The rumour reached giddy heights, with people actually daring to repeat it out loud. Champagne sales went through the roof. And then suddenly, it all came crashing down: there was the President himself splashed all over the local media, furiously denying the rumour. The angry headline of the national newspaper, The Herald, said it all: "I am ALIVE!", asserts the President."

With the recent election on 29th March, and the refusal of the government to promptly release the results, the Rumour Mill has rocketed into HyperDrive. The elections were held on Saturday. On Sunday, with mounting hope, people whispered that the opposition party (the MDC) had won, and that realising the game was up, "Bob has already skipped the country!" The story defied belief, but hope does spring eternal.

Yesterday the gossip was that the government had lost the election, and was delaying sharing the results until they could come up with a plausible Plan B.

Today the international media - Sky News and BBC World – reported rumours that the government was meeting with the opposition to negotiate a hand over of power. Of course, when you switch to ZBC (the only local broadcaster) there is no news, only a discussion on belly dancing and cultural practices among the Bedouin. Not even a denial! Maybe that means it's true.

Way hey! There will be one almighty Zimbabwean Celebration if this is the case. You’ll hear the partying, cheering and singing from here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Introducing your host..

Hello everyone,

My name is Fambai. No, it's not my real name, it's a pen name for the purposes of this column. I'm a young(ish) English woman living in Harare, Zimbabwe. I moved here ten years ago and would rather live here than anywhere else I've been to, and trust me that includes a lot of places!

Life in Zim is huge fun, if you can keep your sense of humour. Inflation runs at over 100,000 % - yes, that's a over hundred thousand! Writing a cheque is a constant challenge - if the bill comes to ZWD 51395731573.93, at first glance is that 513 million, or 51 billion, or what? It makes the brain spin.. And it doesn't stop there.. challenges abound. Why is it so difficult to get an ID? How can you be charged interest for an unpaid bill when the bill was never printed? Why bother printing an electricity rationing schedule when the national power company has no intention of sticking to it?

These are the daily challenges I face every day - OK, clearly I'm a little deranged to laugh at these little hassles - but if you can avoid sweating the small(ish) stuff, it's the best place on earth to live. Rhodesians used to call it "God's Own Country", and trouble in paradise notwithstanding, they could well be right!

Come with me to explore the mayhem, the madness and the warm hospitality of Zimbabwe.