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.