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Christmas sad season for millions of the poor

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WHILE the festive season is meant to be a joyful time, for millions of Zimbabweans it is largely a period of misery, choking financial dire straits and stress – a test of endurance and surviving the pain of poverty.

BERNARD MPOFU
Throughout December, as Christmas beckons tomorrow and New Year’s Eve draws closer, a few privileged Zimbabweans will be dining and wining, enjoying family get-togethers and parties or travelling for holidays locally and outside the country, but the majority will be singing the blues.

They will be struggling, increasingly anxious about how they would pay for necessities — food, rent, utilities — as well as get modest gifts, if any, for their children. Come January, school fees and all the other bills will be waiting.

While the few maybe lucky to have money to spend in this parlous state of the economy and Covid-19 environment, discussing and finalising their holiday plans and luxury adventures, including hotel bookings and securing travel tickets; vacation activities; new year’s dreams and buying fabulous gifts; and lavish holiday parties, most will be lamenting their travails, trials and tribulations.

Instead of rejoicing in a carnival atmosphere and festive mood, they will be reeling from stress; where to get the basics. When some say holidays are joyful, some feel they are stressful.

For the privileged joy means having a lavish holiday, shopping and partying, but for the majority, the fullest meaning of peace and joy is simply this: not having to worry about how to provide food, shelter, and have something to eat with their loved ones.

“Well, it isn’t much of a holiday for me,” Tawanda Macheka tells The NewsHawks.

“I think Christmas is a very sad season of the year for some of us. I don’t have a job even if I’m highly qualified. I lost my job a few years ago and now survive on informal sector activities; I buy and sell goods in a car. The majority of people now live like that, whether you are educated or not it’s just the same now. I live in Kuwadzana, and of course I’m not going anywhere this holiday. I come from Murehwa, but I simply can’t afford to travel to see my rural folks. It’s sad for me, but I know the majority of Zimbabweans are going through the same.”

Macheka’s Christmas story is indeed a microcosm of the bigger Zimbabwean reality.

Over 90% of Zimbabweans are formally unemployed. They now eke out a living on informal activities.

The formal economy has long largely collapsed and informal activities have taken over.

However, the Covid-19 global pandemic has also not only ravaged formal economies, but also the informal sector and vulnerable groups of society.

The situation in Zimbabwe is worsened by the impact of adverse weather conditions like recent drought and Cyclone Idai, macro-economic instability and high inflation, as well as policy and governance failures.

While President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Finance minister Mthuli Ncube crow about reducing the budget deficit and surpluses – technical fiscal targets – the majority see no change: hungers still stalks the land.

With millions of Zimbabweans devastated by a year of drought, rising stratospheric inflation and Covid-19, the United Nations World Food Programme has appealed for an additional US$204 million to support over four million of the most food insecure people over the next six months.

The appeal comes ahead of the tough season, which risks pushing some 6.9 million people — nearly half of Zimbabwe’s population — into hunger by its March peak, according to the most recent national data.

That includes roughly one-third of the rural population, who are expected to face “crisis” or “emergency” levels of hunger, and 2.3 million hungry urban dwellers. Others are spared from falling deeper into acute hunger thanks to assistance from WFP and partners.

“More than half of Zimbabweans in rural areas are left with no choice  but to skip meals, reduce portions or sell off precious belongings in order to cope,” said Francesca Erdelmann, WFP Zimbabwe’s representative. “We are deeply concerned that if WFP does not receive sufficient funding to reach  four million people , families will be further pushed to the limit.”

The funding would allow WFP to provide the minimum amount of emergency food assistance to the most vulnerable 3.5 million rural and 550 000 urban dwellers, complementing the response of Zimbabwe’s government and other partners.

At least 7.6 million people have fallen into poverty this year — a million more than in 2019, according to the recent ZimVAC rural livelihoods assessment. High inflation – a feature of the country’s economic challenges – has pushed the prices of basics beyond the means of most Zimbabweans.

Covid-19’s ravages have exacerbated the situation – making it especially hard for poor families to afford a nutritious diet, with incomes drying up due to the lockdown.

Subsistence farming families, who make up three-quarters of Zimbabwe’s population and produce most of its food, are also hurting because of a third successive drought-hit harvest this year.

While WFP delivers and saves lives with urgently needed humanitarian assistance, its work in Zimbabwe links with a strong resilience agenda to forge and protect developmental gains.

Donors are now feeding millions in a country which used to produce enough for itself and help feed neighbours.

That was before the disastrous land reform programme that rendered Zimbabwe a basket case, from being a bread basket for the region.

The situation has dramatically changed.

Walking down Harare’s First Street used to be a remarkable experience for shoppers in the capital city as the shopping area came to define the finest lifestyle aspirations of the urban middle class.

The sense of nostalgia has particularly been inescapable this holiday as the words of the late Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere – who once described Zimbabwe as the Jewel Africa – assume new meaning, while citizens watch in horror the “Sunshine City” degenerates into a dirty city of jobless wanderers and beggars.

The homeless have even found refuge on First Street, which used to be one of Harare’s most popular thoroughfares in the central business district, lined with iconic shops such as Gratermans and Meikles where the old and the young used to savour a once-in-a-year opportunity to steal a Kodac moment with Santa Claus.

The colourful lights that would traditionally illuminate the Harare Gardens, creating bright city lights have gone dim.

The annual Mayor’s Cheer Fund is no longer a big event.

In the high-density suburbs and rural areas, Christmas was more than a season of merrymaking and giving. It was family time.

For the young, Christmas was a time to show off new clothes, look forward to sumptuous cuisine and play the loudest music.

For the well-heeled, flying out of Zimbabwe or driving to premier local tourist destinations was a must.

Three social classes were visible — the rich, middle class and the poverty-stricken. Now it is only two classes: the few well-to-do and the mass poor.

Transport operators would cash in as many Zimbabweans would travel to the countryside to celebrate with their extended families.

Record bars also made a killing.

December ushered in a new season where musicians would belt out festive hits just to capture the mood and cheer up the people. That is no longer the case.

Songs like Paul Matavire’s ikhisimusi isifikile are now but classics. Contemporary musicians do not even bother to sing about Christmas anymore.

The return of compatriots working in neighbouring countries and the diaspora would be signalled by an influx of mostly South Africa-registered vehicles in the high-density suburbs, especially in the southern parts of the country, playing latest Kwaito and house music.

For journalists, Christmas was one of the few events when scribes would be spoilt for choice — they were invited to many corporate events than they would be able to attend.

Before 2000, Christmas holidays were something many would look forward to.

The 13th cheque, which many workers viewed as a valuable token of appreciation from employers, has lost value as the local currency weakened over the years.

In many cases, it is no longer there. It is now just a footnote in people’s nostalgic stories.

For most people, 2020 has largely been a horrible year. Annus horribilis which cannot even be treated by the usual escapist indulgences into alcoholism.

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