Zimbabwe’s scaled-back Christmas celebrations

Most Zimbabweans have been unable to afford Christmas treats because of soaring inflation, writes the BBC’s Shingai Nyoka from the capital, Harare.

Two women with large trolleys had come prepared to stock up for the holiday season, but they looked at each other in dismay.

“What kind of a party are we going to have?” one asked the other.

They were staring at a notice taped to the supermarket fridge door which said: “2 units per customer”.

This was the drinks section of a shop in the centre of Harare, and the units referred to were the 300 millilitre bottles of soft drinks and beer. Zimbabweans have been unable to afford Christmas treats

The Christmas and New Year’s holidays are usually a time for Zimbabweans to loosen their belts for feasts and celebrations.

Notice saying "2 units per customer

During the break the whole country shuts down. Factories close for the month, and the rains herald the start of the agricultural season.

Many Zimbabweans travel to their rural homes to see their extended family and to plant maize, to provide a year-long supply of the staple food. Zimbabweans have been unable to afford Christmas treats

On Christmas Day most people attend church, while throughout the season family gatherings are at the centre of the holidays.

Avoiding Christmas trimmings

This year, however, things are different, and belt-tightening is the order of the day.

The country is in the middle of an economic crisis.

People queuing outside a bankImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionAt times, there have been long bank queues of people hoping to get hold of much-needed cash

According to the latest inflation figures, prices rose overall by 30% in the last year and each month that figure seems to be going up.

Supermarket shelves may be abundant with goodies but shoppers’ trolleys are uncharacteristically sparse as they face the consequences of rising prices.

The chicken that just over a year ago cost $3.50 (£2.76) is now priced at $7.19, while the price of 400g of muesli has risen from $5 to $12 and a pack of nine rolls of toilet paper has gone up from $8 to $19.

Salaries, however, have not kept up with inflation. In fact, the average wage of $300 a month is the same as it was a year ago. Zimbabweans have been unable to afford Christmas treats

A man wearing a hat decorated with worthless note bearers' cheques during a protest against government plans to introduce bond notesImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionZimbabweans have held a series of protests to show their money has become worthless

Given that, the trimmings that can give a meal an extra sparkle might be avoided.

Zimbabweans have been unable to afford Christmas treats For example, an ordinary pack of 12 Christmas crackers with a joke, a hat and a small gift is selling at $40, compared to less than $15 last year.

Parties cancelled

It explains perhaps why some party invitations have been withdrawn and planned celebrations have been scaled back.

One businessman told me that he had to cancel his usual holiday party and turn it into a more abstemious lunch, thereby removing the burden of having to buy lots of drinks.

Back at the supermarket, a man was standing in an aisle next to shelves of rice, carefully comparing prices and products.

His eye rested on an unfamiliar product, Broken Rice.

Bags of broken rice
Image captionBroken Rice is made up of pieces of rejected rice

The 2kg package was priced $4.69 and was the cheapest brand available.

“Broken” is a euphemism for tiny imperfect pieces of rejected rice.

It had been packaged in time for the festive season, where no meal is complete without chicken and rice, an imported luxury.

‘More suffering in post-Mugabe era’

In a way the broken rice is a metaphor for the season, which feels imperfect.

“I started seeing it in the shops about a month ago,” the man, who introduced himself as Shupi, told me.

“We are used to having rice at Christmas. It is supposed to be a treat but it has become so expensive.

“Initially, people had shunned this rice because it is in small pieces and in different sizes. Some complain it doesn’t cook evenly, but at least it is affordable.” Zimbabweans have been unable to afford Christmas treats

A protester with a fuel container, due to the continuing fuel crisis,as Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance party members gather in the Africa Unity Square, in Harare, Zimbabwe, 29 November 2018, to protest against the current economic situation facing the country.Image copyrightEPA
Image captionDiscontent with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government is growing

Many, like Shupi, remember the promises made when President Emmerson Mnangagwa swept to power in November 2017 after Robert Mugabe was ousted.

“He promised us better years ahead and blamed our suffering on years of being under Robert Mugabe.

“But he has been in power for more than a year and the crisis has gotten worse,” Shupi added.

Runaway inflation

Zimbabweans have been unable to afford Christmas treats Zimbabweans have endured much over the last decade.

Ten years ago, supermarket shelves were mostly empty and record-breaking inflation was estimated to have topped 79 billion %.

It meant that prices for basic commodities would double or triple in a day, and bank balances for ordinary people could range from trillions of Zimbabwean dollars to octillions, that is a one followed by 48 zeros.

In 2009 the government scrapped the local currency and adopted the US dollar.

Emmerson Mnangagwa delivers a speech during a "Thank You" rally on November 24, 2018, in Murombedzi, Zvimba, Mashonaland West, ZimbabweImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionPresident Emmerson Mnangagwa took power in November 2017 with a promise to improve the economy

Then, in 2016, in order to get over a shortage of physical cash, the authorities introduced a surrogate note, known as a bond note, that was supposed to have the same value as the US dollar. Zimbabweans have been unable to afford Christmas treats

In other words, a two-dollar bond note was supposed to be worth $2.

But the bond notes, or “bollars”, have lost value because of a lack of foreign currency backing the note. They are now worth 30 US cents each on the black market.

Zimbabwean companies are not producing enough to satisfy local demand or to earn foreign currency by exporting goods. Instead, the country is importing more, and struggling to pay.

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Zimbabweans have been unable to afford Christmas treats

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