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Zimbabwe: New Highs and Lows

Trash dump.

Zimbabweans scavenge for food and recyclables at a dump outside Harare.

Editor's Note: There seems no respite in sight for average Zimbabweans as their country descends deeper into economic ruin. With chronic food shortages and hyperinflation causing massive price fluctuations, President Robert Mugabe insists on blaming the West for his country's woes. In the following dispatches, two reporters give accounts of the harsh realities there. We hear about Zimbabweans outside the country who are using the Internet and cell phones to help those remaining inside the southern African nation, and from an American reporter who gets more than she bargained for while visiting friends in the capital, Harare, this past summer.

Zimbabwe: High-Tech Help
By Clark Boyd

The clearest sign that Zimbabwe's economy is drifting ever closer to total collapse is its shockingly high inflation rate: Officially, it's 6,500 percent, down from an all-time high of 7,500 percent in July. That's still by far the highest rate in the world.

"A loaf of bread could cost 7,000 Zimbabwean dollars one month, then 30,000 the next," says Brenda Burrell, a co-founder of kubatana.net, an online clearinghouse for civil society groups in Zimbabwe. "You can see how much cash you have to have just to survive."

The country -- once a regional economic powerhouse -- recently introduced a 200,000 dollar note so its citizens wouldn't need to carry wheelbarrows full of cash around with them.

The country -- once a regional economic powerhouse -- recently introduced a 200,000 dollar note so its citizens wouldn't need to carry wheelbarrows full of cash around with them.

I also recently read this disturbing news item: "Zimbabwean state media reported today that two people, one of them a 15-year-old school boy, were crushed to death in a stampede of shoppers trying to buy sugar." Sugar is just one of the basic goods that have all but disappeared from Zimbabwean shelves.

Zimbabwe's economic woes started back in 2000, when President Mugabe moved to seize thousands of white-owned commercial farms. That, experts say, spelled doom for the nation's once-strong agriculture-based economy because many of the farms were turned over to Mugabe's political cronies, who proved unwilling or unable to run the farms productively.

But Mugabe prefers to blame Western sanctions for the current crisis. In June, he moved to stem the rampant inflation by ordering retailers to slash prices by half. Storeowners balked, saying that if they sold goods at those prices, they would lose their shirts. Shelves started to empty, and retailers did not restock. Hoarding and panic buying soon followed, and Mugabe deployed the Zimbabwean armed forces to ensure price cuts.

Faced with this kind of financial situation, it's little wonder that many Zimbabweans have left the country. The Zimbabwean diaspora numbers at least 3 million. And while the majority of those Zimbabweans are in neighboring countries in southern Africa, many have ended up in Great Britain and North America. No matter where they sought refuge, most left family and friends in Zimbabwe, and they want to help them.

Bricks of money.

Inflation is 6,500 percent, down from an all-time high of 7,500 percent in July, but still by far the highest rate in the world.

Of course, these Zimbabwean expats send remittances back home in the form of hard currency, such as US dollars or British pounds. The problem? Zimbabweans aren't legally allowed to use that money.

That's where technology comes in. A number of Web sites have recently sprung up that allow Zimbabweans living outside the country to buy goods and services online, with hard currency, and then have those goods and services delivered to recipients in Zimbabwe.

Among the most popular of these Web sites is Mukuru, which means "respected" or "awesome" in many southern African dialects. Rob, who wants to use only his first name, is a founder. He came to Britain from Zimbabwe in 2002 and started working in Cambridge at a high-tech firm that deals with content for mobile phones.

In his spare time, Rob would get together with expat Zimbabweans and talk about what the high-tech community could do for friends and family back home. That's when they hit upon an idea.

"We thought we could set up a system where a first-world buyer, say in London or the States, could use a text message to send value to their relatives in Zimbabwe," Rob tells me.

Mukuru works a little like Amazon.com or most other ecommerce Web sites -- you go there and choose from a variety of goods. The most popular, Rob says, is fuel. "A shopper throws 60 liter of fuel into their online shopping cart, and when they check out, they designate a recipient in Africa with just their name and their mobile phone number."

Mukuru then fires off a text message to that recipient and to the company's office in Zimbabwe. The messages contain a unique 10-digit code. The recipient in Zimbabwe goes to the Mukuru office with mobile phone in hand and allows the agent to verify the code and the identity of the recipient. From there, the agent issues a paper voucher for the fuel. Vouchers can be redeemed at a number of gas stations across the country.

But fuel's not the only product that Zimbabweans can buy online for folks back home. Zimbuyer.com allows them to purchase things like toilet paper, soap and cooking oil. "Our most popular products right now are electric generators," says Zimbuyer founder Lazarus, who also only wants to use his first name. "Because of late there have been 20-hour power cuts in Zimbabwe."

People queuing.

Long lines for food and fuel are a common sight in Zimbabwe.

Zimbuyer gets around the current in-country shortages by working with providers outside the country. Most orders through Zimbuyer are filled in South Africa, and then brought into Zimbabwe for delivery.

There are, of course, drawbacks to using the Internet and mobile phones to help alleviate the suffering in Zimbabwe. For Mukuru and Zimbuyer, the problems mostly center on credit card fraud. Both companies say that they sometimes receive orders from people using stolen credit cards.

Inside Zimbabwe, there are issues of access. "We do have congested mobile phone networks here," says Kubatana.net's Burrell. "And with the power problems, it's not always easy to access computers or charge your mobile phone." She also notes that while there is good cell phone penetration in Zimbabwe, the poorest of the poor probably wouldn't be able to take advantage of Mukuru or Zimbuyer.

And it's still not clear how Mugabe's government feels about these Web sites. Recently, he signed into law a measure called "The Interception of Communications Act," which gives the Zimbabwean government the power to essentially monitor any form of electronic communication.

But Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and a long-time Africa watcher, says that Mugabe and his government can't afford to take the country offline. "They have to keep the Internet open and they have to keep mobile phones open. Those technologies allow remittances to take place, and the remittances are what are allowing the economy to survive."

Burrell, though, worries that remittances are a double-edged sword -- they may, in part, be responsible for making Zimbabweans complacent when it comes to changing their leadership and their country. "If they can rely on a remittance from a relative abroad," she asks, "to what extent are people motivated to change the status quo in Zimbabwe?"

Clark Boyd is a technology reporter for PRI's The World. In our October 2006 broadcast story, "A Little Goes a Long Way," Boyd reported on the success of mircroloan programs in Uganda.

* * *

woman cooks.

Women cook maize for their families on the streets.

Zimbabwe: Take a Picture, Go to Jail
By Amy Jeffries

I snapped a single frame of an empty butchery in Harare. For that I spent two and a half days in the company of the Zimbabwean police.

I'd gone to the capital, Harare, to visit friends I had made seven years ago, while studying there as an undergraduate.

My former host mother, Amai,* and I were on our way from Queensdale, a sleepy suburb, to a tea party honoring a young woman about to be married. We'd stopped at the shopping center near Amai's house so that she could get her hair done for the occasion.

While Amai was stuck under the dryer with her hair wrapped in bright plastic curlers, I ducked out of the salon to buy a pack of gum. Saturday shoppers were buzzing in and out of the supermarkets with their one-loaf rations of bread or single package of milk. Those who could afford to supplement those hard-to-come-by staples also carried purchases of spaghetti or canned beans.

But the two butcheries were completely idle. One was shuttered, while the door to the other was open, though nobody appeared to be inside. Its shelves had been wiped clean.

I stepped inside and pressed down the shutter of my camera. Someone must have heard it click.

"What are you doing?" said a young man in a black football jersey, who appeared from the back.

I started fumbling for excuses.

"Taking a picture, just taking a picture."

"Of an empty butchery? You can be arrested for that here. This is Zimbabwe."

This was not the Zimbabwe I remembered. Seven years ago, my camera provoked curiosity and conversation, not threats.

This was not the Zimbabwe I remembered. Seven years ago, my camera provoked curiosity and conversation, not threats. But President Robert Mugabe's regime has persistently blamed the West for the ongoing economic crisis in the country. As a white American, I was now an object of suspicion everywhere I went.

Since 2002 new laws have been used to suppress newspapers and journalists critical of the Mugabe regime and even to detain some tourists for photographing seemingly innocuous subjects like fruit carts and churches.

Up to that point I had played it safe, mostly taking pictures within the 10-foot walls around Amai's house. I'd taken a few shots of the dry stalks of maize that the neighbors had planted along sidewalks and in previously grassy medians as insurance against food shortages. For that, I had gotten some funny looks, but that was all.

My heart was already in my throat when the guy in the black jersey told me he was going to turn me in.

When he disappeared into the back, saying he was going to call the authorities, I snuck away to the salon.

supermarket checkout.

Supermarket shoppers are allowed rations to buy one loaf of bread and a single carton of milk.

Amai was waiting for me, her hair all curled and fluffed.

"Let me just go to the loo," she said.

When she stepped out of the bathroom, the guy from the butchery was waiting with an entourage. An angry woman with drawn-on eyebrows stopped us as we headed for the door. Next thing, we were in the back of a car bound for the nearest police station.

The woman flashed her ID at us from the front seat: She was Captain Mary Muriza, a member of Zimbabwe's national army.

As we drove, Muriza continued her tirade. She accused me of trying to tarnish Zimbabwe's image abroad by photographing empty butcheries. She accused Amai of accepting bribes from me in exchange for allowing me to take pictures.

While we waited inside the Braeside police station, I watched Amai's hands tremble, as she quietly punched out a message on her cell phone to her friend. We would be late for tea, but no worries, she wrote. Nearly an hour passed before Chief Inspector Mthoko called us into his office. He looked over the report gathered from Muriza's statement.

"Did you have permission to take the photo?"

"No. There was no one in the butchery," I said. "There was no one to ask."

"I can charge you under the Information and Privacy Act," he said, referring to one of the laws passed in 2002 that has largely been used to suppress reporting critical of President Mugabe. I was sure at that moment we'd be escorted immediately to jail.

Instead, Mthoko sent us back out into the charge office, where we took a place on the bench in front of the counter and waited.

"I can charge you under the Information and Privacy Act," he said, referring to one of the laws passed in 2002 that has largely been used to suppress reporting critical of President Mugabe.

Amai sent another text message to her friend. This time, she wrote that we would not make it to the party.

I asked if I should call someone for help.

"It's not a very big problem," she said, trying to reassure me, though her tone suggested otherwise.

Hours passed. From our seats on the charge office bench, we watched the sun set.

"They can't decide what to do with us," Amai told me, translating the banter between the officers.

As night fell, the officers ducked in and out, apparently coming and going from raids in which they enforced the price reductions set by Mugabe's regime in July. Many business owners were still refusing to slash prices or restock empty shelves, contributing to widespread shortages. As the officers started drinking the looted beer, they became increasingly confrontational.

"Do you want to be locked up, or do you want to go home?" asked one constable.

Of course I wanted to go home. But he wasn't really offering me a choice; he was attempting to solicit a bribe.

"Come here, so I can hear you better," he said. I did as I was told.

"What are you prepared to do for Africa?" he asked. "You see my wife has a problem. There's no mealie meal. There's no meat...."

maize growing.

Maize is often grown close to urban areas on any fallow strips of land.

We'd been in the police station for more than six hours without being charged. It's now common in Zimbabwe for the police to detain people like this in order to harvest a payday. But when it became clear we were not about to pay a bribe, the cops at Braeside handed back my camera without the roll of film and let us go with a promise to return on Monday, when the Central Investigation Department, or CID, would review our case.

Later, when we arrived at the CID, we were promptly turned away and sent back to Braeside for more paperwork.

The next day, we returned and were handed over to Detective Inspector Rangwani in CID. An automatic handgun hung on the wall next to Rangwani's desk. The windowsill behind him was decorated with a collection of grenades and rockets. Without saying a word, the inspector examined the case report, then flipped through the pages of a book of penal code.

"Taking a picture of a butchery, it's not a serious offense," he said finally. "I'll charge you under miscellaneous offenses. Are you prepared to pay the fine, or do you want to go to court?"

I told him I'd pay the fine. He decided not to charge Amai.

Rangwani sent me down to a junior sergeant, who after an attempt to extract money from me, read me my rights, took my guilty plea and fingerprinted me in quadruplicate.

In the end, I paid Z$40,000, about 20 cents at black market exchange rates, to settle the charge of "disorderly conduct in a public place." I left Zimbabwe on a Greyhound bus the next day, leaving a country where it's forbidden to photograph an empty store shelf.

"Amai" means "mother" in the Shona language. To protect her identity, I have used this instead of her real name.

Amy Jeffries has reported from South Africa and Zimbabwe and has written about Nigerian and Ethiopian immigrants in California. She is currently pursuing concurrent master's degrees in journalism and African studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Related Links

Zimbabwe: Shadows and Lies

Watch our broadcast story from June 2006, when FRONTLINE/World reporter Alexis Bloom and producer Cassandra Herrman go undercover in Zimbabwe posing as tourists to find a population struggling with hunger and poverty, and living in fear of a government that has become a brutal dictatorship.

REACTIONS

(anon) - Boulder, CO
I don't know when Ms. Jeffries was in Zimbabwe, but when I was there this summer I remember the constant fear that was with me when I carried my camera. I was in Zim as a volunteer and had to be extremely careful taking pictures outside of where I was working - I would never take pictures in public, especially in Harare. Ms. Jeffries very accurately describes how repressive it is.

Nancy Murima - Brooklyn, New York
This is in response to the article: "Zimbabwe: Take a Picture, Go to Jail"
I completely understand why you got a negative reaction from the Zimabwean people when you took a photo of the empty butchery. It's like being kicked when you are already down. Like the naked photos of the Iraqi prisoners -- humiliating. It's like you're drowning and someone is just decribing the water around you without helping the situation. Zimbabweans are proud people so by taking a photo you chipped away at their sense of pride and dignity. It's hard to understand I know but that's how I interpret what happened to you. People are already on edge... We already know the situation in Zimbabwe and we need help not voyeurs.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Based on our reporting in Zimbabwe (see our broadcast story, "Shadows and Lies," which first aired last year), it seems most Zimbabweans are eager to let the world know how grim the economic situation in their country has become. The Mugabe government, on the other hand, is anxious to limit information and has continued to crackdown on local and foreign reporters.

- berkeley, ca
That's an amazing story by the reporter who tried to take a picture of the empty store shelf. What a pathetic country Zimbabwe has become under Mugabe in his old age. I'm glad she survived her ordeal. How much worse for people who can't get out.