A Long, Hard Slog in Zimbabwe

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 7, 2008


A slender moon shadow stretches out on the road before Willard Chitau as he takes his first quick, purposeful steps toward his workplace. It is 4:27 a.m. Nine miles to go.

Buses have begun to stir, spewing their smoky diesel fumes into the darkness. But like many Zimbabweans, Chitau can no longer afford the ever-rising fares in a country where hyperinflation, estimated at more than 26,000 percent, is the world's worst. A single round trip to his job at a lumber yard costs 10 million Zimbabwean dollars, nearly a week's salary.

"Five million this way," Chitau says as he points his slim left arm forward, toward Harare, the crumbling economic heart of Zimbabwe. "Five million this way," he says as he points backward, toward his one-room home in Epworth, a sandy slum far beyond the city's tree-lined suburbs.

So Chitau, 33, desperate to support his wife and two young children, has joined Zimbabwe's growing legions of foot commuters. They make journeys that almost anywhere else would be epic. Here they are routine.

Along the way they trace the decline of a nation, passing clinics short of drugs, schools short of teachers, stores short of food. They walk on crumbling roads whose darkened streetlights are remnants of an era, just a decade ago, when Zimbabwe was one of Africa's most prosperous nations instead of one of its most troubled.

Chitau did not always live so far from work. During Operation Murambatsvina -- President Robert Mugabe's 2005 slum clearance campaign, which left 700,000 people homeless, jobless or both -- police forced Chitau to tear down his house in a dense Harare neighborhood much closer to the lumber yard, he said.

So he sent most of his belongings to his family's rural village and settled into the small, dark room in Epworth. There he sleeps with his wife, 4-year-old son and 3-month-old daughter on a concrete floor, a single wool blanket beneath them. A warm morning bath, which would consume precious firewood, is beyond their means. So is breakfast or even a cup of tea to cut the early morning chill.

The economy has been in free fall since Mugabe encouraged the invasion of white-owned commercial farms by landless black peasants in 2000. Although many Zimbabweans say land redistribution was needed to right historic wrongs, the way it happened was chaotic and often violent; it devastated successful businesses while triggering hyperinflation and leaving many poor blacks -- the supposed beneficiaries of the program -- without steady paychecks. An estimated 3 million people have since fled the country.

Sometimes Chitau finds odd jobs for extra cash, or his wife helps by selling vegetables. When there's enough money, he even takes the bus some mornings. But today the monthly rent is due. Because prices go up here unevenly, it's only 9 million Zimbabwean dollars, about $1.50 in U.S. currency, but that still means a struggle for a man paid in local bills worth less than $9 a month.

"I need to search for money very hard so that I will survive," Chitau says, his swift, smooth stride unbroken.

Cars pass. Buses pass. Cyclists wearing suits and ties pass. A barefoot man who has broken into a jog passes, too. But mainly it is Chitau who overtakes other pedestrians as the miles slip by.

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