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Spc. Micah E. Clare/U.S. Army/AP

How far can Zim dollars go?

Zimbabwe | Zimbabweans are starving and inflation is out of sight, but Auntie Paula's motto is "I can't say no"

Issue: "Obama," Nov. 15, 2008

SEATTLE-The menu for the evening: garlic-crusted chicken breast with artichokes, oven-cured tomatoes, saffron-pine-nut pilaf, lemon, and thyme; or grilled filet of salmon with fingerling potatoes, leeks, fennel, and grain mustard.

Paula Leen found her seat at Table 9 for a recent African charity benefit dinner at the Lynnwood Convention Center in a north Seattle suburb. The 74-year-old missionary to Zimbabwe seemed distant, absent even, as she nibbled at the American feast. On a short fundraising and networking trip stateside, she'd left her thoughts and heart back in Africa, where the current global financial crisis is translating into more hungry bellies and death in hospital lines among the hundreds of orphans and rural Zimbabweans she serves.

"If I'm not there, they die," she said, her eyes moistening behind a forced smile.

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Lately many have died even with Auntie Paula there. Donations are down, cutting her ability to foot the bill for treatments and surgeries-never mind buying fuel for the 50-mile drive to the nearest hospital, Mutare General Hospital on Zimbabwe's eastern border. For food, the rural African version of saffron-pine-nut pilaf is mealy meal, highly processed cornmeal stripped of most nutritional value. Leen barely can afford enough of it to keep the children and workers at her orphanage from starvation.

As Westerners tighten belts and charitable giving wanes, ministries like ZOPOM (Zimbabwe Outreach Program and Orphanages-Mutare) struggle to keep up with local market downturns.

The market in Zimbabwe began its rapid descent eight years ago when President Robert Mugabe instituted a compulsory land redistribution program, taking farms from the country's minority population of wealthy whites and handing them over to impoverished blacks, many of whom lacked the knowledge or experience to produce sustainable crop yields. Those with financial means quickly fled the country, and much of the choicest farmland now sits unused.

Unemployment ballooned and inflation skyrocketed in the early part of this decade, rendering Zimbabwean currency near useless. Residents carted wagons full of cash to the markets to buy food. Few believed the situation could get any worse. But this summer, as the misguided financial decisions of Western nations came home to roost, Zimbabwe plunged to new depths of desperation. Unemployment reached 80 percent, inflation 11,200,000 percent. That's right: 11.2 million percent.

Sitting on a padded bench in the plush foyer outside the Lynnwood banquet hall, Leen translated such shocking numbers into story. She told of unemployed Zimbabweans so desperate for work that she offers them jobs collecting leaves for garden mulch, a position that pays barely enough to stay alive. When the workers beg for food, she tells them of the country's 800,000-ton shortage of maize, an amount that could fill a line of delivery trucks stretching all the way across Zimbabwe and South Africa and into the Indian Ocean. "That food is not going to come," she says.

Collecting water is a problem, too. Leen recently purchased 60 feet of rope for ZOPOM wells, an expenditure equivalent to $600. "It was in the billions in Zim dollars, or was it quadrillions?" she said, noting her plan to stuff a few lengths of American rope in her suitcase before returning to the mission field.

In the week Leen spent stateside, the Zimbabwean exchange rate for U.S. dollars quadrupled, creating instant need for four times ZOPOM's current level of monthly funding just to maintain at already impossible levels. Shopping in Zimbabwe is like a game of beat the clock, this with no winners. "They mark up prices twice a day, and always the price goes up higher than the exchange rate so you pay more and more and more," Leen said. "If I get some Zim dollars on a Monday and go back to the orphanage, when I come back to buy things Friday the prices have quadrupled."

Zimbabwe hasn't always been this way. When Leen arrived in the southeastern African nation in 1981, she thought it rugged compared to the wealth of her former American home, but starvation and disease were limited. The advent of an AIDS pandemic over the next decade began to change that. And Mugabe's Robin Hood fantasies made it all worse.

Political strife between Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and the rival MDC often prevents substantial foreign aid from reaching Zimbabwe's 13 million people. Leen has witnessed convoys of food and supplies turned back from traveling into particularly needy regions-a stark reminder to her and all America, with its normal voter turnout of 50 percent, that politics matter.

In September, Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed a power-sharing agreement intended to ease political turmoil and open doors for donor nations. But Zimbabwe's long history of problems leaves many outsiders leery of funding rebuilding projects until some signs of stability emerge.

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