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Out to dry

"Out to dry" Continued...

Issue: "Biblical callings," Dec. 4, 2010

But suffering under his increasingly repressive rule reached a low point in 2007 with hyperinflation. Mugabe lost general elections in March 2008 to rival Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) but neither party won a majority, forcing a runoff. Scarce commodities and extreme violence led up to the runoff-with human-rights groups documenting over 350,000 election-related injuries, including rape and torture.

At one point Tsvangirai himself was arrested, forcing him to drop out of the race. With the government imposing wage and price controls, workers-including doctors, teachers, bus drivers, and other city workers-went on strike and stores could no longer afford to stock goods. For more than a year, stores were empty, transportation halted, and even hospitals closed. By November 2008 prices were doubling on average every 24.7 hours (rivaled in economic history only by a similar period in 1946 Hungary).

In 2009 a regional coalition led by South Africa negotiated a unity government, with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister. The arrangement was momentous, considering that during one of Tsvangirai's arrests Mugabe's thugs beat him to the point of collapse and threw him out of a window. But instead of leading the country toward democracy, the configuration has saddled what was the opposition with joint responsibility for Mugabe's policies.

Memories of 2008's daily hardships are fresh: "Buying bread was a chore everyone dreaded," said Gurira. "You'd start queuing at 5 a.m. and five hours later you might have one loaf. Then you had to queue at the bank to get enough money to go back home." Gurira, who lost his job during that time and is now studying to become a teacher, keeps at home a stack of 100 trillion dollar notes issued by the government during the crisis, he says to remind him of what could happen again.

Few Americans realize they have a vested interest in what happens next in this southern African nation. The U.S. government is Zimbabwe's biggest donor-providing more than $1 billion in aid since 2002, including an additional 10 percent pledged for next year for development and treatment of HIV/AIDS.

How much government-to-government aid reaches the street is hard to say, but churches and local charities continue to play a large role bridging the gap for Zimbabweans who live below the poverty line-by some estimates over 80 percent of the country's 12 million people. Gurira has been working with the Social Concerns program at Central Baptist Church, a downtown Harare church with roots reaching back to the British colonial era, when it was an all-white congregation. Now the congregation is mostly black. At the height of the food crisis in 2008 the church was feeding over 2,000 families a month; today its food program continues to feed 350 families on a monthly basis, in addition to also running a vocational training program for young women and helping to launch microfinance programs in the city.

Many continue to come to the church for regular food distributions. On Saturdays Gurira and other young workers travel the city to deliver food parcels to those who can't make it and to check on the living circumstances of others they help. On the Saturday that I made visits with them, our first stop was the home of Annie Joseni, whose brother-in-law had just died of AIDS. Joseni lives in a "high-density area" called Mufakose, helping to support her now-widowed sister and three children, along with her mother and a mentally disabled cousin. The only food evident in their two-room home when we arrived was a struggling plot of kale and okra in the front yard. The church provided cooking oil, maize, and other staples, and Joseni promptly slumped down on her slab floor to pray in thanksgiving.

"I feel overwhelmed," Gurira said of such outreach. "We are a little sandbag in the middle of a flooding river."

The Social Concerns group makes regular rounds to other high-density areas, where slum-like conditions prevail and ZANU PF youth gangs often predominate. One week after I made rounds with the church workers, police barred them from delivering food or visiting clients in Mbare, a restive area where housing once built as dormitories (to house black male workers) now is overcrowded with extended families living in dilapidated one-room dorms.

Officers told the group they would need to apply for permission to visit Mbare, which would take three to five days and be valid for only one day. "The police did not seem to be convinced of our good intention despite evidence to the contrary," reported Social Concerns head Tom Rakabopa.

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