In Zimbabwe, Darkly

Less than 24 hours ago, AFP says that the number of people reported to be infected by cholera in Zimbabwe has risen to almost 65,000, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization. “Some 64,701 people have caught the disease during the outbreak, which started in August, and 3,295 among them have died, the WHO said.” And yet – amidst all this and in the face of world-record hyperinflation, politicians are still wrangling about “power-sharing.”

With so many things wrong in the world – in Sudan, in Sri Lanka, in Gaza, and elsewhere, and with businesses shedding jobs every day – how shocking are these numbers? 65,000 people with cholera. 52 dead and 80 wounded in Sri Lanka. How numb have we become to these news of suffering?

The Embassy and USAID in Harare as well as Ambassador McGee are doing what they can. But for stories of what Zimbabwe’s like for diplomatic personnel, I visit the Harare blog of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I doubt if you can find any such stark account elsewhere.

Philip Barclay
is a Second Secretary (Political/Projects/Consular) at the British Embassy in Zimbabwe. He joined the FCO in 1999 and was previously posted in London and Poland. He is one of the two FCO bloggers in Harare. What is striking about these posts to me is how real and natural they are; no attempt at glossing over and how they prick at your heart with their utter lack of adornment in explaining the state of things.

On the water shortage, Philip writes:

Monday morning. It’s been a weekend of doughnuts and I’m drinking too much again. A can of Namibian beer seems easier and tastier than water flavoured with the sulphuric tang of purification tablets. In Zimbabwe, alcoholism is a prophylactic for cholera. Not surprisingly after my excess, a certain tightness of my bowel suggests that I’d better visit the loo. But that’s not a pleasant prospect.

For some reason Harare’s powers that be cut off the British Embassy’s water supply in December. It’s not clear if this was another sign of Zim’s water system failure or a protest at our policy of saying that Mr Mugabe’s government is not altogether the best thing since sliced bread. Now Harare’s water ain’t great for drinking, fortified as it is by large amounts of the charmingly named but deadly Vibrio cholera bacterium. But I do still find it helpful for flushing toilets and miss it now it’s gone. So my toiletry routine has taken on a semi-African form. I fill a bucket from a butt and carry it down the corridor, spilling a little to present a banana-skin-type walkway to my colleagues. (Continue reading Two Philips Groaning).

Philip traveled to London for training and upon his homecoming to Harare was confronted once more with the lack of water:

I am running out of the little water I had stashed in containers. In the past I could count on my partner for water but now his taps have dried up too. The only friend I know who has a borehole can not help because she has not had power for two weeks now. I feel terribly despondent.

The whole city of Harare has no water. Our offices have no water and outside the cholera statistics are growing. Only a week ago we had someone from Population Services International (PSI) come in to tell us about prevention of cholera.

I remember vividly how she emphasised that we should wash our hands, keep ourselves and surroundings clean. she advised us not to shake hands. She spoke with passion. She made a lot of sense but today as I write this I am asking myself many questions.

Even Zimbabwe’s health minister, David Parirenyatwa and president Robert Mugabe have taken turns to tell people about the importance of washing hands and general hygiene. But the question on everyone’s lips is; “Where is the water?”

You can wash hands and keep your home and yourself clean if you have running water. We have had no water for several days and some of my colleagues have not had running water for months.

We have become innovative bathers but I do not know for how long we are going to be able to come to work without stinking the whole office out. There is a limit to how much perfumes and deodorants can mask body odours.

It will be very easy for cholera to wipe out whole offices. People are coming from waterless homes to waterless offices. Anyone who thinks cholera is under control is having one very big sad joke. The Zimbabwean government does not believe it should be declared a national disaster. (Continue reading One big rubbish dump)

Grace Mutandwa is the other FCO Harare blogger. She
joined the British Embassy in Harare in 2002 as the locally-employed Press & Public Affairs Officer. Prior to that, she worked as an Arts Editor and a political journalist for more than 18 years for various local and international media organizations. In Life Goes On, she writes a powerful piece about the distance we keep even when things fall apart.

Someone dies, someone disappears and later reappears in court or their body is discovered decomposing somewhere. More than 50,000 people are struck by cholera and 3,028 of them die.

We all worry about these developments, do what we can to help ease the pain but at the end of the day, life for those still free to move around goes on. We go out, we invite friends to dinner, get invited to share a curry or a drink and slowly we continue with our lives.

This is the reality of life. Even in war torn countries life of sorts still goes on. A toddler spends several weeks with an abducted parent and later becomes a guest of the state in one of the country’s worst prisons. Still we talk about it for a while and soon enough we move on.

Several are starving but those with the means feast -their lives go on. Survival itself has become a major feat and those who still can drag themselves around do so with dwindling empathy and patience for the less fortunate.

Two 13-year-old girls incessantly ring my gate bell and when I answer, they tell me they are looking for jobs and that they have not eaten in days. They will work for food because being paid in local currency is useless. They have walked all the way from the high density suburb of Dzivaresekwa, west of the Harare.

I already have domestic help so I give them water and two slices each of bread. The food and water soon disappear. The two skinny-looking girls thank me profusely and ask me for old clothes.

My youngest and only daughter is an 18-year-old who is built bigger than the two. She is away studying but before she left home she cleaned out her wardrobe and gave various cousins some of her clothes – so there is nothing to give.

My heart bleeds. No child should ever have to go through what those two are going through.

All this gets me thinking about how really jaded we have become with political, economic and social situation in the country. Even as I spoke to the two girls it struck me how distant I managed to remain even as I gave them the bread and water.

There is something dead in us as a people. Several stories were written and appeals launched on behalf of journalist, turned activist Jestina Mukoko. She is a prominent person, so journalists tend to focus on her. The toddler who went missing with its parents got a mention every now and then if it was lucky.

Even when the toddler turned up at a police station with its parents being accused of banditry, we as a nation failed that child. We behaved as if it was the most normal thing for a baby to be incacerated. News that the baby too was beaten to force the mother to confess, just makes the whole story very sordid, and still no one raised a voice.

The Child Protection Society suddenly died – not a single word from them. The other so called children’s rights organisations just disappeared off the earth. We have become damaged goods.

We are facing a bleak year. Politicians want power but they do not seem to realise that with power comes responsibility. When I sit through 16-hour powercuts it does not make me feel better to find out that the same is happening in Nepal. Citizens deserve the best from their government.

When people hanker after power they must realise and accept the fact that they must be accountable and that citizens expect improved standards of living and not to be taken back to the dark ages.

Zimbabwe used to be Southern Africa’s breadbasket. It is shameful that today we produce nothing. Today we import turkeys from Peru and chickens from Uruguay. There is something very wrong and we cannot even ask God anymore to put it right because God left Africa ages ago – in fact when he did he never even passed through Zimbabwe. So in a way life goes on.

Can you imagine a Second Secretary in our Foreign Service or one of our locally engaged staff writing these posts in DipNote? Frankly, I can’t. And yet, such details and sense of “real life happening” is probably what is needed in our diplomats’ discourse with the American public.