“Christmas is cancelled this year in Zimbabwe,” says Thabiso Nxumalo, 44. His wry remark reflects the almost complete absence of any festive season preparations in the predominately Christian country.
Surviving disease, hunger and the world’s highest ever recorded hyperinflation rate has eclipsed any celebration of one of Christianity’s most important calendar events.
“This year’s Christmas will be recorded as the worst in living memory for Zimbabweans; it will be the worst ever since independence [from Britain in 1980]” said Bulawayo resident Buhlebenkosi Sibanda, 46.
“There is no Christmas to talk of this year – there are no goods in the shops, cash is not available at the banks and people are dying of cholera in their hundreds, and while this is happening President [Robert] Mugabe and MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] leader Morgan Tsvangirai are failing to reach an agreement in forming a government. What they are doing to us is a crime against humanity,” she said.
About 5.5 million people require emergency food aid, a cholera outbreak – yet to be contained – has killed more than 1,000 people, and independent economists estimate annual inflation is in the trillions of percent.
A Z$10 billion (US$20) note was issued on 19 December, although the goods that are available are now generally sold in foreign currency.
Christmas is cancelled
“The government has cancelled this year’s Christmas. How do you celebrate this day when you have nothing to eat? This year’s Christmas is for the rich, who can afford to buy from the many foreign currency shops in the country,” Nxumalo said.
Amid the socioeconomic malaise, political talks between Mugabe and Tsvangirai are moribund, and if 42 abducted MDC members are not released or charged by 1 January 2009, the talks will be terminated.
A few shops in Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, have brought out the fairy lights from previous years, which brighten the streets – when the electricity is working – but they elicit memories of the past, rather than invoke celebrations of the present.
“It’s a case of Christmas was good back then; by this time we used to be all over the city, doing last minute shopping. But there is nothing this year, and some of us will use the day to reflect on how difficult times are now,” Peter Dzvairo, a carpenter, said.
The baubles, the tinsel and the Christmas trees that signal the start of festive shopping frenzies are as absent as the shoppers, and few people are making the traditional annual journey home to the rural areas.
No family time this year
“By this time my family would have stocked up food in large quantities and we would be ready to transport the food to the rural areas, where we will party for more than a week with friends and relatives.
“This will not happen this year – where does one get the cash and the fuel to transport a family to the rural areas?” Dzvairo said.
Max Mnkandla, a political commentator, said the priorities of Zimbabweans were the basics of survival. “Zimbabweans do not have the time to think about Christmas. They are worried about what to eat for that day, and they are also worried about where money for school fees for their children will come from. Most people are mindful of the troubles ahead,” he said.
“Things are difficult for everyone, and people are all aware that they are in this quandary because of the country’s politics – but this year’s Christmas will be the worst in living memory,” Mnkandla said.
Michael Nyathi, 38, refuses to be bowed by the current state of affairs. “Despite the problems we are facing in the country, I will celebrate Christmas with my family. I will cross the border to Botswana and buy my family goodies for Christmas,” he said.
“We should keep the spirit of Christmas alive for future generations. I have two small children and I want them to appreciate the importance of the day, so we will have a meal and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.”