December 23, 2007 / 4:24 AM / in 10 years

Bleak Christmas ahead for weary Zimbabweans

HARARE (Reuters) - Workers in one of Harare’s big department stores stock shelves with luxury goods only the rich can afford, while at an adjacent bank ordinary Zimbabweans are clamoring for cash which is the latest thing in short supply.

<p>Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (C) arrives at the ruling ZANU-PF party headquarters in Harare December 12, 2007. For most Zimbabweans, Christmas celebrations will be muted in this southern African country struggling with sky-high inflation and unemployment and severe economic crisis. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo</p>

Despite the store’s tinsel, Christmas trees and Santa Claus figurines, for most Zimbabweans celebrations will be muted in this southern African country struggling with sky-high inflation and unemployment and severe economic crisis.

“It is no exaggeration to say Christmas has effectively been removed from our calendar,” said James Toronto, a clerk with an insurance firm, as he queued outside a bank.

Even the Christmas carol proclaiming ‘joy to the world’ in the upmarket Barbours department store, once a hive of festive season shopping but now largely deserted, rings like a dirge.

“These decorations are a custom we have to keep up, but it is increasingly getting pointless putting up something that says ‘merry Christmas’ when there is no merriment,” said a shop attendant.

Barbours’ shelves are stocked with expensive imported goods which only wealthy Zimbabweans can afford.

Other Harare shops reported slow business with the scant activity mostly confined to Chinese stores that have mushroomed across the city selling cheap items such as clothes and household basics.

Chinese imports have proved a hit in Zimbabwe, where the world’s highest inflation rate, at almost 8,000 percent, has ravaged incomes.

NOTHING TO CHEER

As the year draws to a close -- banknotes have joined the long list of shortages that include food, fuel, foreign currency and electricity -- triggering long queues at banks as desperate shoppers seek cash to buy necessities ahead of the holidays.

“One would have hoped to rest, not celebrate because there’s nothing to cheer, over the holidays. Not to be hunting for cash, after which you would have to scrounge for food,” Tsomondo said.

The central bank announced the introduction of higher-value Z$750,000 ($25 at the official exchange rate and $0.47 on the black market), Z$500,000 and Z$250,000 notes on Wednesday to ease the shortage, but the measure had no immediate impact on long queues at banks.

Even the highest denomination note cannot buy a loaf of bread, which costs between Z$800,000 and Z$1million.

A controversial decision by President Robert Mugabe to freeze prices in June left bare shop shelves as basic foodstuffs -- many already in short supply -- quickly ran out.

Bread, milk, cooking oil, maize meal and sugar are hard to find but available on the black market at inflated prices.

Transport problems, caused by chronic fuel shortages, have also adversely affected urban Zimbabweans’ customary trip back to rural areas in the Christmas season.

Those who manage the trip have to endure hours in queues as the few roadworthy buses line up for subsidised government fuel.

Many Zimbabweans look at the New Year with trepidation.

“This year has been bad, I wonder how much worse it will get next year,” says Patience Machingura, a mother of five.

“That’s why I cannot be caught up in the Christmas excitement, only to struggle to buy (school) uniforms and pay school fees, come January,” she added.

Some still look forward to celebrating Christmas, despite the gloom. Garikai Mandebvu, a Zimbabwean resident in the United Kingdom, says he is shocked at how things have changed for the worse since he visited last year.

“It is a shock, but the biggest surprise is the fact that people here have survived it all,” Mandebvu said. “For me, that’s enough cause for celebration with my family, just like the good old days.”

Editing by Marius Bosch and Peter Millership

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