HARARE (Reuters) - Seven years into their worst economic crisis in memory, many Zimbabweans thought life couldn’t get any harder.
Then prices jumped another 300 percent and landlords started charging rent in groceries.
In a country where rocketing inflation has made balancing family accounts an exercise in both frustration and futility, the sudden three-fold surge in prices of many daily goods over the past week has added a new level of desperation.
“It’s like living in hell,” said James Mbambo, a hotel cleaner. “You might think I am exaggerating, but I tell you sometimes, I don’t want to wake up to face these things.”
For Zimbabweans the past week marked a new low as the Zimbabwe dollar plunged further against the U.S. greenback.
The cost of some basic foodstuffs — including bread, milk and the staple maize meal — doubled while public transport fares jumped three-fold.
Many workers earn far below the minimum wage recommended by consumer rights groups of nearly Z$5.5 million (168 pounds) ($336 at the official U.S. rate but $36.6 on the black market) , and borrowing money from employers, relatives and friends to pay for housing and bus fare every month has become a ritual.
Many others are being subsidised by relatives who have sought economic refuge overseas since Zimbabwe’s economy started falling sharply seven years ago.
Foreign currency sent from abroad is mostly changed into Zimbabwean dollars on a black market where the rates are about 10 times those set by the country’s central reserve bank.
Small-time black market traders generally operate from city street corners and bus stations where deals are struck very quickly.
The money — including huge wads of Zimbabwean dollars carried in satchels and bags, and sometimes in the trunks of cars — changes hands in buildings, away from prying eyes.
Zimbabweans’ battle against the fastest rising prices in the world is part of an economic crisis many blame on President Robert Mugabe’s government.
The government counters by saying western policies, such as sanctions, have undermined what had been one of the continent’s most vibrant economies.
Inflation, which clocked a record 3,720 percent in April and is estimated today to be much higher, is a stark reminder of the southern African nation’s recession, which has left three quarters of the country’s workers jobless.
On Tuesday, Mugabe’s government ordered prices of basic goods to be cut in half — a move which simply pushed prices back to the levels of mid-June.
House rentals are rising monthly, and for many urban Zimbabweans, they have tripled in the last two months.
Some landlords in Zimbabwe’s poor townships in the major cities are now charging their tenants groceries in order to cushion themselves against galloping inflation.
For a room in a township, a landlord may demand 10 kg (22 lb) of maize meal, four litres of cooking oil, 10 packets of toilet paper, and 2 kg of sugar and 2 kg of bread flour.
Labour unions want salaries that match the poverty line, but employers, already hit by forex shortages and high production costs, say this would force them to close and lay-off workers.
Leonard is a security guard at an urban shopping mall and has a brother in Britain helping to keep him going. But he is beginning to think that life in the poor rural hinterland might be better than the endless privations of city life in Harare.
“He is helping me, and helping many others in the family but things are so hard I am considering quitting my job and relocating to my rural home,” he said.
“At least there I won’t have to worry about rent, about bus fare on a daily basis, about electricity cuts, about water shortages and broken sewage pipes,” he added.