Inside a Year of Storytelling in Zimbabwe
Local Reporters are Bold Amid Growing Insecurity
This year, GPJ has published a wide range of stories about the many challenges Zimbabweans face on a daily basis – but it’s not just the subjects and sources who face hardship. Here, GPJ reporter Kudzai Mazvarirwofa recounts a year of gathering news in one of the world’s most challenging contexts.
Published December 24, 2019
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Christmas lights and decorations that promise celebration hang throughout Zimbabwe. But the lights don’t twinkle, because there is rarely power to light them.
We have little to be merry about this year.
It’s been a year of political chaos, economic hardship and skyrocketing inflation that is reminiscent of an even harder time. The new year promises more of the same.
These days, living in – rather, surviving in – Zimbabwe is tough.
Being a reporter is harder.
It’s never been easy to be a storyteller here, to chronicle the complexities of this place amid political animosity and endless insecurity. These days, life is all about backups.
Backup electricity. Backup water. Backup money. Backup food. Backup routes.
I wake up every morning without water or electricity. These days, both are like rude guests in Zimbabwean homes – they come when it’s convenient for them and only stay a short while before leaving without warning.
Learning to live without electricity is tough. But as a reporter, it puts my safety and my work at risk. I depend on battery-powered equipment – phone, computer, camera, recorder – to do my work. When the battery on my backup phone is drained, I get nervous. Internet networks are often down, too.
The second the power returns, I scramble to put everything on the charger. I even set alarms for the middle of the night to charge my equipment.
I’m always on a deadline. But now, I have to make time to fetch water from my neighbors, who have a borehole. I’m lucky they have one. The city’s high-density suburbs are full of shallow wells and contaminated water, and typhoid and cholera often follow those who rely on them. We used to have running water throughout the capital, but the lack of it now means more stagnant water. More disease.
After long days in the field, searching for sources, stories and pictures, I come back to my plumbed home, which no longer has water, to gather containers to fetch water.
There’s always a queue.
The good news is that I often get story ideas as I wait. Locals talk about water, the economy, the day’s news and how it affects their lives.
I’m not the only one. Even children walk for miles with containers on their heads or in their wheelbarrows, searching for water. When I was their age, we had electricity every day. Running water, too. Today, children wake up and go to sleep in a different reality, a darker time.
Commuting requires dedication. Public transport operates at full capacity, barely able to cater to the demand. Service is crowded and inconsistent.
The government debuted new coins last month, in part to help people pay for public transportation, but public minibuses already refuse the coins. Inflation has made them useless.
The chaos of government events and announcements control fuel prices. Diesel and gas prices spike weekly, and public transportation prices change daily.
Six months ago, I paid $1 ZWL to $1.50 ZWL to commute from my home to downtown Harare, Zimbabwe’s complicated capital. By October, the price was $3 ZWL, then $3.50 ZWL. Today, it’s $8 ZWL. By the time you read this, it will be more. It’s not uncommon for the ride home to cost more than your ride to work.
But I depend on movement to do my job. So, I carry extra cash to make sure I can get from place to place, despite the unpredictable fares.
But we’ve been in the midst of a cash shortage for years. If someone glimpses my cash, I’m at risk of being robbed. The lack of cash is only outdone by the lack of jobs. Most people work in the informal sector, so tracking unemployment here is tricky. Some independent analysts estimate that Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate exceeds 90%. At the same time, Zimstat, the national statistics database, reports a 46% increase in home break-ins and a 37% increase in car thefts.
The increase in crime can make me suspicious of people. But the truth is, I’ve had to rely on the kindness of strangers more than a time or two.
During the internet shutdown earlier this year – did I mention censorship is also a regular challenge reporters here face? – I was headed to the National Art Gallery recently for an event when whistles, screams and sirens rose amid dull, heavy thuds that sounded like falling rocks. The cacophony was followed by a deep sting in our eyes and noses: tear gas. I was invited to take refuge in the upstairs gallery. When things calmed down, I ran. I didn’t have money for a taxi, but I flagged one down. The driver took me back to the office and even waited for me to gather my belongings before taking me to the outskirts of the city, closer to my house.
That day, I didn’t have the cash I needed. People here rarely do.
In Zimbabwe, “having money” doesn’t mean you can access it. The years-long cash shortage means that what’s in the bank usually stays in the bank.
Good and services are cheaper for those who pay cash. But few can.
The cash shortage has led to a black market for U.S. dollars. Ecocash agent will sell you cash, but at a hefty premium. If I want to take out $20 ZWL from my Ecocash mobile money account, I’ll be charged a 60% transaction fee. So that $20 ZWL will debit $32 ZWL from my account.
All of this makes accessing basic necessities a challenge. And it’s given rise to the “favor fee.”
We have to bribe our way through nearly every transaction. Want a full tank of gas rather than the 20-liter maximum? That’ll be $4 USD, cash, for the “favor.”
Food security is more painful. Today, a loaf of bread that was less than $10 ZWL is $17 ZWL now. A 10-kilogram bag of mealie meal, a staple here, costs $110 ZWL. But the average citizen earns about $250 ZWL in a month.
The spike in food prices is nothing compared to the decay of our health sector, commonly called Zimbabwe’s “silent genocide.” Sources in local hospitals, who are forbidden from speaking to the media on the record, confirm that hundreds of people die from preventable causes, but the facilities lack basic resources. If someone can’t afford private health care, they likely won’t receive any health care.
Clinics don’t have medicine. Hospitals lack nurses and doctors. The maternity ward is risky, with no power for lights, incubators or other lifesaving machines. One doctor told me he had to use the flashlight on his phone to help deliver babies.
Recently, a nurse told me that the clinic where she worked had just one plastic glove left. Not one pair. One glove. They soak the glove in detergent between patients, then use it again.
I shy away from health stories. They affect me, deeply. Seeing people in pain, suffering from things that were preventable only a few years, or months, ago makes me emotional.
As a reporter, I strive to be an observer. I’m meant to separate myself from the events and realities I cover. Yes, I am a journalist, but I am also a Zimbabwean woman who lacks electricity and safe access to water, queuing in the same lines as my neighbors. I miss stories and deadlines because of public transportation and poor internet connection. I rarely have enough cash to buy the data I need for my phone to call my sources or talk to my editors as the price of airtime is spiking too. If the mobile money networks are down, I often have to decide between having lunch or saving enough cash in case my bus fare rises unexpectedly for the trip home.
It’s common to see social media posts about Zimbabweans who are fed up. We’re often admonished by people in other countries to “make our voices heard.”
That’s easier said than done. As if these challenges weren’t already too much, my job also requires me to document what happens when citizens unite to fight for a better tomorrow. There is violence. There is pandemonium. People are tear gassed. Beaten. Arrested. The emotional toll is overwhelming.
Why do we do it? In Zimbabwe, people have come to believe they are expendable. They are too tired and poor and taken advantage of, so we stand to fight – or write – for them.
We see these challenges every day, but we live them too. Being a local journalist writing for a global audience is a rare opportunity, and we intend to use it to make you see. These struggles and sacrifices must be remembered.
I tell you all of this, not so you pity me next time you see my byline, but rather so you understand the urgency of my stories. So you will see all we go through to document the humanity and the resilience of the Zimbabwean people, the fallout of our political and economic chaos.
This reality is a bitter brew that lodges in your throat.
My GPJ colleagues and I drink this daily poison because we share a common belief: These stories must be told. The dignity and precision of our journalism are the only tools we have left to fight with.
Story by Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Edited by Cristi Hegranes, GPJ
Copy Edited by Allison Braden, GPJ
Photos Edited by Austin Bachand, GPJ
Illustrations by Katie Myrick, GPJ