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Hope for change in hungry Zimbabwe

By Ian Pannell
BBC News, Zimbabwe

Disfigured posters of Robert Mugabe, 2 April 2008
Support for Mugabe is waning in traditional strongholds

For a country whose future is in the balance, Zimbabwe is a remarkably calm place.

We have spent the last four days since the country went to the polls, travelling around and talking to people.

There is normally only one topic of conversation here and that is the disastrous state of the economy. You simply cannot avoid it.

I changed money when we arrived in the country. At that point, US$1 was worth 20m Zimbabwean dollars. Four days later and the rate has gone up to 45m. The figures and the zeros are simply mind-boggling.

Empty shelves

Daily life has become a struggle to make ends meet. People spend hours queuing at the bank or waiting in line at a bakery where the lines stretch around street corners.

Most shops have as many empty shelves as full ones. You have to work hard here to get even basic goods like milk, cheese, bread and meat.

What everyone tells you is that this used to be a prosperous country, the so-called bread-basket of the region. Not anymore. Inflation is running at more than 100,000% and 80% of the workforce is without a regular job.

Women and man pushing cart in Harare, 1 April 2008
Life goes on, but ordinary Zimbabweans find it a struggle

I spoke to one man who did casual labouring work. He told me that there was not much point trying to get a job because inflation left his salary worthless.

That does not mean people are not surviving. There is a thriving black market and many people are sent remittances from friends and family overseas but it is a struggle and many people go to bed hungry.

Travelling across the country you get a sense of what it is that has driven people into the arms of the opposition - fields without crops, shops without goods, petrol stations that are low or empty, women at the side of the road begging for food, traders desperate for customers and hard currency.

Almost everyone we have been able to speak to has said they voted for the opposition. Under the circumstances it is impossible to be empirical about this and there are no doubt many pro-government supporters with very different stories. But two words crop up in conversation - hope and change.

'Try something different'

We visited a former white-owned farm that had been "repossessed" and given to black war veterans. A group of young men were hanging around the local store. Inside the shelves were dusty and empty save for a few bars of soap and the odd packet of tea.

Every tree and post on the farm was adorned with President Mugabe's face, the posters were promising prosperity for all.

But the farmers are not buying it anymore. They have voted for the ruling party in the past and this time they said it was time for a change, they would "try something different".

Tyre fixer next to Mugabe posters in Harare, 2 April 2008
There have been false dawns before in Zimbabwe

The farmers showed me their fields, row upon row of dried maize. Without the tools, the fertilizer or a proper irrigation system they stand little chance of making this once-fertile land productive again.

If men like this have turned their back on Robert Mugabe it explains why his chances of re-election do not look good.

But they know he is a man who does not like to lose and there have been false dawns before now in Zimbabwe.

So the hoping and the waiting will continue for a little while longer.


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