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Better Times as Zimbabwe Celebrates Christmas

LEOPATRA Matimbe, 24, pushes her trolley slowly through a busy supermarket in central Harare, picking up groceries for Christmas.

Now it’s hard for her to remember that last year, she and most of Zimbabwe had no holiday celebration.

“Last year’s Christmas was different from the other Christmases we used to have long back. We had to go to South Africa for groceries, there was no money to do the shopping,” she said.

“It’s different from the last two years, things have been hard for us.”

Zimbabwe was at the height of its economic crisis during the last holiday season. Shops were deserted. Few people had any money, and those who did had to queue endlessly at banks for limited withdrawals of the Zimbabwe dollar, left worthless by inflation estimated in multiples of billions.

Then in January, the government abandoned the local currency and allowed trade in foreign currencies, suddenly re-stabilising the economy after a decade of freefall caused by political and economic uncertainty.

A further boost came in February when rivals Morgan Tsvangirai, who leads the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), and long-time President Robert Mugabe formed a unity government, following disputed elections last year.

Shocking hyperinflation that impoverished the nation has been tamed and is now ranging below 2%, thanks to the use of hard currencies like the US dollar and the South African rand.

“There is a difference this year. A lot of us are now affording to buy groceries, we can afford to buy basic things like cooking oil and rice,” said Matimbe, who manages a family farm near the capital Harare.

Last year, the only public sign of the holidays was the queues outside banks on Christmas eve, as workers desperately tried to withdraw their salaries.

Anyone who wanted to buy rice, sugar or soap had to go to neighbouring South Africa or Botswana.
This year Harare’s stores are full, decorated with “Seasons Greetings” and huge portraits of Santa Claus hanging on walls.

Shop windows on the First Street pedestrian mall are decorated with tinsel, and shoppers are snapping Christmas cards, gifts and new outfits.

Oswell Kawanzaruwa, 33, a self-employed motor mechanic said this year he might even take a vacation — an unthinkable luxury until recently.

“This Christmas I am planning going out with my children to Chinhoyi or Mutare resort areas. Last time I did not do that but this time I am sure I can afford to do that,” Kawanzaruwa said.

“For the past two years the economy was in a bad state, the Zimbabwe currency was fluctuating, things were going up every hour.”

One shop manager, Bevlyn Makamba, said that many stores were now even able to source their supplies locally as businesses slowly resume production.

“Most of our products, we are getting them locally. It’s different from last year when we were getting all our stocks from South Africa. We are getting very few imports,” Makamba said.

Christmas is celebrated in Zimbabwe by over three-quarters of the population, who are mainly Christians. The day is marked by attending a morning church service, visiting friends, feasting and drinking.

Makamba said for US$20 dollars a family in Zimbabwe could have a good Christmas as they could buy rice, chicken and drinks.

“In Zimbabwe it’s all about rice and chicken, a little bit of salad and beer, US$20 dollars will do,” she said.

That means that for the first time in years, a Christmas dinner will become an affordable treat, at least for those with jobs.

Unemployment remains rife, but government — the country’s largest employer — is paying salaries of US$160 – 200 and has already announced that it will give a tax-free Christmas bonus.

However, even with city in festive mood, signs of crisis abound. As workers on First Street strung up twinkle lights from street poles, a powe outage plunged half the centre of the capital into darkness for an extended period. — AFP.

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