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A long, hard slog in Zimbabwe

As hyperinflation in Zimbabwe puts even bus fare out of reach, one man's trek embodies the plight of a country of foot commuters.
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

A slender moon shadow stretches out on the road before Willard Chitau as he takes his first quick, purposeful steps toward his workplace. It is 4:27 a.m. Nine miles to go.

Buses have begun to stir, spewing their smoky diesel fumes into the darkness. But like many Zimbabweans, Chitau can no longer afford the ever-rising fares in a country where hyperinflation, estimated at more than 26,000 percent, is the world's worst. A single round trip to his job at a lumber yard costs 10 million Zimbabwean dollars, nearly a week's salary.

"Five million this way," Chitau says as he points his slim left arm forward, toward Harare, the crumbling economic heart of Zimbabwe. "Five million this way," he says as he points backward, toward his one-room home in Epworth, a sandy slum far beyond the city's tree-lined suburbs.

So Chitau, 33, desperate to support his wife and two young children, has joined Zimbabwe's growing legions of foot commuters. They make journeys that almost anywhere else would be epic. Here they are routine.

Along the way they trace the decline of a nation, passing clinics short of drugs, schools short of teachers, stores short of food. They walk on crumbling roads whose darkened streetlights are remnants of an era, just a decade ago, when Zimbabwe was one of Africa's most prosperous nations instead of one of its most troubled.

Chitau did not always live so far from work. During Operation Murambatsvina -- President Robert Mugabe's 2005 slum clearance campaign, which left 700,000 people homeless, jobless or both -- police forced Chitau to tear down his house in a dense Harare neighborhood much closer to the lumber yard, he said.

So he sent most of his belongings to his family's rural village and settled into the small, dark room in Epworth. There he sleeps with his wife, 4-year-old son and 3-month-old daughter on a concrete floor, a single wool blanket beneath them. A warm morning bath, which would consume precious firewood, is beyond their means. So is breakfast or even a cup of tea to cut the early morning chill.

Free fall
The economy has been in free fall since Mugabe encouraged the invasion of white-owned commercial farms by landless black peasants in 2000. Although many Zimbabweans say land redistribution was needed to right historic wrongs, the way it happened was chaotic and often violent; it devastated successful businesses while triggering hyperinflation and leaving many poor blacks -- the supposed beneficiaries of the program -- without steady paychecks. An estimated 3 million people have since fled the country.

Sometimes Chitau finds odd jobs for extra cash, or his wife helps by selling vegetables. When there's enough money, he even takes the bus some mornings. But today the monthly rent is due. Because prices go up here unevenly, it's only 9 million Zimbabwean dollars, about $1.50 in U.S. currency, but that still means a struggle for a man paid in local bills worth less than $9 a month.

"I need to search for money very hard so that I will survive," Chitau says, his swift, smooth stride unbroken.

Cars pass. Buses pass. Cyclists wearing suits and ties pass. A barefoot man who has broken into a jog passes, too. But mainly it is Chitau who overtakes other pedestrians as the miles slip by.

The only thing that can slow him down is rain, he says. The shoes he wears most days look as though they have sloshed through a hundred storms. The brown leather is softened, largely detached from the rubber soles. The laces are gone.

But this morning is dry and clear, with a fat crescent moon and a spray of stars twinkling overhead.

After nearly half an hour of walking, as the faintest light begins to warm the eastern horizon, Chitau steps past Sophia Manjiva, 45, a single mother clutching a closed umbrella who says she is pleased to have company. She has heard many tales of robberies along this dark road.

Manjiva says her monthly pay as a maid in a private home is 20 million Zimbabwean dollars -- less than $4 in U.S. currency. With that she feeds, clothes and schools her two youngest children, ages 10 and 13.

As hyperinflation erodes her pay, making even staples like cooking oil and cornmeal difficult to buy, Zimbabwe's deteriorating infrastructure complicates her work. Chronic power blackouts and water shortages mean that several times a day she must fetch water from a well near the house she cleans, then carry full buckets back upstairs, she says. That's after walking 2 1/2 hours to work and before walking 2 1/2 hours back home.

"I get tired, but there is nothing to do," Manjiva says as Chitau begins to open up the distance between them.

At 5, the sky turns a soft blue, streaked by pinkish clouds, as a diffuse pre-dawn glow lights the faces of rows of sunflowers gazing east. White-robed members of Zimbabwe's popular Apostolic churches kneel in prayer on the dewy grass. Birds begin chirping tunes that, under the circumstances, sound improbably upbeat.

Yet the growing light reveals unmistakable signs of frustration with Zimbabwe's decay.

Epworth's most singular natural feature -- stacks of rounded, beige boulders -- bear snatches of spray-painted graffiti: "Vote MDC." The initials refer to the Movement for Democratic Change, the fractured opposition party that in March will seek, for the fourth time, to defeat Mugabe's ruling party after 28 years of unbroken control.

‘I'm afraid’
But Chitau doesn't want to talk about politics when the feared Central Intelligence Organization remains a well-funded marvel of efficiency amid collapsing government services. Arrests, beatings and humiliating sting operations are common tactics against those who complain too loudly.

"It's my country, but I'm afraid" to talk about Zimbabwe, he says.

Shortly before 6, Chitau reaches Harare's outskirts, where the names of the suburbs -- Chadcombe, Cranborne, Queensdale -- echo the country's British colonial past. Sand gives way to dark soil, shacks to large, tile-roofed homes.

Chitau closes in on a group of women carrying empty bags and baskets. They, too, are coming from Epworth, but their destination, the bustling Mbare market near downtown Harare, is even farther than Chitau's lumber yard.

They earn the equivalent of two or three U.S. dollars a day, the women explain, by buying vegetables at Mbare, then carrying them back to Epworth to sell. The bus would cut their profits by half or more.

Staving off the hunger
A few minutes later, Chitau indulges his one daily luxury, buying a cigarette from a street vendor squatting by the side of the street. The cost is 400,000 Zimbabwean dollars, or about 7 cents.

"By smoking, I can't feel as hungry," Chitau explains as he inhales deeply from the cigarette and briefly slackens his pace.

A few steps later, he tosses the burned-out butt. Tea is still four hours away. It will be seven hours until lunch, when a plate of sadza -- the snow-white cornmeal mush that is southern Africa's staple food -- will be his first meal since last night, he says. His pace quickens again.

The sun is up now, casting long shadows as Chitau passes the two-hour mark in his journey. He crosses an intersection where the traffic light, like most in Harare, is not working.

A passing van -- such vehicles are used almost universally as taxis here -- slows to let out a passenger. Its radio is tuned to the 7 a.m. newscast, which like all radio and television reports in Zimbabwe carries only government propaganda. The announcer complains that sanctions imposed on Mugabe's government by the United States and European countries are undermining Zimbabwe.

As the van pulls off, Chitau bears left from Chiremba Road onto Robert Mugabe Road, a commercial strip where businesses are struggling to stay open. Among the estimated 20 percent of Zimbabweans who have jobs, many have simply stopped coming to work now that the value of their salaries has fallen below the cost of commuting.

Chitau arrives at his lumber yard at 7:13 a.m., after 166 minutes of nearly continuous walking. As often happens on rainless mornings such as this, he is early. Chitau can savor the next 47 minutes until his workday begins.

He says, "Now I must rest."