Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Supermarket Adventures, Zimbabwe Style

Today the headlines about Zimbabwe seem real. So said my husband after an excursion to the supermarket that involved 1) diving into a throng of people as it descended upon trays of fresh bread and 2) triumphantly escaping with a loaf in each hand. Indeed, I just read a headline: “Zimbabweans Rush for Food.”

Why all the fuss? The answer is Operation Dzikamai – Shona for “calm down.” Last week, with the stated goal of curbing inflation, the government ordered all retailers to roll back their prices to June 18th-levels. In a normal economy there would be little difference between the prices of goods today and their prices from two weeks ago. But Zimbabwe has the world’s highest inflation rate – more than 4,000 percent, and that’s by the official numbers – so this roll-back effectively meant that retailers had to chop their prices in half. At first, government announcements made it seem as if the price cuts applied only to “basic commodities,” including mealie meal, flour, oil, bread, milk, sugar, salt, soap, and tea. Soon it appeared as if practically everything was fair game – Mazowe (a popular brand of cordial), boxed cereal, newspapers, hotel rates. Police quickly arrived on the scene to ensure that the price cut dictum was observed.

The evening Operation Dzikamai was announced, I drove home listening to a state-run news channel. The news reader, grave and solemn, said the station’s reporters had noticed a “disturbing trend”: retailers, instead of marking down prices, were simply removing items from the shelves. What the news called a disturbing trend was exactly what everyone else in the country knew would happen. In fact, people were already flocking to stores to purchase items while prices were low and, even more importantly, before they disappeared. Some of the people who were lucky enough – or pushy and patient enough – to get their hands on controlled items quickly began reselling these goods by the side of the road at double the controlled price. The black market is flourishing. Some stores have tried to shut rather than sell items at a loss. They may call it Operation Dzikamai, but the situation is anything but calm.

These days, a visit to a supermarket is a visit to a bizarre reality. There are three stores within an easy walk of my office. Two have simply removed whole shelves which used to contain bread, peanut butter and other staples. Almost every freezer case is empty. There is no meat or chicken for sale – and this in a country that doesn’t consider a meal a meal unless a hunk of meat or chicken is involved. Instead, I saw people hunched over the one tiny frozen fish compartment, picking up whole frozen trout and crumpled boxes of fish sticks, and shaking their heads.

What’s next? Who knows. In the meantime, Mark is greasing his elbows and doing sprints to prepare for his next supermarket foray. And I’ve realized that it may finally be time for me to learn how to bake bread.


Almost Vegetarian said...

Scary stuff. We are all so used to just buying whatever we need that the concept of an empty grocery store is nearly beyond comprehension. I have no words of advice or comfort beyond this: Learning how to bake is actually easier than it looks. I know. I've made many a loaf (and, alas, ruined a few, too) in my time.


Anita said...

4,000%!!! It is un-imaginable! Here in India it was starting to reach 9% and panic buttons were pressed to cool down the economy so that it could be brought down to 4% (in two weeks!)...It must be strange to be making less and less money each day.

But the flour for the bread, that is sold at controlled prices?

mind the gap said...

Great post - I just posted on Zimbabwe (I grew up there and now I live in Ukraine) and made a comment about Zimbabweans' resourcefulness - you've just proved my point when you talked about baking bread! I hope you'll be able to get flour?

Figs Olives Wine said...

Carolyn, it sounds a wee bit scary over there right now! 4000%!! It's hard to wrap your head around, isn't it? Please keep us posted, and good luck with the baking!

Carolyn said...

Almost vegetarian - Thanks for the pep talk - I needed it! I tend to get too upset when I ruin things I am trying to bake or cook. With bread especially, I just need to be a bit easier on myself!

Another challenge I have is that Harare is a high-altitude city - if anyone has any high-altitude baking tips for me, they would be much appreciated!

Anita - 4000 is a crazy number, isn't it? And most economists think the actual rate is more than 10,000 percent!

Mind the Gap and Anita - Both of you were very quick to point out my potential flour problem! The price of flour is also controlled, but luckily my husband was able to find a store that had some and bought a few big bags. So, we should be set for awhile.

Mind the Gap - I have been so impressed with Zimbabweans’ resourcefulness. There is so much pride taken here in the ability to quickly "make a plan" in the face of an obstacle (or two, or three!).

Figs olives wine - Yes, it is hard to wrap your head around! Right now, the biggest bill is worth less than US$1 - you can imagine the stacks that you need to carry around just to do a bit of shopping. Incredible!

Alanna said...

Hi Carolyn ~ Just wanted to let you know that your post is featured on BlogHer today! ~ AK

Anonymous said...

The situation in Zim proves that politics and food are closely connected. At the end the dictator invades every kitchen, not only in the huts of the poor.
I have baked a lot of bread in Harare. Never had problems with the height.
If you have little yeast, just let the dough rise slowly over night in the fridge. That halves the amount.
If you run out of yeast, take a banana and let it ferment. Problems with wheat flour? Substitute some with millet or rapoko. It gives a beautiful hearty taste.

Jeanne said...

What a great post. I see people listening to or reading the news on Zim here in the UK and you can just see their eyes glaze over. Sure, Mugabe is an evil tyrant. Sure, democracy has taken a blow. Sure, there is huge inflation. But nobody stops to think for a second what that huge inflation really means - things like trying to spend your whole salary on payday because a week later it will have lost something like half its value! Or the idea that some stuff simply has run out - the concept of no petrol, or no peanut butter, or tampons, or no bread is simply not one that most Europeans can get their heads around.

And still, my president maintains his "quiet diplomacy". I hang my head in shame.

Emergency Man said...

If I can do it, so can you, Carolyn. It just takes time (to let the bread prove), patience (no tasting, right?) and luv (as in "all you need is...").

As for this, I dare ya'!:

Camp-Fire Bread
serves 4 (?)

Get a cast iron pot with a lid:

1 kg flour (self raising or add 2 tsp baking powder to 1kg plain flour)
1 L Lacto
2 eggs

Then use half the ingredients (1 egg, 500g flour, 500ml lacto) and knead into a dough then add sweetcorn, or cheese or herbs or what ever you want and fold into dough. Put into one side of pot.

Then repeat with other half of ingredients and add something else to flavour bread differently.Put into same pot.

Put into oven at 180 degrees for 45 mins with lid on or in the fire for +/- 1 hour and voila a loaf with 2 different flavours and its delicious esp with BBQs.

If you do, be sure to blogg it!