Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Zimbabwe: Teachers sell sex to buy food as Mugabe cronies get richer

Christina Lamb:

STELLA SITHOLE is a high school teacher with neatly braided hair and a husband who works in a bank, yet in the twisted world of President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe she has to turn tricks to feed her children.

Battling to survive the world’s highest inflation, estimated by local bankers to have reached 15,000%, the salary of Z$2.1m she has just received is six times what she got last month. But it is not even enough to cover her bus fares to school and back. In fact, it is equivalent to less than £3.50 a month.

So for several days of the week, instead of standing in front of her class in Kwekwe teaching history and geography, Sithole takes the bus 146 miles north to Harare. There, she sits at the bar in clubs such as Chez Ntemba, Chez Mambo and the Stars Studio at Rainbow Towers hotel, waiting for a proposition.

At 32, Sithole is pretty and refined, though there is a far-away sadness in her eyes and clients complain that there is not enough of her bottom (“What do you expect on one meal a day?” she asks).

On a pulsating Friday night at the Stars Studio, there is no shortage of takers. “Ministers,” she whispers, “or Zanu big men.”

While the vast majority of Zimbabweans are struggling, like Sithole, to survive on less than £1 a week - “We’re not even have-nots,” she says, “we’re have-nothings” - these paunchy men in striped suits knocking back shots of malt whisky are finding that things have never been so good.

Not only government ministers and officials from the ruling Zanu-PF party, but also top police and army officers and High Court judges have been cleverly woven into Mugabe’s patronage system, benefiting hugely from his despotic rule.

Many have been allotted property that was violently seized from white farmers. But their real wealth comes from access to foreign exchange at less than 1,000th of the rate on the streets.

This enables them to buy expensive vehicles such as the Hummers, S-class Mercedes and Toyota Prados that fill the hotel car park – one of which will whisk Sithole to a lodge on the edge of town.

When I first meet her through a friend, the primly dressed mother of two is ashamed to tell me what she does, referring instead to “colleagues that have become sex workers”. But it is clear she knows too much and in the end she admits her tawdry double life.

“I studied three years at college to become a teacher and was so proud when I graduated,” she says, sadly. “Now look at me. I’m very ashamed and always regret afterwards but otherwise we would starve.”

Her clients pay in “cash and kind”. Pointing at the long black leather boots she is wearing, she explains: “The most I got was Z$600,000 and this pair of boots as well as a mobile phone my husband sold.”

She can earn more depending on what she refers to as “the what”. This means whether she is prepared to have sex with no condom - an enormous risk in a country where at least one in five adults is HIV-positive.

“These dirty things make me scared because most of these guys are infected but I’m desperate,” she shrugs.

To show the impossibility of surviving on a teacher’s wage, we take her entire Z$2.1m salary to a local supermarket. All she manages to buy with the two large bricks of notes is one bottle of cooking oil, one packet of salt, one laundry soap, one pack of powdered soup, some milk powder and a pack of sugar.

In fact, just her bus fares to travel the 15 miles to school are Z$60,000 each way, totalling Z$2.4m a month if she goes every day. “So I’m already on minus,” she says. “I’m actually having to borrow money to go to work.”

On top of that, her bills last month were Z$315,000 for electricity, Z$130,000 for water and Z$800,000 for rent, not to mention food and bus fares for her 11-year-old daughter and nursery fees for her five-year-old son. Her husband earns just Z$1.4m. “We’re the poorest millionaires on earth,” she laughs.

For two years she supplemented her salary by working in a field or cleaning after school. She would use the money to go into Harare and buy cheap clothing. She would exchange this in rural areas for ground nuts and peanuts that she could then sell in town.

Colleagues cross the border to Botswana or South Africa, where they can buy goods for a quarter of the price, and come back and sell them. But Sithole has never amassed enough money to buy the foreign exchange she would need to do this.

This year, as inflation spiralled, she has found herself borrowing more than her salary each month. “I don’t have any family abroad to send me money and we weren’t even having one meal a day,” she says.

One of her colleagues suggested accompanying her to Harare for the night. She earned more in a few hours than for a month’s teaching. When I ask if many of the other teachers at her school are doing the same, she laughs. “Three-quarters,” she replies.

Others have simply left the country, part of a massive exodus of 4m people. At the start of term in May more than 5,000 teachers in Zimbabwe did not return to their posts, among them Sithole’s headmaster.

The children they have left behind are just told to sit and read. “Zimbabweans sacrifice bread for books to get their children to school, then there’s no teaching,” said James Elder of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in Harare.

He pointed out that the pass rate had dropped sharply - just 37% passed grade 7, which means almost two-thirds are failing.

“It hurts me that we teachers are abandoning the children to service these beasts with their fine cars,” says Sithole. “But we don’t have an option.”

Her clients’ children attend private schools or study in the UK, America or Australia. They can easily afford this because of the beneficial exchange rate available to those close to power.

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