Zimbabweans Manage to Laugh Despite Dire Situation

Here's a humorous interlude while Bob, as everyone here calls the Zimbabwean strongman, is off in Sharm el Sheikh trying to hug any African heads of state who get within arms' reach, calling Britain's Gordon Brown the prime minister of Zimbabwe and screaming abuse at the British journalist who flustered him into that gaffe.

How can you tell a drunk driver in Zimbabwe? He's the one who's driving in a straight line. (This country, which was not so long ago famous for having some of the best paved roads in Africa, now vies with part of Mogadishu for density of potholes.)

How to distract policemen who, in the good English so commonly spoken here, are demanding to know your business? Try "Russky, nyet Ingleski. No speak English. Speak Russky?" and pray you don't get a Russian-speaking cop. Since Mugabe has good relations with the Russians (plus the Chinese and a few of the Axis of Evil members), that's a pretty effective foil.

How to enjoy a billionaire's lunch: At a fast-food joint selling burgers and fried chicken, a double cheeseburger was 50 billion Zimbabwean dollars yesterday; with fries and a Coke it was 80 billion. The lady waiting on me wore a name tag that said "Nomatter." "Whatever were your parents thinking when they gave you that name?" I couldn't help but ask. "Well, they wanted a boy, but when they saw it was a girl, they said 'no matter'!" and she burst into laughter. I can imagine how many times she's told that story.

People laugh easily here, but you have to wonder how they keep their sense of humor, as life gets more difficult every day—about 20 percent more difficult to be exact. The Zimbabwean dollar has continued its galloping slide, pitting 25 billion Zimbabwean dollars to a single U.S. dollar today—another new low—which leaves them with only one more denomination higher than the U.S. dollar equivalent (currently the 25 billion and 50 billion notes are the largest in circulation). Rumors are widespread that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe will just suddenly announce that it is lopping six or even nine digits off the paper money but, as one economist said, "that will only last a few more months before it's back." Devaluing hyperinflated currency usually has a bounce effect, driving it back up even more quickly than it had previously been rising.

The current rate of exchange will mean that from tomorrow, Zimbabweans will only be allowed to withdraw from their bank accounts about $1 U.S. a day—the limit is 25 billion Zimbabwean dollars daily. That's only the beginning of the problem, and there are many ways around it, of course. The more pressing concern is how to spend, as quickly as possible, whatever Zim dollars come your way. The money I had in my pocket 10 days ago, a thick wad of extremely large-denomination notes, just evaporated in place. It had started life as $100 U.S., and I spent about half of it on various things and then found today that although I still had a big pile, it was just enough to tip the parking attendant. He had been graciously winking at the way we had been using his lot for clandestine rendezvous.

With Mugabe off in Sharm el Sheikh and the purple ink fading from voters' fingers by now, the level of violence has apparently trailed off—though there are some reports of reprisal attacks in high-density black suburbs, which are normally opposition MDC strongholds. And of course there was the attack on the white farmers Monday night. Still, it does seem to have quieted down for the moment. Morgan Tsvangirai, opposition candidate for president, left his self-imposed refuge at the Dutch embassy and returned to his home in Harare today.

Perhaps things will change when Comrade Bob gets back. He can't be in a terribly good mood. His exchange with the British journalist in the corridors of the African Union (AU) summit in Egypt appears to have been particularly distressing. At one point, the Zimbabwean president appeared ready to lunge for the reporter, with bodyguards in the fore pushing the ITN correspondent away. Mugabe took umbrage at being asked on what basis he considered himself president of Zimbabwe, to which he retorted, "On the same basis as Mr. Brown regards himself as prime minister of Zimbabwe." (Mugabe meant Britain, of course.) After shouting, "You are bloody idiots" at the journalist and those around him, Mugabe stalked off.

Apparently Mugabe did not have a very good time behind the closed doors of the African Union summit either, with Botswana calling his presidential election invalid and several other countries criticizing his conduct of the elections. In the end, the A.U. produced a call for negotiations between Mugabe and Tsvangirai in a compromise statement that was relatively moderate, but as the A.U. goes, it was pretty strong stuff—especially considering how many of its members are dictators and potentates themselves. Mugabe had vowed to go there wagging his finger at anyone who dared to accuse him of electoral shenanigans, but in the end he left humbled and humiliated, looking like a bitter old man who wasn't all there. A lot of people here are now worrying that he'll take out his bile on his own people, who can't do much about it.