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Crisis situation threatens survival of Zimbabweans

Caroline Njuki and Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa listen to report on Africa University’s
status in Zimbabwe. A UMNS photo by Linda Green

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*

Dec. 22, 2008 | MUTARE, Zimbabwe

A crisis of medical, political and economic proportions is threatening the resiliency and survival of the people of Zimabwe.

At the end of 2008, unemployment was at more than 80 percent and food, water and fuel remained scarce. “We are weak but surviving,” said a Mutare woman who asked that she not be identified.

“People are struggling,” said Bruce T. Chakatsva, president of the students’ representative council at United Methodist-related Africa University.

A cholera epidemic and collapse of the healthcare infrastructure, an inflation rate of 231 million percent, resulting in food shortages, and a deadlock over power-sharing among two of the country’s political parties, are creating an escalating humanitarian crisis.

Bruce T. Chakatsva, president of the students’ representative council at United Methodist-related Africa University.

Cholera is a bacterial infection, generally spread through water or food, which causes vomiting and diarrhea. In severe cases, people can die from a loss of fluids within hours unless they are treated.

More than 17,000 people are estimated to be infected with cholera and 1,000 people have died since August because of the lack of water-treatment chemicals, broken sewage pipes and using water from untreated wells.

The hardest hit area is Harare, the country’s capital city, but neighboring states are being impacted because infected people are crossing the border seeking food and other assistance. People have been turned away from hospitals as medical personnel leave their jobs because of poor working conditions and the eroding of pay from hyperinflation.

Managing cholera

According to R. Abigail Kangwende, a physician, public health specialist and coordinator of Africa University’s blanket initiative, cholera is a management problem and resources are needed.

Kangwende said medical personnel could assist in fighting the epidemic by helping educate the public on preventative methods. “It does not need to kill,” she said, explaining that hand-washing, good hygiene and adequate resources, like water, will help staunch the spread.

“We are a highly mobile population and it would not surprise me at all if it (cholera) has reached Mutare,” she said.

Since the role of Africa University is to help improve the quality of life for the people of Africa, “we do have role to play in educating communities who should not perish because of lack of knowledge,” she added.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief launched a targeted course of action in response to food shortages and the cholera epidemic. An immediate food distribution and additional support for United Methodist hospitals will begin to alleviate the suffering of many thousands in the days ahead.

Zimbabwe also has a major food deficit due to the economy and to drought. “Unless there is a large inflow of food, either through donations or purchases by the national government, we expect a humanitarian crisis in the early part of next year,” said Fanuel Tagwira, the interim vice chancellor of Africa University, adding that cholera has not yet reached the university water system.

Tagwira, who has a science and research background, stressed “there is no cholera on campus.” Campus officials have taken the necessary precautions to ensure that cholera does not infect the university’s 1300 students while they are on campus, he said, but cautioned that the university does not have control over students who travel to infected areas.

“We want to assure the people that this place is safe and we have good water supplies, good food supplies and we are still operating in the way we have been doing,” he said. Although the majority of students were on winter break in December, the university, through its health clinic and disaster preparedness management, is prepared to jump into action to protect the students if cholera appears on campus.

Challenges for university

“To say that these are challenging times for Zimbabwe, and particularly, for higher education institutions operating in this country, seems an almost ridiculous understanding of the reality in which we find ourselves,” Tagwira told the members of the university’s board of directors during their Dec. 3-6 meeting in Mutare.

Africa University, though weakened by the economic and hyperinflation environment, is one of only three private universities of the 12 universities in the country that are open and operating “with any semblance of normality,” he reported.

While state institutions have repeatedly opened and closed their doors, their situations are the results of inadequate finances to operate and maintain teaching and support staff and the inability to provide the necessary support services for teaching and learning, Tagwira said.

Fanuel Tagwira and Bishop Nkulu Ntambo greet one another after Tagwira gives a report on the status of Africa
University in Zimbabwe.

“We are thankful that Africa University has avoided a similar predicament,” he said. “We’ve done so by harnessing our ideas and by being proactive and prudent in our decision-making.” Organizations that fail to make quick, hard decisions and perform daily planning “inevitably face closure,” he added.

Nonetheless, the Zimbabwean dollar continues to lose value, causing organizations and businesses to cope daily with an “unimagined economic reality,” he said. In August, the central bank slashed 10 zeros from the local currency, briefly making the highest denomination of currency Z$10, until Zimbabwe started issuing bigger notes again.

The country issued a $1 million note in November in an attempt to ease inflation, which is officially pegged between 230 million to 500 million percent, but other reports place it in the billions. The current highest denomination bank note is Z$50,000, reportedly not enough to buy half a loaf of bread.

“We are living the ‘unprecedented’ and coping everyday with the hitherto unimagined economic reality,” Tagwira said.

In an attempt to capture the inflation, banking officials limited daily cash withdrawals in November to Z$500,000 a day (about US$7 ) which does not cover even the most basic cost of living.

Lining up at banks

Each day people begin lining up at local banks, such as in Mutare, at 4 a.m. in hopes that they can receive their money. Sometimes the bank runs out of money for the day or closes before people the line is completed. The central bank increased the personal daily limit to a weekly limit of $Z100 million, an amount that is also inadequate to meet the needs of the people.

According to published reports, the current limit is equivalent to US$0.25 if converted at the more realistic parallel market exchange rate of two million Zimdollars for every American dollar. While people have money in the bank, they cannot withdraw what they need for necessities.

The defacto changeover to U.S. dollars as the primary currency for everyday transactions is becoming prohibitive when people earn money in local currency, according to Tagwira, who noted “there are significant price escalations in U.S. dollars as well.”

A whole range of goods, from basic foodstuffs to fuel and computer hardware, has to be imported, putting pressure on the university’s available income in foreign currency.

When the university began 15 years ago, students from Zimbabwe could pay fees in Zimbabwean dollars. Today, the daily and sometimes hourly devaluing of the Zimbabwean dollar has made it necessary for university officials to implement a monthly fee payment system as a hedge against inflation and devaluation.

“It was thought that if funds could be collected on an ongoing basis and quickly utilized . . . this would assist the university to be more financially effective,” he said. Students are expected to pay their fees in U.S. or Zimbabwean dollars, which will be at the rate pegged for that day.

Student protest

Following the October implementation of the fee payment system, the students initiated a protest to highlight their dissatisfaction because they could not afford the cost. “It is a case where one cannot find the U.S. or Zimbabwean dollars enough to pay the fees as per requirement in the formal system,” Chakatsva, the student council president, explained.

Fanuel Tagwira, interim vice chancellor of Africa University, reports on the university’s status in Zimbabwe and Lenora Thompson looks on.

“The matter is one such that most of the students will be forced to drop out of school if no help is given to them,” he said, expressing his hope that the university’s board of directors will “appreciate” what the country is facing “and come to the rescue of Africa’s future, for it is at such a crucial time that we need you most.”

The university has awarded more than $1.2 million in U.S. dollars in scholarships and financial aid to 430 students this academic year.

Earlier in the fall, Tagwira and Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo, outgoing chancellor and president of the board of directors, issued letters for financial support to The United Methodist Church and constituencies of Africa University. The letters urged churches to pay 100 percent to the Africa University Fund.

“In these times, life is not easy for our 1,300 students from 22 African countries, faculty, and staff. With God’s help and your financial support, they are persevering in the midst of great difficulty. Your contributions to the Africa University Fund allow us to remain open and in ministry to Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa,” said Ntambo, also bishop of the North Katanga Area of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The fact that Africa University is even open is a miracle from God! The commitment of United Methodists from around the globe to Africa University allows us to remain open and thriving in Zimbabwe, a country enduring an unimaginable economic crisis,” he said.

Retention of staff is crucial and critical for the university. Unlike at other institutions, staff has continued to come to work because of Africa University’s proactive measure, but if there is not a turnaround, performance in staff retention could decrease. Some professional staff members have already left the university in search of greener pastures in other businesses and in other countries.

While economic challenges are eroding the university’s compensation advantages, “the country’s situation cannot wholly be blamed for it,” Tagwira said. The consensus is that the university’s compensation package has fallen below expectations and “it is now proving to be a disincentive to persons contemplating remaining on or joining the staff of Africa University,” he explained.

During the Dec. 3-6 meeting, the board approved new measures—including enhanced fee collection procedures and a plan for the payment of salaries in convertible currency in the new year—aimed at retaining its faculty and other staff and maintaining the quality of its service delivery.

“This operating environment requires forward thinking and planning to sustain health and sustainability,” Tagwira said, noting that the economic crisis in the United States and across the globe will have an impact on the university’s endowment fund and apportionment.

Despite the country’s circumstances, the dream that is Africa University is still alive, Tagwira said. “We believe overcomers are not born in good times. They are born in difficult times. When good times come, we will never be the same again.”

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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