"ZIMBABWEANS ARE HEARTBREAKERS, trustyou me," drawls Prince Matsika as he reworks a hand-strung necklace in front of his stall at an outdoor city market. People bustle by, but few even glance at the beaded trinkets and wooden crafts crowded onto tables and baskets. With rapidly rising inflation and food shortages across the country, now only the wealthy and foreign tourists can afford his wares.
"Even if [tourists] come, they would think our prices are ridiculous," Matsika says. He's selling a piece of his own design for $20, a king's ransom for the developing world. "But we are trying to earn that little money," he explains, even though "it doesn't really have serious value around here."
It is January, and the coronavirus epidemic in China has just begun making headlines in the West. But Zimbabwe has been in a state of economic crisis since 2018, shortly after a coup d'etat toppled the 37-year reign of dictator Robert Mugabe and installed his longtime political ally Emmerson Mnangagwa as president. Major factors in the sharp economic decline include government corruption, a horrific drought, and rampant inflation and cash shortages after the reintroduction of a Zimbabwean dollar (ZWL, colloquially called "bond") following almost a decade under a multi-currency system.
In Matsika's city of Bulawayo, the second largest in Zimbabwe, hungry citizens helplessly watch the staggering devaluation of their wages, savings, and pensions. Even as the public education system raises school fees, teachers cannot afford to get to work. Recently, doctors in public hospitals reluctantly ended a four-month strike, even though their salaries are now worth just 10 percent of what they were promised and despite the lack of basics, including bandages.
A minimum-wage employee in Zimbabwe may earn ZWL$600 per month (about $35), with a loaf of bread costing around ZWL$16, according to Godfrey Kanyenze, director of the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe. So Zimbabweans have become entrepreneurs by necessity. Over 90 percent of those who work are informally employed, frequently under the table, Kanyenze said in a lecture. They make jewelry at local markets, grow bananas and sell them from curbside carts, set whatever wares they can find atop cardboard stands on the street, hawk black-market gasoline, or illegally change U.S. dollars into bond in front of shopping malls.
"It's not healthy for us," Matsika says. "You have to be working flat-out all the time."
Seven days a week, Christine, a softspoken seamstress in her 50s, hunches over her sewing machine in a cramped workshop she shares with Patrick, a young shoemaker. (Their names have been changed for fear of government retaliation.)
"If you don't work, there's nothing," Christine says. "We have no weekend, no holiday. We work every day." She starts cutting fabric before dawn, then comes into the workshop at 9 a.m.
Matsika is also up at 5...