Zimbabwe Looks Forward to 19th Century

Things have gotten so bad in Zimbabwe that people have taken to telling a wry joke: "What did we have before candles?" The answer: "Electricity."

Zimbabwe once boasted one of sub-Saharan Africa's most vibrant economies, but four years of turmoil have erased that progress.

The agriculture-based economy has been decimated by the often-violent seizure of thousands of white-owned farms for reallocation to black Zimbabweans, coupled with erratic rains.

As a result, the country is reverting to the way it was years ago. Oxen have taken over plow duty from farm machinery, the state railroad uses gunpowder charges on the tracks to warn trains of danger ahead, and the sick have turned to cheap traditional medicines.

President Robert Mugabe (search) argues that the land seizures have reversed the inequality in ownership left over from British colonial days that put a third of the country's farmland in the hands of about 5,000 whites.

But many seized farms went to Mugabe's cronies and lie fallow. Ownership deeds were abolished, denying most new farmers collateral for loans for equipment. Tobacco production — once the country's biggest hard currency earner — has dropped by nearly 75 percent since the seizures began in 2000.

The economic free-fall has been marked by regular power blackouts and acute shortages of fuel, spare parts and new technology. Soaring inflation and a shortage of hard currency have made it impossible to import machinery needed to rebuild the economy.

Once-fertile farmland now has the desolate look of a junkyard: Farm machines that used to rumble through fields now stand idle, broken down or plundered for parts.

"Whole irrigation systems are down, farm equipment is at a standstill or in a shocking state of repair," said John Worsely-Worswick (search), head of a farmers' support group.

A formerly white-owned estate that produced a fourth of the nation's wheat has been broken up into small parcels for black farmers, bringing large-scale farming to a halt. The property in the main grain growing area of Chinhoyi (search), northwest of Harare, is now mainly tilled by animal-drawn harrows.

In an unusual admission of economic weakness, the government recently estimated that at least 35,000 new tractors are needed to revive mechanized agriculture, which began when the first tractor was imported in 1911. Foreign investors and aid groups have withheld support because of alleged government corruption and human rights violations.

With signals functioning on just 12 miles of a 190-mile stretch of track, the state-owned National Railways of Zimbabwe (search) has reverted to posting handwritten cards at sidings and stations to advise crews about train movements.

Crews use signboards or small gunpowder charges detonated by an oncoming train's front wheels to warn of blockages ahead.

A plan to reintroduce steam trains on some routes was abandoned earlier this year because costly and impractical repairs were needed at water pumping points.

The independent Southern African Railways Association (search) has described Zimbabwe's broken railway system as lagging at least 50 years behind present-day standards.

Faced with a shortage of ambulances in the crumbling national health system, nine wooden carts hauled by oxen went into service in July to ferry pregnant women, children and other non-emergency cases along rural dirt roads to the nearest clinics.

The U.N. Children's Fund (search) helped pay for the locally built ambulances — a bigger, covered version of the traditional donkey cart, with a red cross emblazoned on their white sides. More are planned, said Tich Chikowore, of UNICEF (search).

Abraham Kochi, a painter from western Harare, said he can no longer find kerosene for his stove, so he has gone back to wood.

"I go to meet the buses coming from the rural areas. They are bringing bundles of wood to sell," he said.

This new reliance on firewood by poor families has caused severe deforestation.

As poverty deepens, the Zimbabwe National Association of Traditional Healers (search) has reported more patients consulting herbalists and spiritualists who practice centuries-old rituals that had previously lost popularity.

Their services and potions — such as crushed beetles and roots to treat common fevers and other ailments — cost a fraction of those of Western doctors.

Doctors say midwives now seal off newborns' umbilical cords with string, and dentists say many of their patients are using salt instead of toothpaste.

Unemployment nearing 80 percent has forced many skilled workers to eke out a living as street vendors. Disused mine shafts have been unsealed by desperate Zimbabweans searching for the remnants of ore that is then crushed and panned in water using ancient techniques.

Much of the ore is found around the pillars that hold up the shafts, said mining expert John Holloway.

"Hacking away at the pillars and walls is very dangerous indeed," he said, though there are no records of deaths or injuries among the illegal miners.

Panners digging deep into river banks have also caused massive environmental damage, he said. Seasonal rains wash away the banks and dump silt into the rivers and dams.

Such practices are effectively encouraged by the government, which increased the price paid by the state bullion exchange for gold after a dramatic fall in legal production last year, blamed on shortages of mining equipment and spare parts.