Potholes are a great equalizer in Zimbabwe — especially in the capital, Harare, which residents dub “Pothole City.”

Everyone, from privileged elites in 4x4s to the young men pushing cartloads of bananas into town to sell at 10 for a dollar, is affected by them.

It might sound a little frivolous when an estimated four million Zimbabweans depend on aid rations to get by, but the potholes say a great deal about this country. People pay taxes and road tolls and are regularly stopped by traffic police eager to demand money for infringements.

Yet the roads don’t improve. Ever. Locals says it’s the surest sign there is of corruption at work.

We hold on tightly as our car swerves around craters and flies across great canyons on the road. Our driver, named Blessed (for which we are grateful), is a friend of our translator and kindly giving us a lift.

In the rainy season puddles hide the potholes and send cars winging into the unknown until a wheel manages to find the bottom of the void.

That’s how Zimbabwe can feel. Waiting to hit bottom so it can start to rise up again. If ever there were a country of thwarted dreams, this is it.

Street life in the capital of Harare. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)
Street life in the capital of Harare. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

There are about 16 million people in Zimbabwe, and with an estimated four million expatriates living abroad, there are likely more Zimbabweans working outside the country than in it.

The World Health Organization estimates that a quarter of the country’s population is “food insecure.” Sixty-two per cent live below the poverty line.

Just getting by can be all-consuming, says 25-year-old Desire Mudadi, who plays lead guitar in a band once a week at a club called Jazz 24/7.

“Actually, for me just to have food on the table, that is the most important thing. And something to wear,” he adds with a smile. (You can tell he pays attention to his “look” — more Lyle Lovett than Bhundu Boys, the Zimbabwean band that gained success on the international stage in the 1980s.)

Mudadi would like to earn enough to play in the band full-time. But gigs are few and far between. He has a degree in musicology, but can’t get a solid teaching job, so he gives music lessons when and where he can.

Ask him where things have gone wrong and the answer that comes back is government corruption.

Video: Musician Desire Mudadi

Zimbabwe is ranked 154th out of the 176 countries listed on Transparency International’s index, which measures perceptions of corruption in public institutions.

Last fall, when it became clear the government was running out of cash and unable to pay public salaries on time — including security forces the government relies on to do its bidding — the central bank decided to start printing new money.

These new “bond notes” were supposed to be equal in value to U.S. dollars, Zimbabwe’s official currency. But Zimbabweans have been here before. In 2008, the government printed money and a period of soaring inflation followed.

Anti-government graffiti. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)
Anti-government graffiti. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

Few shopkeepers will accept anything but real dollars, so the bond notes have already lost at least 20 per cent of their value. The black market in foreign currency is raging. The central bank has also imposed limits on the amount of money people can withdraw from the banks at the same time, just $50 a day. Long lineups at the banks have become another part of daily life in Harare.

Mugabe did little to bolster confidence earlier this year when he told a reporter that he, too, kept cash at home for fear he might not be able to get it out of the bank again.

Mugabe and his wife, Grace, are believed to have more than $1 billion US invested outside the country.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Harare, bartering systems are way up. So is the number of street vendors despite a renewed crackdown against them by Mugabe in recent months.

Harare’s central business district is full of sidewalk sellers sitting on small squares of cloth with anything from onions to rat poison to individual candies for sale.

Man repairing a shoe
Shoe repair tools
Shoe repair
A shoe repairman in Harare. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

The government says the illegal vendors cost the state money in lost tax revenue. It also calls them unsightly and recently blamed them for a typhoid outbreak.

Back in 2005, police launched a major clear-out of the vendors called Operation Murambatsvina, or “move the garbage.” Seven hundred thousand people were forcibly scattered from slums in big cities across the country.

Human rights groups accuse the government of social cleansing and trying to remove people likely to rise up against the Mugabe regime. But selling what you have on the street – even your body – has become the only way for many people to survive in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

For businesses needing U.S. dollars to purchase goods and services from abroad, the lack of cash is a big problem. For hospitals seeking medicines from outside, it’s a crisis.

Doctors in Zimbabwe have been striking over budget cuts to the country’s health ministry and a freeze on hiring more doctors and nurses.

A mother and her baby in a clinic, waiting for the child to be weighed. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)
A mother and her baby in a clinic, waiting for the child to be weighed. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)
Kids hang out while their mothers await advice on birth control. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)
Kids hang out while their mothers await advice on birth control. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

In a country that still has one of the highest HIV infection rates in southern Africa, it is a huge problem. An estimated 1.4 million Zimbabweans are either HIV positive or living with AIDS.

Emily Rice is one of them. She’s a 51-year-old mother of two whose partner left her when he found out she was HIV positive. Rice used to work for the city of Harare, but was let go. Since then, she’s been selling potatoes on the street to get by.

“But I can’t do it anymore because of the illness,” she says, referring to tuberculosis, one of the most opportunistic infections affecting people with HIV, and a condition placing added strain on the health system.

We met her at a clinic in a township on the edge of Harare where she’d been referred to a Canadian-funded program called The Friendship Bench. Rice was paired with a woman known as a “granny,” a senior rooted in the community and trained to offer basic therapy. The program is an effort to at least acknowledge mental health in a country with so many other priorities.

The two women sat on a bench underneath an avocado tree, the fruit so heavy it dragged the branches down like a veil. They were armed with cushions for the hard wood and an umbrella to deal with the flash storms of the rainy season.

One granny said they listen to whatever is preying on a person’s mind, from suicidal thoughts to domestic abuse to how they’ll pay for their children’s school fees.

There are now benches at over 70 primary health clinics in Zimbabwe’s three largest cities. It’s a small success story in a country that certainly needs more of them.

Women seated on the Friendship Bench, which is part of a Canadian-funded mental health program on the edge of Harare. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)
Women seated on the Friendship Bench, which is part of a Canadian-funded mental health program on the edge of Harare. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

Weighed down with the physical and psychological challenges of survival, many Zimbabweans would no doubt view therapy as a luxury.

“We don’t really have a term for depression in our language,” says Dr. Dixon Chibanda, the psychiatrist who developed the program. “The term that is closest to depression is a word that literally translates to English as ‘thinking too much.’”

And there’s no shortage of that in Zimbabwe. People seeking a way out — be it of their personal hardships or the country’s long trip into the void.

Some urban professionals in Harare, members of civil society, say they’re tired of Mugabe’s pariah-like reputation defining their country and their efforts to build a new reality. But for so many, it’s hard to imagine anything other than what they know to be true.

“Can’t [the West] do more?” asks one young man.

“They don’t much like your president,” I say.

His shoulders fall. “That’s just the way it is. We were born and he was here. And he’s still here.”