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Zimbabwe's stubborn middle class stays through cholera and political crisis
HARARE, Zimbabwe — There is plenty of gallows humor circulating in Zimbabwe these days.
A running joke goes: "What's the definition of an optimist? A Zimbabwean who thinks the country has hit rock bottom."
As the cholera outbreak kills hundreds and still rages through the country, it is obvious that Zimbabwe's already dire political and economic crisis has drastically worsened and plunged the country into a humanitarian disaster.
The plight of the most vulnerable has received understandable international attention. The poor have grown steadily poorer and died while President Robert Mugabe's ruling clique has prospered.
But less attention has been paid to the fate of Zimbabwe's middle class, once the country's backbone, which has been decimated in recent years. The skilled have left en masse. Architects, artisans, electricians, mechanics, doctors, nurses, teachers — all gone to the burgeoning diaspora, now estimated at 5 million out of a total population of 13 million.
This mass migration at least provides a flow of funds from those working outside Zimbabwe to those who remain. Zimbabwe is one of the world's newest remittance economies.
Yet some of the country's middle class remain, determined to see the current crisis through.
"Every day I am sad and infuriated by the misery of so many people, but I still love this country," says Joy, 61. "I have a wonderful feeling about the people I work with. We are all struggling to get by, but we are doing it together. This government cannot last forever and I believe Zimbabwe will once again become a magical place to live. I don't want to give up."
Joy conducts workshops with township children, promoting self-confidence and artistic expression, even though many badly need a good meal. Her husband James, 51, came to Zimbabwe in the 1980s to escape military service in apartheid South Africa. He is an artist and sells his paintings to diplomats and others with access to foreign currency.
Like most people who are "staying on," James and Joy doubt that they would ever find a country to match Zimbabwe's almost perfect weather conditions. But life can be frustrating. For example, electricians from the power utility demand fuel or transport to repair faulty lines.
"The power shortages are infuriating," James says. "But just as we swear we can't stand it another day, the lights come back on."
The middle class is both white and black. "A few months ago our water stopped and my daughter didn't know what to do," says Mildred (not her real name), a black Harare accountant. "I told her to wash from a bucket of water we had saved. She didn't know how. In the rural areas everyone knows how to wash from a bucket of water. She didn't know how to be an African."
Fred, 31 and black, lives in a township on the eastern outskirts of Harare. He has his own small home, a telephone line and occasionally running water. He has a small garden where he grows vegetables. He is well-off compared to the majority of his countrymen. The only way he can afford to stay in Zimbabwe is by traveling to South Africa to buy goods in short supply at home such as flour and rice and then selling them in his township.
"I don't want to leave when I have a home and a family dependent on me," he says. "But I can only survive by cross-border trading. It's now a way of life for me."
Zimbabweans across the old racial divide have been brought together in coping with the intensifying crisis. At a lawn bowling club in the city center where the greens are still immaculate, whites of the old school share tales of adversity with their black compatriots.
"It will all get better once he goes," one member suggests to wide approval. Everybody knows who "he" is but no one utters Robert Mugabe's name for fear of being arrested by one of the secret police — to publicly denigrate the president is a crime.
No one knows when Mugabe will go, but the stubborn rump of Zimbabwe's middle class seems determined to hang on.