HARARE (Reuters) - Like many Zimbabweans, I frequently go to bed early because the power is cut off.
The darkness in my bedroom shadows the mood in the country, where an economic crisis has pushed inflation to nearly 1,600 percent, the highest level in the world.
Coping with economic meltdown is never easy. But in President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, once seen as the brightest economic star in southern Africa, it has become a disheartening battle that most people lose every day.
I’m a young urban professional, but I often start my day by using firewood to fix breakfast on a barbecue, something that until recently was a feature only of rural life.
Water supplies are erratic and often our taps are dry for much longer than the electricity is out.
That means a 30-minute trip, in each direction, to the local municipal offices where water supplies are more reliable.
Bucket in hand, I head home to wash up.
By the time I am ready to head for work I am exhausted but the day’s challenges have only started.
Like many commuters, my daily journey to work has become an expensive exercise in frustration.
Chinese buses purchased by the state-run transport operator run infrequently, partly because of breakdowns, lack of spares and fuel shortages, so I often have to make do with “pirate taxis” which charge a fortune.
Fares change every day as people try to figure out what our money is worth. At the moment it costs me between 1,000 and 2,000 Zimbabwe dollars ($4 and $8) for a trip into the city.
Critics say the government’s program of seizing white-owned farms to give to landless blacks created an agricultural crisis in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe, who has ruled the country since independence in 1980 and turned 83 on Wednesday, accuses the West of sabotaging Zimbabwe’s economy.
Whatever the reason, the impact is everywhere, always.
I take a packed lunch to work rather than buy the fast food I used to eat before the economic crisis took a turn for the worse.
This has given my household a useful economic indicator — the lunchbox index — which is a clearer measure than the official inflation statistics.
Last August, when the central bank introduced new banknotes, having lopped off three zeros, 1,000 Zimbabwe dollars could provide a decent packed sandwich; a couple of slices of bread, some eggs and even a slice of ham on good days.
Now 1,000 Zimbabwe dollars will buy only two eggs. Bread, which cost about 250 dollars 12 months ago, now costs 1,000 dollars.
Cash machines have stopped dispensing 1,000 dollar bills and now issue 10,000 dollar notes.
The bundles of banknotes keep growing. Where 100,000 dollars would go a long way in meeting my grocery needs for a month last August, I need five times that amount now.
Shopping in a supermarket can be a surreal experience, with customers racing to keep ahead of employees who comb through the shelves changing price tags to keep up with the daily inflation hikes.
Often I will try to quarrel with a cashier demanding more than appears on the price tag, but I have become used to the explanation: the price has risen and those changing the tags simply cannot keep up.
In contrast to three years ago, supermarket shelves are relatively full these days, but some things are still very difficult to get.
For these I make the long trip to Musina, just across the border in South Africa, every other month. There I can stock up on soap, cooking oil and even potatoes, a purchase which would have been ridiculous five years ago.
My rent, already about a quarter of my salary, goes up every three months and my neighborhood has become less pleasant now that we deal with frequent broken sewers, uncollected garbage and other service outages.
But I’m still one of the lucky ones. At least I still have a job to come home from. The crisis has pushed unemployment above 70 percent.
Some people without jobs turn to crime; others simply spend their days in angry conversations about Zimbabwe’s turmoil — anger that is increasingly hard to escape as our country collapses around us.