The Bishop of Hwange in Zimbabwe speaks of the despair and of the hope of the people in the troubled Southern African nation.

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Zimbabwe: How Much Longer?

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Despair is pervading the streets of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city.

It is more than three weeks since President Robert Mugabe signed a power-sharing deal with the leaders of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara. Yet the same problems that have affected this country for so long now are getting worse. Hyperinflation. Food shortages. Political turmoil. People are asking: where can this end?

The queues to withdraw money from the banks here are endless. Many people are lining up for a whole day to withdraw the maximum amount allowed by law. It will not be enough even to buy cooking oil.

Inflation, it was reported today, has reached a mind boggling 231,000,000%. Money is worthless almost as soon as it is printed. It is estimated that the black market accounts for 80% of all trading in Zimbabwe.

The country is also suffering an acute water shortage. According to one newspaper, in certain eastern suburbs of Harare, the valleys and streams have dried up, and residents compete with livestock for fresh water in the marshy land. Clean water, a necessity, is now a luxury commodity.

Cholera is a constant threat.

Morgan Tsvangirai – Prime Minister under Mugabe’s President in the nascent administration – issued a press release today in which he described Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, of lacking “sincerity and commitment” in their negotiations for the allocation of government ministries.He also said that Zimbabweans “now live in an environment characterised by hunger and starvation and we are days away from seeing people dropping dead on the streets”.

In June the UN predicted that 2.04 million people in rural and urban areas would be threatened with hunger between July and September 2008. This number would rise to 3.8 million people between October and December and again to over 5 million at the height of the hungry season between January and March 2009. This is approximately 45% of the population. The UN has reported that maize production in Zimbabwe for 2008 will be an estimated 575,000 tons. That is 1.5 million tons too little.A few weeks ago in New York Robert Mugabe made a vague promise that food was on the way. Still nobody knows how much – or when. This leaves humanitarian organisations guessing at how much food aid they need to supply to prevent a disaster of unprecedented proportions.

Only this week the World Food Programme made an emergency appeal for $140 million to provide food aid to Zimbabwe. The food crisis is most critical in rural areas. A government ban on all operations by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) earlier this year made the situation much worse. Food and seeds that should have been distributed did not reach those who needed them most. The ban was lifted on August 29th but some organisations are still encountering difficulties returning to the field and for man the lack of seeds, in particular, mean expectations for the harvest are low.

Zimbabweans are notoriously resilient. They have been through so much. But many are asking, how much longer can they endure this hardship? President Mugabe knows that desperately needed external assistance will flow as soon as the new government is able to demonstrate genuine commitment to democracy and reform. But while ordinary Zimbabweans are in frantic need, how long can he afford to wait?