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At overflowing garbage dumps in Zimbabwe’s capital, desperate vagrants pounced on trash bags and fought over chicken bones and scraps of discarded food. Sewage clogged streets and most shopkeepers didn’t even bother with holiday decorations.

In crumbling, largely Christian Zimbabwe, where a cholera epidemic has killed more than 1,100 people, Christmas is just another day of suffering.

“There is nothing for us to celebrate. Christmas is a story of hunger,” said Monica Rugare. “It is just another day of poverty, the way we are living today.”

The country’s Christmas tradition of city dwellers heading to the countryside with gifts of food and clothing for their relatives isn’t possible this year. Annual church carol services have been subdued, if they were held at all.

On Tuesday, children found a bit of cheer playing in the stinking water gushing from a broken sewer in the impoverished Harare neighborhood of Braeside.

Ten-year-old Kudzai Urere, ignoring the warnings from cholera-conscious adults as she leaped about in the murky water, said her mother had gone to search for food and would not be home until nightfall.

When she did return, she would be lucky to bring home vegetables, not toys or candy.

In this country of glaring inequities, there are some who do have the leisure and cash for pastimes like golf, even if they can’t escape the stench of chaos.

The sewage flowing down the streets of Braeside emptied into a stream already swollen by heavy seasonal rains. The foul-smelling water ran through a nearby golf course where a few players moved gingerly around it on the fifth fairway Tuesday.

Zimbabwe’s chaos is opportunity for some. Stories abound of President Robert Mugabe’s generals selling the state’s diamonds. Another scarce, government-controlled commodity is hard currency. Those close to Mugabe can buy U.S. dollars at the low government rate and sell them on the black market for a hefty profit.

Other Zimbabweans bring in food and other goods from neighboring countries and sell them for U.S. dollars, or have access to hard currency because they work for foreign companies or have relatives abroad.

But for most Zimbabweans, the economic collapse of what was once a regional bread basket and food exporter has left millions dependent on international handouts.

The cholera outbreak that has killed more than 1,100 people since August is blamed on the collapse of water and sewage facilities bereft of purification chemicals or spare parts. The waterborne disease should be easy to prevent and treat, but not in a country where medical supplies are scarce and all state hospitals have closed because they can’t pay staff enough to cover the commute to work.

Doctors Without Borders listed Zimbabwe’s health crisis and continuing economic collapse among its “Top 10 Humanitarian Crises of 2008,” noting in a report released this week that life expectancy has plummeted to just 34 years of age, according to U.N figures. Because of the crisis, some 2 million people infected with the AIDS virus have been forced to skip meals or cannot afford bus fare to clinics for treatment, it said.

Critics blame Mugabe’s policies, including an often-violent campaign, beginning in 2000, to seize white-owned farms and hand them over to veterans of his guerrilla war against white minority rule. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years, blames Western sanctions, though the European Union and U.S. have targeted only Mugabe and dozens of his clique with frozen bank accounts and travel bans.

With inflation running at more than 231 million percent, the central bank has licensed shops and businesses to trade in hard currency for the sale of imported goods and farm supplies.

Innocent Zuwa, a small farmer outside Harare, said he was unable to plant any crops in the current wet season — he has no hard currency to buy seed and fertilizer. “There’s nothing for me to plant. Many others I know are in the same situation in this turmoil we are in,” he said.

At the hard currency stores Tuesday, there were no takers for a children’s bicycle priced at $350, or a stereo system going for $650. The stores didn’t even bother with the holiday decorations that have graced Harare in previous years.

The state forestry commission, meanwhile, reported 720,000 acres of woodlands were felled for firewood to heat homes and for cooking amid persistent electrical power outages over the past two years.

The Zimbabwe Teachers Association brought more bad news.

It said schools across the country lost up to 70 percent of “learning time” in the last quarter of this year after teachers’ pay fell below the cost of their transportation to school. Attendance by pupils fell to below half those enrolled.

The teachers’ organization said the education system, once the envy of southern Africa, was crippled by the economic crisis and a deadlock over a power-sharing deal between Mugabe and prime minister designate Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

An estimated 30,000 teachers left government service since disputed elections in March, it said.

“If the environment does not change in coming days schools are unlikely to reopen next term,” the teachers group said in a statement.

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