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Laughing through pain: Zimbabweans resort to comedy to cope with economic failing

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Jekesai Njikizana/AFP
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HARARE – Zimbabweans are resorting to comic relief in the face of a failing economy, as the local currency loses value by the day. After all, laughter is the best medicine.

By Lenin Ndebele

This week, government workers’ salaries increased by 300%, with a health worker taking home ZW$1 000 000 (about R2 000).

To their shock, when some went shopping, they found a pack of four toilet rolls priced at ZW$137 000. Thus, a health worker could afford to buy about seven packs of tissues.

Following the exorbitant price hikes, Pick n Pay earned the moniker “Pick n Cry” in a cartoon published online on ZimDaily. Since January, the local dollar has lost 80% of its value.

“Once a millionaire, always a millionaire,” said Simba Zinyengere, referring to the 2008 economic meltdown and the current economic crisis.

Security company Fawcett, writing in a memo informing its clients of price hikes earlier this month, told them “not shoot the messenger here. This is not our making.

“Fawcett wrote two weeks later: “Back to the same old.”

“Here we are again, sinking deeper and deeper into this economic quagmire. It seems like we have turned the clock back.

“What you now spend on a large trolley of supermarket goods would have purchased 100 brand-new half-ton pickup trucks seven years ago. It is truly beyond understanding,” wrote Andy Laing, the company’s managing director. A Fawcett client who shared the letters with News24 said he found their tone hilarious.

She said:

They are telling us they are hiking their charges in a funny way. You get to laugh at least.

Learnmore Jonasi, a Zimbabwean comedian who’s had shows at the Apollo Theatre in New York, US, was sure not to miss an opportunity to make his compatriots laugh.

He has a skit promoting what he calls “Mattress Bank Limited”, which will make one “sleep like a baby knowing your money is safe and sound”.

The skit is based on the inflation rates and fears that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe will raid people’s accounts for foreign currency after the central clearing house halved daily withdrawal limits from R20 000 (US$1 000).

“Don’t make inflation and corruption keep you awake at night. Trust Mattress Bank,” he said in jest. Mattress Bank refers to one keeping their money at home under a bed. Political commentator Professor Alexander Rusero said the jokes were a coping mechanism for Zimbabweans.

“Jokes are an escape route to the imagined fantasy, a way of easing pain and relief. For a people undergoing pain induced by a veritable economic meltdown manifesting through the havoc of the erosion of the Zimbabwean currency, there is this inexplicable pain which requires no sedatives like painkillers but laughter,” he said.

“Jokes and laughter in Zimbabwe are both a symptom of an upside down society and a cure to the same.”

This week, Zimbabweans were intrigued by 35-year-old 145kg soldier Arnold Zikhali, who claimed to be the strongest man in the country because he pulled a 56-ton train for 100 metres.

What really got people talking were his alleged eating habits. He told a local tabloid that he eats 30 eggs (15 fried and 15 boiled), two loaves, one litre of juice, bacon, beans, polony and two litres of water for breakfast daily.

For lunch, he claimed to eat 2kg of sadza (porridge), 2kg of vegetables, three litres of fermented milk, one litre of juice, and two litres of water. His dinner comprises 2kg of rice, 2kg of chicken, beans, one litre of juice, another three litres of fermented milk, two litres of water, and various fruits.

He also has a midnight snack of gargantuan proportions, he claimed.

People questioned how a soldier could afford the amount of food he described on his salary. Zikhali would later eat lunch live on video to prove his claim on Tuesday, but he struggled to finish the food.

Since then, he has become the subject of jokes about his job and the economy.

“Whatever you do, don’t vote for Zikhali. His diet is more expensive than what a politician can steal in a day,” joked Ntando Ncube, a local comedian.

During an induction course for Zanu PF election candidates last week, they unanimously agreed that the economy was their biggest challenge ahead of the polls.

In his address, President Emmerson Mnangagwa blamed the opposition and foreign governments he claimed wanted to unseat Zanu PF for what is happening on the ground. He wasn’t joking.