In the rich and leafy northern Harare suburb of Borrowdale Brook, Gideon Gono, who as governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe is President Robert Mugabe’s right-hand man and financial adviser, is having the finishing touches put to a lavish mansion that he started building several years ago.
The castle-like house has 47 en suite bedrooms and a glass swimming pool with underlights, a gym bigger than many good houses in the Zimbabwean capital, a mini-theatre and landscaped gardens.
His house is one of the biggest in Harare – bigger, in fact, than Mugabe’s, which is nearby, hidden behind a high wall and guarded by soldiers.
No one except Gono knows for sure how much the mansion cost, but the architects originally said they expected it would reach more than $5m on completion. This is enough to build and equip at least four primary schools in Zimbabwe.
Gono is not ready to move in just yet. Extra security sensors were recently installed on the outside perimeter and biometric iris recognition and finger print authentication systems were fitted in the interior, but he has yet to be convinced that it is entirely safe.
Whether he moves house or not, Gono is hardly facing a miserable Christmas, unlike the millions whose lives have been wrecked by the once-prosperous country’s economic meltdown. They are coping with constant power and water cuts, food shortages and now the terror of cholera. The disease has struck because the government has spent so much money corruptly rather than investing in a clean water supply for its people.
More than 1,100 have died in the epidemic, nearly 21,000 have been infected and there is no end in sight.
“Where is the joy this Christmas?” asked Mercy Gunda, a housewife, as she stood in a long queue at a bank to withdraw money last Friday. “The city is full of people queueing at banks. They are not doing Christmas shopping. If there are any Christmas presents to be bought for the children this year it will be school uniforms.”
Last week I met Palimaga Malani, a 67-year-old blind widow whose task this Christmas is to look after seven children whose parents have died of Aids. They live together in Bulawayo in a house hardly bigger than a walk-in wardrobe in Gono’s mansion.
Somehow she makes sure that with the donations she receives from a local church the children are neatly turned out and fed. “I am very well really, but I am hungry,” she said. The cataracts that caused her blindness are curable but she cannot afford the operation to restore her sight.
A few streets away was another family of orphaned children, the youngest two being cared for by a 15-year-old girl, Anyanga. They survive by selling ice lollies on the streets. Gono, however, has plenty of houses and several farms that were seized from white commercial farmers over the years.
Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of southern Africa and one of the world’s top exporters of tobacco until 2000, when Mugabe started seizing white farms under the guise of redistributing them to black Zimbabweans to right the wrongs of the colonial past. But he gave them largely to his cronies and entourage.
This chaotic land reform programme, plagued by violence, was condemned as racist by five African judges in southern Africa’s regional court in a test case bought by 78 farmers, a ruling that Zimbabwe has refused to accept although it is bound by treaty to do so.
The land seizures have created chronic food shortages and a crisis that has led a third of the population to flee abroad and half of those remaining to depend on food aid to survive.
As Mugabe’s right-hand man, Gono is a beneficiary of the crisis. “He has been looting big time,” said one of his many critics, a once wealthy Harare businessman who had crossed swords with Gono several times. “Mugabe has just reappointed him governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe [RBZ] for another five years, so it must be great for him.
“Any loot that comes in he grabs. It is no longer the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe; it is a bank reserved for him and the president’s cronies. If Mugabe has a degree in violence, which he has often said he has, Gono has a degree in corruption.”
In fact, Gono, who started out as a tea boy at the central bank, has a doctorate in strategic management, but it is from a nonaccredited American university.
Some of Gono’s farms are not in working order – far from unusual among Mugabe’s entourage, who have so many farms that they sometimes do not know what to do with them.
Take the case of Elias Musakwa. A stalwart of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, he is a gospel singer at night with his own recording studio, a banker by day working with Gono in the upper echelons of the RBZ, and an occasional farmer at the weekend on a farm he seized.
Last year he grabbed a dairy farm that once supplied 2% of Harare’s milk. It now has four goats and a few sheep, while hundreds of cows that produced the milk have perished.
“If you do not have a sense of humour you don’t survive here,” said one Zimbabwean, who told of government officials using their posts to steal fuel, pay their children’s school fees and fund the inflated wages of their gardeners and maids, all for a few hours’ work a week. “Everything is weird in this country,” he said.
While so much is collapsing all around, one of Gono’s biggest farms near Norton, 50 miles from Harare, where he has installed two white managers, is fully functional, a glaring example of how he and the powerful men around Mugabe abuse their power. When it is dry, the farm draws water to irrigate the fields though a pipe-line linked to a reservoir 25 miles away which Gono installed at vast expense. The reservoir water is supposed to be for the people of Harare.
The city has minimal municipal water of its own. In the poorest suburbs, where houses are made out of tin and plastic, children were playing in pools of untreated sewage last week and families were still collecting water from broken pipes.
Cholera has killed 224 people in Harare, with more than 9,000 suffering from it. Many affluent parts of the city have no municipal water but survive on a system of privately dug boreholes.
In 2003, when Gono took office, inflation was 619%. It is now well in excess of 231m%. A police inspector’s Christmas bonus last week was worth one American cent on the widely used parallel black market.
Little wonder that, on Friday, anger against Gono spilt into the streets of Harare for the second time in a month. A mob threw rocks at the Reserve Bank building. Many were low-grade civil servants such as prison staff who had been trying to get money for Christmas, only to find that the banks had run out of cash despite the introduction that morning of new Z$1 billion, Z$5 billion and Z$10 billion notes.
“We have fallen into the abyss,” said a friend. “Economically we were teetering on the edge. Now we have fallen over and it is demonstrable for a number of reasons. You go into a shop and if you don’t have US dollars you starve. People don’t want Zimbabwean dollars. They are worthless.”
He pointed out of the window into a grubby lane below where people had dumped thousands of banknotes which had become redundant.
There are many heroes in Zimbabwe still trying to make the country work. One is a 28-year-old male nurse at a Bulawayo hospital who was struggling this weekend to care for a ward of 63 children on his own.
Unable to obtain their wages from the banks because of the shortage of banknotes, many of his colleagues have given up coming to work. It was too burdensome and expensive for them to travel or they have moved to South Africa to try to earn a living.
Behind the male nurse was the body of a two-year-old boy lying under a sheet on a table. He had died that morning from severe malnutrition and septicaemia from sores on his body.
“We survive by so many ways,” the nurse said. “We adjust; we barter. I have been tempted to leave like many of my colleagues so many times, but I need to look after my mother, father and young brothers and sisters.”
Looking at the small bundle beneath the sheet, he said: “This boy should never have died.”
“When you meet somebody like that young man you feel that is why there is still hope in this country,” said Stella Allberry, health secretary of a faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change who has been jailed before. “The one God-given thing we have is hope. And the one thing I don’t want Mugabe to take from me is hope.”
Hope for too many has disappeared, however. At a cholera clinic near the Mozambique border, a 23-year-old mother was watching her seven-year-old daughter die of cholera and malaria on Monday. It had taken her almost 12 hours to bring the child to the clinic on foot. Others were carried there in wheelbarrows.
As the country crumbled, Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party was desperately trying to put on a show of unity at its annual party conference. Even before it began, the facade of unity was cracking. The party is increasingly riven with factionalism, shown by an unprecedented outbreak of fighting at its Harare headquarters on Monday night. Police had to use water cannons to break up a pitched battle over the election of a new leadership for Harare province.
This internal party violence followed the mysterious wounding of Perence Shiri, the powerful air force chief, in an alleged assassination attempt, and the arrests and abduction of opposition members, human rights activists and journalists who have vanished without trace.
The government charges that the opposition has set up secret military training camps in Botswana to overthrow it, aided by the West.
Zimbabwe is entering an unpredictable, unstable and dangerous phase. In the next few days Gono is expected to head off for a holiday in Malaysia. Mugabe would normally go there, too.
Apart from a holiday, both men have assets in the region in the aftermath of western sanctions and it is a favourite destination. But diplomats last week wondered whether the 84-year-old president would risk leaving Zimbabwe at this time.
He has been in power for 28 years and is outwardly still defiant. “Zimbabwe is mine,” he said on Friday, rejecting calls to step down. “I will never, never sell my country. I will never, never, never surrender.”
Nor, say many suffering Zimbabweans, are they going to surrender hope for change as they celebrate the bleakest Christmas of their lives.
In Bulawayo, 1,000 people, black and white, turned out for a candlelit carol service in the rundown amphitheatre of a once beautiful park. The children were delighted. There was a nativity play and a brass band played.
“It made the children happy,” said a mother. “When it came to the end we prayed for them. Our prayer was that the children would not be hungry next year.”