HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabweans are facing bleak holidays this year amid rising poverty, food and cash shortages and political uncertainty, with some describing it as the worst since the formation of the coalition government in the southern African nation.
President Robert Mugabe, in a four-year-old coalition with former opposition leader Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, announced an extra public holiday Monday which has created chaos for holiday shoppers and travelers. Banks have closed, ATMs have run out of cash and transport services have been paralyzed.
This caps a year of political uncertainty, a deadlock in constitutional reforms and calls for elections in coming months, seen as critical for Mugabe, 88, who has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980.
In 2008, Mugabe's party was accused of vote-rigging and blamed for the worst election violence since independence. As the election tempo quickens, political intimidation has resurfaced, according to independent human rights groups.
Zimbabwe's unemployment is pegged at around 80 percent with many people in Harare, the capital, eking out a living by selling vegetables and fruits on street corners.
Matthew Kapirima, 60, waits outside a busy supermarket for customers to buy his boxes of weather-beaten peaches and litchis for $10 each.
But holiday shoppers go about their business without even giving him a second glance.
Kapirima has not sold any fruit in days and with a day left before Christmas, he said has to concede that he won't be able to provide his family with food and new clothes this year.
"This is the worst Christmas ever," Kapirima told The Associated Press.
Kapirima has four wives and 25 children living in the rural areas, but all he has managed to get them this Christmas is a 40-kilogram (88 pound) bag of maize seed to plant on his small-sized family plot in Mudzi.
He said he can't travel to his rural home because transport operators are taking advantage of the holiday rush to charge exorbitant fares.
"I have to forget about going there and continue working for school fees for January," he said.
Christmas in Zimbabwe is also the hunger season — the time between harvests from September to March — for most of the nation's impoverished rural population who depend on food handouts.
Kapirima's family joins the 1 million Zimbabweans who live in drought-prone areas who have received food handouts for Christmas this year from the United Nations.
Food shortages are "worse" this year compared to the last three years due to drought and constrained access to cash to buy seed and fertilizer for rural farmers, said World Food Program Zimbabwe country director Felix Bamezon.
Bamezon said the Zimbabwe government for the first time has assisted by providing grain to give to starving communities in rural areas.
"This is good because they don't interfere to tell us which people to give the food to," he said.
The World Food Program has been donating hampers of 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of cereal, vegetable oil and mixed beans to each person in qualifying households every month since September.
For those who live in areas where there are grain traders, WFP gives out $3 per person in a household to buy the grain from traders instead of the food hampers.
An average household has five people, making it $15 for a family to spend for Christmas.
Bamezon also said their organization helps vulnerable communities by engaging them in "food for work" projects where people work to get food during the time they are not provided food assistance.
Rural communities have come up with coping mechanisms such as cutting down the number of meals a day from three to one and selling their prized livestock, furniture and household goods. Bamezon said he had heard reports that some young girls are given away to elderly men for early marriages.
The U.N.'s childrens agency, UNICEF, has in previous research this year noted that girls and young women have been pressured by destitute families to solicit as prostitutes in bars and shopping areas.
In the troubled economy, money is not trickling down from the nation's urban elite, who own luxury cars and mansions, to the urban and rural poor.
"Life is getting harder in this country," said fruit vendor Kaparima. "There is nothing to celebrate this Christmas."