Higher chicken prices stir Zimbabwe more than VIPs

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

A few Zimbabweans stand outside a downtown restaurant here, eyeing roasting chickens slowly turning on motorized skewers inside a glass display case. Their concentration is broken by the whelp of sirens, as a motorcycle police escort clears the way for a sleek white limousine.

General murmurings follow. "Who's in the car?" someone asks. "The President of Yugoslavia." "Oh, yes, the President of Yugoslavia." After only a few seconds , the bystanders turn back to the subject at hand -- those delectable chickens.

The incident says a lot about Africa's newest nation, Zimbabwe, on the first anniversary of its independence, April 18. It has received so much attention, so many state visits, that people are becoming blase about being in the international spotlight.

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At the same time, a preoccupation with the mundane -- the rising price of chickens, for example -- could obscure some of this country's substantial achievements over the past year.For after one year of independence, Zimbabwe continues to defy predictions of economic and political decline.

However, Zimbabwe is undeniably facing some formidable challenges, nonetheless. Chickens, like almost everything else, are getting more expensive. Inflation, unemployment, and high government spending are just a few of the problems bedeviling the country's economy.

Yet, as one diplomat notes, those are the problems facing virtually all of the world's industrialized nations. And that, he says, is, in an odd sort of way, a healthy sign. It means, he says, that Zimbabwe is a "real country," with a real economy, facing not only real problems but also a real future.

Being a "real country" may sound like a somewhat modest accolade, but most Zimbabweans agree that it is decidedly better than being a white-minority-ruled outcast British colony in rebellion, torn by bitter guerrilla war, as the former Rhodesia was.

"I couldn't have taken that any longer," says a white woman in Enkeldoorn, south of the capital city of Salisbury. Many Zimbabweans, black or white, are similarly modest in describing their country's progress over the past year.

"Things are a little bit better," says one black man in Salisbury. Not a lot better? "No, it will take time," he says, for black Africans to be upgraded, improve their skills, and begin to reap fully the fruits of majority rule.

How long that time will be is a matter of dispute. The government has moved quickly to promote blacks in the civil service, sparking resentment among some white officials.

One middle-level bureaucrat reports a "massive outflow of skilled people" (meaning whites) from government service, and predicts more will follow later this year. Some whites are not only leaving their jobs, but also leaving the country. Emigration from Zimbabwe is still running high, with a reported 3,700 people --most of them whites -- leaving in the first two months of the year.

But while many are leaving, far more are staying -- and adjusting to life in a majority-ruled African nation.

Indeed, the country's leaders are making some highly symbolic breaks with the colonial past. For example, major thoroughfares now bear the names of contemporary black leaders, not white settlers. And only a small mound of earth marks the spot where a massive statue of Cecil Rhodes, the sponsor of white settlement in the country, once stood.

The owlish, faintly smiling visage of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe now gazes from shop windows and government office walls. That would have been unthinkable even 18 months ago, when most whites saw former guerrilla leader Mugabe as evil incarnate, and the state-owned radio and television would not even mention his name.

Now, many whites view Mr. Mugabe as a capable, honest leader, with unquestioned integrity. Some still hold doubts about his socialist leanings, and others express a vague unease that "Mugabe is all right, but it's those people around him that I worry about."

Moreover, some whites compain that the government is sending out conflicting signals. On the one hand, they argue, Mr. Mugabe calls for racial reconciliation -- while the state-controlled broadcasting services repeatedly revive the issue of the country's divisive guerrilla war.

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