Maputo, Mozambique — In the early morning hours, four young African women on their way to sell or barter for vegetables at the local market struggle to push a cart stuffed with tree branches up Maputo's Vladimir Lenin Avenue. By 8 a.m. they are piling up the logs just outside the market at the corner of Lenin and Mao Tse-tung Streets. The fruit and vegetable vendors eye them jealously. Their stack of tree limbs is worth about three times the average Mozambican worker's monthly salary.
Wood, an increasingly scarce source of fuel throughout rural Mozambique, is positively precious here in the capital city, where most families who live in shacks and huts outside ``cement city'' have no electricity or electric stoves with which to cook.
For the past five years, the government has banned the felling of live trees for firewood. But on the outskirts of town, people get around the ban by stripping the bark from the base of trees at night and collecting the carcasses several weeks later.
Selling items such as wood, clothing, fish, and charcoal is one of the myriad ways poor urban Mozambicans can earn enough meticais (the official currency) to meet the skyrocketing food prices on the free market.
Elsa dos Santos, a young Mozambican woman, has been in the business of wood trading for two years.
``This is the only way I can pay for things,'' she says, looking down at her logs. ``If I don't sell my wood, I cannot pay for things like tomatoes and onions. I cannot buy clothes,'' she laments.
Single and unemployed, Ms. dos Santos lives with her parents out in Matola, the industrial district of Greater Maputo. The entire area is being flooded by refugees from areas to the north of the city stricken by drought and a guerrilla war supported by neighboring South Africa.
She queues up with hundreds of others down at the Maputo port ``as often as I can'' (several times a month) to buy wood from men who have cut down trees across the bay in Chitembe. Tree cutting in Chitembe is risky in light of firefights between government troops and Mozambique National Resistance rebels in that area.
Dos Santos and her friends load the wood onto a cart for the trip to the market.
Any Mozambican with a vehicle - be it a cart or a truck - can make good money here. Transport is desperately scarce.
In the Greater Maputo area, truck drivers load people on for a rate of 100 meticais per head, about $2 at the official exchange rate. The drivers circumvent the tight rationing of fuel, most people believe, by buying it on the candonga, or black market, from the Army at highly inflated prices.
While the black market may play a benign role by keeping the economy functioning and the people fed, it also spreads corruption throughout the society. Theft from factories, especially the breweries, provides workers with items they may sell for some quick cash on the candonga. Nonviolent street crime is a growing problem.
The average minimum monthly wage for a Mozambican worker is about 3,000 meticais, or $75. But its true purchasing power is much less. And on the ubiquitous candonga, that sum is about $2.
The state ration system provides urban dwellers with 50 percent of their food needs for just 7 percent of their salary, says Marta Mauras, Maputo representative of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). ``For most people, the problem is the other 50 percent,'' she says.
Indeed, after they exhaust their ration cards and pay the state rent for the month, minimum-wage earners here have as little as 1,500 meticais - $1 on the candonga - left over to purchase basic goods such as vegetables and clothes. Meat is a luxury.
Ever since the government lifted price controls on fruit and vegetables in May 1985, prices have risen 500 to 600 percent.
By allowing food to sell at the going market rate, the authorities hoped to provide incentives for farmers to produce more and to bring their produce to market. Most analysts believe the move has worked, though the costs of goods have been propelled beyond the reach of most Mozambicans. Last month the UN reported that the number of Mozambicans facing starvation has jumped from 1.8 to 3.8 million in less than six months.
``The markets now are stuffed with food, especially vegetables,'' says Anthony Newton, the US Embassy's commercial officer. ``Two years ago they were empty. But yes, for the average Mozambican, the prices are exorbitant.''
``I go to the market and often have to leave empty-handed,'' says Lina Zemba, a cleaning woman. ``It is so depressing. People have to do many things just to be able to buy some tomatoes.''
Today a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of tomatoes sells for 200 meticais, or about 5 percent of Mrs. Zemba's monthly earnings. A kilogram of onions goes for 300 meticais, and corn, a Mozambican staple, sells for as much as 150 meticais an ear.
The state fruit and vegetable company, Hortofuticola, tries to contain the inflationary spiral by selling produce at a fraction of market prices, but government farms never produce enough food to meet demands here.
And demands for food are rising rapidly in Maputo, a city of about 1 million people and one of Africa's fastest-growing urban centers, according to the UN.
People fortunate enough to have relatives or friends in the country have an advantage, since they can always trade whatever consumer goods they can find in Maputo for food.
Flights from some provincial capitals to Maputo and the Indian Ocean port of Beira are usually loaded down with bags of vegetables and fruit. A chicken running down the aisle is not an uncommon sight on most any flight headed to the capital.
The price in meticais for airline tickets, like most everything else, is high, but at the black-market rate, it amounts to only several dollars. A round-trip ticket to a provincial capital roughly 700 miles north of Maputo, for example, costs 8,800 meticais - officially $220 but unofficially a mere $6.
At the ticket counter in the capital of this northern province, one elderly woman returning to Maputo checked her baggage: three huge bags of onions and a rack of green bananas.
When asked how she obtained her loot, she said: ``It's simple. My daughter and her husband, they needed a couple of shirts and jeans, you see. They are hard to find up here. But in Maputo they can be found, if you know where to look.''