Living with less, but with more

"What's for lunch today?" my husband asks, as husbands do.

"Mealies," I invariably answer, as I lift two steaming corn cobs out of the saucepan. We smother them with salt and margarine – butter is way too expensive now – and I sigh a private little sigh of relief. That's another meal provided.

As a child, I was fascinated by a book I found on my mother's shelf: "Living More With Less." Author Doris Janzen Longacre's accounts of life in a frugal Mennonite community were far removed from my schooling in suburban England. But her ideas for making wedding rings out of paper clips and turning off the shower as you soaped stayed with me.

I often think of them now, as I struggle through my new life in Zimbabwe.

An eternity ago – or maybe it was only 18 months – I lived in Paris. I had a full-time job and an apartment near tourist-magnet Montmartre and Sacré Coeur. I shopped for clothes in the Galeries Lafayette on Saturday afternoons and made salmon, cream, and dill pasta whenever I wanted.

But the man I married was Zimbabwean. He wanted to come back to his country, tottering under its worst economic crisis since independence 20 years earlier.

I came, I saw ... but nothing could have prepared me for the life I got.

I now eat "mealies" for lunch – the country's staple. Looking for the latest fashions in Zimbabwe means trawling through flea markets in Harare, the capital. The garments on sale are smuggled relief aid, intended for last year's flood victims in Mozambique.

I laugh ruefully when I think of Westerners' dismay at point-something-of-a-percent price rises. Prices go up every week here. Many goods are now priced at 400 percent what they were when I arrived. Buying a magazine is an unthinkable luxury: It costs the equivalent of half a day's work.

I haven't bought a bottle of hair styler since I got here. I last tasted salmon on my wedding day. Feast days are when my mother sends us a freeze-dried package of curry or Mexican-style chili from some far-off English supermarket.

And yet I'm rich – by Zimbabwean standards. Seventy-five percent of this Southern African country's population live below the poverty line. My husband and I at least have a car and a watertight house, a posh and much larger version of the local rondavel, or round thatched hut.

Our rondavel is fitted out in marble. (The owner runs a granite quarry.) It has glass windows with curtains and a shower – though the hot-water heater hardly holds enough for one shower, let alone two. We turn off the water as we soap, of course.

It's a far cry from the pine floors, plush red-carpeted stairways, and ornamented ceilings of my Paris apartment. But I've learned to appreciate my home's special beauty and the cool refuge it provides from the heat of the sun.

When shortages bite, I have alternatives. There was no milk in April. My mother came to the rescue with packets of powdered substitute. I've found that petroleum jelly is a wonderful moisturizer.

Peanut butter can be substituted when cooking oil runs out. The long yellow bars of locally produced laundry soap are cheaper than powdered detergent.

It's not easy to downgrade gracefully, I'll admit. My favorite daydream is the supermarket one, where I meander through aisles and aisles of gleaming products and pick out just what I want at totally affordable prices.

My husband knows not to interrupt me when I'm having that fantasy.

But I have learned that I can manage on less. I've rediscovered the creative things my mother taught me – patchwork and embroidery – that my busy city life and career denied me the time to do.

I've learned that I can live without chocolate every day.

And, trite though it sounds, I've learned to look up to the stars in the sky. In the black velvet nights of Africa, they're something you just can't put a price tag on.

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