Short lives lead to short-term goals in Zimbabwe

The average life span for Zimbabweans has declined sharply in recent years, according to a recent report.

Brian Mutenda is an energetic 30-year-old with a vision.

He wants to establish a flea market on the outskirts of his home city of Mutare, on Zimbabwe's border with Mozambique.

The best thing about his flea market project is that it won't take years to set up.

"A flea market is not a long-term thing," he explains. "Anything that would take me three, four, or five years [to establish] - I'm not very comfortable with, because at the back of the mind you say: 'At 40, I'll be no more.' "

Life is short here, and that's official.

According to the 2006 World Health Report, published recently by the World Health Organization (WHO), Zimbabwean men on average can expect to live only to age 37. In the past 12 months, life expectancy for women plummeted by two years to 34, the shortest in the world.

Behind the statistics is a grim tale of AIDS, financial hardship, and stress. But it wasn't always this way in what was once one of the most prosperous countries on the continent. Between 1970 and 1975, Zimbabweans could expect to live to the age of 56. The sharp decline in life expectancy has drastically changed the outlook and aspirations of people here.

As a teenager, Mutenda dreamed of being "a managing director, or a company executive. I dreamed of myself in a high-backed chair," he says.

But now he and his friends are only too aware their lives might soon be over. So they plan accordingly.

"With all my friends, this is the trend. Those who had money or those who had parents who are well-off, they have decided to buy [liquor] stores so that they will have quick cash."

The low life expectancy has a host of negative effects on Zimbabwean society, says Eldred Masunungure, the executive director of the Harare-based Mass Public Opinion Institute.

He says young people are less committed to the companies they work for.

"Why invest energy in the development and growth of an organization you're not likely to be a part of in 14 years' time?" he asks.

Older people can remember when things were different. Retired teacher Gilbert Rondozai, 79, says he believes a rise in crime and promiscuity is a result of young people's lack of hope.

"Everybody says they can't control the young. They're drunks and promiscuous. And crime. It was never known in my growing-up time that you'd have burglar bars over your windows," he says.

Mr. Rondozai's father lived to age 110. Six of his nine siblings are still alive.

"We lived long compared to today," says Rondozai. For young people now, it's "live today, live tomorrow, what happens after that is of no consequence," he says.

The World Health Report says the decline is mainly due to the effects of a devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic, which kills more than 3,000 people here every week.

But Mr. Masunungure says that growing poverty may also play a part. "Dealing with poverty is the government's responsibility," he says. But "government is broke."

Once-thriving Zimbabwe is battling its worst-ever economic crisis. Inflation topped 1,000 percent in April, and has gone up since. Fuel is in short supply. So are medical drugs, machinery supplies, and foreign currency. Shoppers are now used to seeing food prices go up nearly every day.

But there are glimmers of hope.

In the working-class town of Chitungwiza, the Girl Child Network Trust is working with young women to help them build longer lives.

Zimbabwean girls up to the age of 18 are highly vulnerable to HIV infection because they fall victim to sexual abuse, and early marriages, and they lack knowledge about their rights, says Betty Makoni, the director of the group, which oversees 350 clubs countrywide with a combined membership of 20,000. The clubs meet regularly to discuss self-empowerment strategies. Schoolgirls are taught to stand up for their rights - and hopefully, avoid HIV infection.

"The more we empower them, the more they speak out," explains Ms. Makoni. "If we don't start with this girl, the woman we're talking about will be lost."

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