In Midst Of Poverty, A Bash For Zimbabwe's Mugabe

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Amid grinding poverty, widespread hunger, almost universal joblessness and a deadly cholera epidemic, Zimbabwe's longtime president, Robert Mugabe, held a $250,000 birthday bash for himself this weekend. The party concluded a week in which Zimbabwe tried to squeeze $2 billion in aid from its neighbors.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Smith. Zimbabwe has its share of troubles. There's poverty, hunger, a cholera epidemic, not to mention political and financial crises. So what did the longtime president do this weekend? Why, he threw himself a lavish birthday party.

As NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, that didn't sit well with the critics of Robert Mugabe.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Children (Singers): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: The monumental challenges facing Zimbabwe's new power-sharing government seemed a million miles away from the singing and dancing at Chinhoyi University, an easy drive from President Mugabe's country home.

Thousands of the president's party supporters, as well as hundreds of schoolchildren, gathered to congratulate him and to sing the praises of the 85-year-old birthday boy as he stood before three giant cakes.

Unidentified Children (Singers): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

QUIST-ARCTON: At an estimated cost of more than $150,000, many criticized Mugabe's party as a waste of resources in a country in economic freefall. The birthday bash ended a week in which Zimbabwe tried to squeeze $2 billion in aid from its Southern African neighbors to help rebuild the economy. But in a speech that lasted one and a half hours under the scorching sun, Mugabe barely mentioned such pressing national issues.

He returned instead to his pet peeves, blaming Western sanctions and economic sabotage for bringing the former British colony to its knees. He also spoke at length about what critics denounce as his reckless land-reform policies and the seizure of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to black Zimbabweans.

Half the nation's population is now surviving on food handouts, yet Zimbabwe used to export food. Mugabe warned the dwindling community of white farmers that there would be no reversal of the policy, and that land would not be given back.

President ROBERT MUGABE (Zimbabwe): Again, I want to thank the farmers who owned these farms, which now have been designated and have been offered to new landowners in accordance with our land-acquisition law, must respect that law, and they must vacate those farms.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Children: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

QUIST-ARCTON: Zimbabwe's white farmers did not attend yesterday's birthday celebration. Neither did the president's political rivals, with whom he finally formed a power-sharing government last month.

The new prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, sent apologies for his absence. But earlier in the week, Mugabe's nemesis expressed grave misgivings about a number of issues related to their shaky political marriage. These included reports of a fresh wave of white farmer evictions, the continuing detention of political activists, and the unilateral appointment of senior civil servants by Mugabe without consulting Tsvangirai.

Prime Minister MORGAN TSVANGIRAI (Zimbabwe): No person in Zimbabwe is above the law. As long as these issues or these matters remain unresolved, it will be impossible for the transitional government to move forward with the reforms that this country so desperately needs.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Male: (Speaking foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: In the meantime, slices of the huge fruitcake and ice cream sponge were shelled out among Mugabe, the first family, and some of the party goers. Elsewhere, though, many other Zimbabweans were wondering where their next meal would come from, and whether they could scrape together enough U.S. dollars cash to send their children back to school this week. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe.

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