Night falls across Harare and Tracy Ncube sashays up Fife Avenue in a tight skirt and borrowed shirt to sell the only thing she can.
Half a dozen other young women are already stationed outside Tipperary’s bar and Ncube picks her spot, a tree opposite the car park illuminated by headlights. She has been a prostitute for two weeks and has bagged three customers, earning $45 (£25).
Zimbabwe’s youth were once considered Africa’s brightest, graduates of one of the continent’s best education systems which bred sophistication, confidence and ambition.
But the economy has crumbled and, with it, opportunity. There are virtually no jobs. Some 90 per cent of the country’s 11.8 million people live on less than $1 a day. Hyperinflation and food shortages are making the middle class destitute.
So, a fortnight ago, Ncube, 23, turned to prostitution. ‘These days life is very hard. My family doesn’t know that I do this, but how else am I to survive?’
She was visibly nervous. Her voice trembled, but she was determined to bag a fourth customer to earn between $7 and $20.
Aid jargon calls prostitution, or transactional sex, a ‘negative coping mechanism’, a desperate but effective way to get by.
Others emigrate, flying to Britain to work as nurses or jumping a fence to scrounge jobs in Botswana or South Africa. Their pay keeps many families afloat. For President Robert Mugabe, all this is excellent news. Inflation is close to 400 per cent, unemployment is at 70 per cent and hunger and homelessness are spreading, but there is no sign of revolution.
Yesterday the country was digesting the surprise acquittal of the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who had been charged with attempting to assassinate the president. On Friday a high court in Harare dismissed the case which for two years had crippled his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). It was a significant boost for the party but there was little public jubilation.
Partly this was because police in riot gear patrolled the capital with guns and batons. A military jet roared low overhead to reinforce the authority of a regime in power since independence from Britain in 1980.
But another reason was resignation. Analysts say that the ruling Zanu-PF party will sweep parliamentary elections due next March because opposition has been crushed.
Starved of an independent media and the right to campaign freely, the MDC has withered, according to a senior MP who asked not to be named. Its narrow defeats in rigged elections in 2000 and 2002 were high-water marks, he said.
Both cause and symptom of its malaise are to be found on Fife Avenue. At night, the smart, leafy suburb close to the city centre is a red-light district.
None of the prostitutes had a good word to say about Mugabe, whom they accused of despotism, but none responded to the MDC’s plea to rally at the high court for Tsvangirai’s verdict.
‘Look, I’m a working girl. I need to sleep and do things around the house during the day,’ said Talent Mushonga, 23. Samantha Hazvinei, 24, said girls as young as 15 and middle-aged married women were turning up. ‘We are too many ladies looking for too few men. I need to come earlier and earlier and stay longer to get business.’
A UN report last year said poverty and hunger were fuelling child labour and prostitution. An aid worker, who did not want to be named because of a crackdown on non-governmental organisations, said she knew middle-aged women, including nurses, teachers and police officers, who had turned to prostitution.
Maxine, 27, a three-year veteran of Fife Avenue, said the new arrivals were reckless. ‘They are hot hot, chilli chilli, all in a rush. But they don’t last, they die fast.’
Official figures show that 24.6 per cent of the adult population is infected with HIV, one of the highest rates in the world.
Ncube said she preferred to use a condom but admitted the competition for customers – and frequent demand for unprotected sex – could weaken her resolve.
‘What else can I do? Go out and demonstrate against the government? Demand change?’ The notion made her laug