Zimbabwe, once considered the breadbasket of Africa, now lies in an economic flux. A new term, ‘Economic Trauma’, is proposed in this blog to draw attention to the societal impacts of historical, perpetuating, and contextual lines of trauma that influence the current situation.
We use language like economic hardship, economic turmoil, or economic crises, but seldom if at all do we talk about Economic Trauma. We think of trauma in terms of confronting direct, physical acts and their consequences. We recognise emotional and mental trauma as being damaging to a person’s psyche. However, bubbling away in Zimbabwe for some time is something I’ve recently experienced a first-hand assault in – Economic Trauma.
Quite literally one morning we woke up and the money in our bank account was valued at less than a quarter of its worth compared to the day before. Wait … what? How does that happen? Well, it’s complicated and depends on many variables. Most of these the average citizen doesn’t understand, not because they’re uneducated, but because it’s complex and layered between propaganda, historical and cultural narratives, speculation, ineffective processes, and fear. A lot of fear. So aren’t we just talking about bad economics here? The short answer is no. And here’s why.
Back in the 2000s the Zimbabwean economy went through an almost total collapse. There have been attempts at reform since, and in recent years improvements have been made. But in September and October this year (2018), there was episodic hyperinflation again due to various reasons including short-sighted government decisions, unwavering national debt, a fluctuating import/export market and, again, fear. Even though the economy was still better than it had been in recent years, Zimbabwean citizens had a severe reaction to the situation. There was panic buying, queues at fuel stations, and general despair across the nation. The people were experiencing Economic Trauma … but what is this, and how does it affect the economy?
Trauma is a circumstance that brings about a feeling that your safety has been violated and your trust broken. It causes anxiety, shame, intense reactions when triggered, ambivalence about hope for the future, and a sense of vulnerability and lack of control. These feelings or outcomes are currently exhibited in most citizens in Zimbabwe relating to the economy and decision made about it. The hysterical stocking up of basic commodities. The dread at the news of daily rates and inflation. The deep anticipation and apprehension of what the next day brings—will there be relief, or more relentless, disappointing news?
If this extent of hyperinflation hadn’t been seen for a few years, why are the people across the country experiencing such extreme reactions? Well, they’re reacting based on how they felt when facing the dire economics of 2008 or the banking crisis of 2015.
It is collective trauma, with endless parallels to other recognised traumas. We see a societal level symptomatology akin to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A trauma that makes you personally invisible in the sea of economic trauma around you. It makes your strife and hardship inconsequential and, for the most part, ineffective. It de-identifies you in your own personal struggle because everyone is going through it, too. The ripple effects of economic trauma into one’s relationships, business interactions, community, and eventually one’s society are palpable. Yet we don’t see a human rights declaration that places value or weight on safeguarding individuals from the impacts of economic trauma (even though it’s manmade and therefore could and should be controllable.) Instead, we see headlines blaming the ‘economic migrant’ for searching for a better life. And, let’s be honest, wouldn’t you? It’s a much more passive and discrete way of stripping away a person’s dignity and self-determination. It allows for blame to be shifted and diluted away from the epicentre of where the trauma stems from and how it is perpetuated.
The Zimbabwe situation, like many other old colonies and young countries, is in its entirety a complex one. By no means can it be unpacked and understood in one blog post. But in an effort to understand what we see happening in front of us, and to unashamedly open a dialogue to facilitate healing within our societies, I offer up three simplified points as navigational milestones relating to this current economic trauma. Although written as separate points, they require interrelated projects:
- Historical lines of Economic Trauma:
Colonisation, tribal conflicts, historical disempowerment, and intergenerational trauma are all significant contributors to our current situation. There is an incredible need for different avenues of reconciliation and healing, inclusive of pathways into economic opportunities through structural reforms to rectify the loss experienced by the previous generations.
- Perpetuating lines of Economic Trauma:
Aid, investments, development funds, and international monetary systems are structured to advantage the western, corporate business model, or are used for political gain. They are in fact harming and taking advantage of our economy. What we need are mutually beneficial profit-sharing agreements, business and environmental accountability, and safeguarded local investment and development, inclusive of pan-African business, and social support structures to facilitate resilience.
- Contextual lines of Economic Trauma:
Understanding the factors that have and continue to contribute to our turbulent situation is critical. But at some stage we need to take control of our own healing. We can no longer blame everyone else for all our current issues. Current-day corruption, lack of accountability or transparency, and unmet basic human needs are prevalent. We cannot heal as a nation until we are all healed.
It’ll never be a quick and easy recovery, but it’s what is needed in Zimbabwe. Without it, our economy continues to suffer, and in turn, so do we. We cannot do one type of healing or recovery without the other. We cannot expect people to participate in reconciliation programs, anti-corruption programs and development programs when they are struggling economically. And we cannot expect the country to make a sustained economic recovery with unhealed trauma’s lurking. They are the two sides of the same coin that is Economic Trauma.
About the author:
Susan Wyatt is Zimbabwean born and raised. She is a Mental Health Occupational Therapist, with a Master’s degree in Anthropology and Development, specialising in Conflict and Development. Her expertise is in transcultural mental health, reconciliation, peace building and development practices. Susan is the director of Tana Consulting, which currently operates out of Harare, Zimbabwe.