Besides being a source of national pride, working for the military offers some people the hope of breaking a vicious cycle of poverty. Not in Zimbabwe. Our local correspondent finds that joining the Zimbabwe National Army may mean being reduced to abject poverty.
"When I joined the Zimbabwe National Army, this was my only option," says Private Anold Madya. "My father had just been retrenched from Olivine Industries, where he was working. He was left without a form of income. Luckily, I had just completed my grade 12, and it gave me the advantage of being recruited."
The 27 year old joined the ZNA in 2004, a time when most companies in the private sector were, as he put it, "retrenching due to the economic meltdown then". Circumstances were accordingly not conducive to Madya pursuing his ambition at the time. "I wanted to become a lawyer but, in the end, I had to settle down to become a soldier," he says.
He had hoped the army would provide a comfortable cruise in life. Nine years later, the soldier finds he can't even pay for his transport fees to and from work, let alone feed his six-member family.
Having to split his paltry monthly earnings between personal expenditures and job-incurred incidentals is bad enough. But as Madya struggles to put food on the table at home, the government is apparently too broke to feed its soldiers.
"Going dangerously hungry"
The ZNA is touted as one of the most highly trained militaries in southern Africa. Yet recent revelations by the country's defence minister suggest that the army is itself poverty-stricken.
This past May, Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa told the Council Of Ministers, chaired by Prime Minister Tsvangirai, that the soldiers were "going dangerously hungry". The statement came as Mnangagwa requested extra funding from Zimbabwe's finance minister in order to pay for more soldiers. That request was turned down, with Minister Tendai Biti arguing that the army had recruited illegally without treasury approval.
Trying to establish whether Mnangagwa's food shortage proclamations were true, RNW contacted army spokesperson Colonel Alphios Makotore. He would neither confirm nor deny the development. Over the telephone he said: "I understand these statements were said by the minister [of defence] in a cabinet meeting, and my department does not comment on issues raised by ministers."
Buying the Zanu PF story
Joining the army came as an unexpected bonus in Farai Nyika's life. The young man, identified here by a pseudonym to respect his concern that revealing his identity will cause victimization, had few job prospects. Because his widowed mother could no longer afford to pay school fees, he never made it to secondary school.
Yet Nyika prides himself in graduating from a youth militia that the Zanu PF has used to terrorize voters during elections. In fact, he cites this as his only professional qualification, saying that joining the ZNA came as a well-deserved reward for leading a campaign crusade for President Robert Mugabe in the last elections.
"I only did grade 7 and then I trained with the National Youth Service ... as a pre-admission entry into the army," explains Nyika. "I was then attached to Manicaland to campaign for the President in early 2008 before joining the army."
Like other soldiers in the ZNA, Nyika complains of bad remuneration and insufficient provisions, yet he buys the Zanu PF story of blaming such shortages on the sanctions that Western countries imposed on the current leadership.
"Yes, there is no food. We don't get food rations these days, but you must understand that Tsvangirai called for sanctions against this country," he says. "And here we are, suffering. It [ZNA], however, remains my best form of employment. We no longer receive any food rations as we used to do because our bosses say the government is broke so we have to rely on our own money for everything."
Despite being forced to pay allegiance to President Mugabe's Zanu PF party, both soldiers interviewed for this article wish the current coalition government to stay in power longer as there is a marked improvement since the 2008 economic meltdown. Their only hope could come in the form of a democratic government which will be able to attract foreign direct investment.
Presumably, more food would be welcome too. Nyika can't help but recall the thick porridge served with relish that soldiers were served during his time in the National Youth Service. "We had our daily meal in the form of sadza and cabbage for the whole course," he says.
But in a country where unemployment is hovering at a staggering 94 percent, many young men still opt for the army, knowing very well that it comes without porridge and is far from being a comfortable cruise in life.