HARARE, ZIMBABWE

It's a shock, entering Robert Mugabe's decaying, crumbling capital. The former urban gem of Africa, once prissy in its orderly efficiency, now is sinking into a rank detritus of uncollected garbage, potholes, broken traffic lights and collapsing public services. ¶ Harare, the Sunshine City of the tourist brochures, sparkled as recently as a decade ago. It was an intentional, sturdy metropolis of commerce and finance, trade, manufacturing, government, shops and professional services. ¶ The sun remains, but the shine is gone. Harare stinks.

I lived here two decades ago as the Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent. I have come back for a look as the campaign gets underway before the presidential elections March 29. Because foreign journalists are unwelcome at the moment, I have entered as a teacher of religion.

Theft of sewer, telephone, electrical and water-supply equipment is pandemic. The public nuts and bolts, the cables and pipes, of this city of nearly 3 million people are literally vanishing alongside the flawed management of what infrastructure remains. Think about this: People selling phone wires for food.

Electrical and water service is erratic (although the reservoirs are full). Elevators in downtown buildings and gas stations are becoming artifacts of a past existence. Public servants parked their cars years ago: no fuel to be found.

Officially, inflation in this country of 12 million is 100,580 percent. Unofficially (and probably more accurately), it is more than 150,000 percent.

All surgery at Harare's Parirenyatwa Hospital, the biggest in the country, has ceased because of a shortage of anesthetic, functioning equipment and medical specialists. Nurses and other workers refuse to come to work because their bus transportation costs are greater than their salaries. With the Zimbabwean currency this week falling to a record low of $25 million for a single U.S. dollar, bus fares can change on a single trip.

The University of Zimbabwe's faculty is melting away across the country's borders, joining an estimated 3.5 million of their fellow citizens who have fled. Industry is operating at 20 percent capacity.

Two professionals, a husband and wife, say their combined monthly income is $57 million. "That buys four loaves of bread," the wife said. When bread can be found.

Clash of contrasts

My driver, John, who meets me at the airport, says he needs to buy cooking oil.

When we get into the city, he passes a shop I remember as a fashionable outlet for women's clothes. One rack with three dated and ugly dresses sits in the window. The rest of the store is bare and dark. Its neighbors are barred and padlocked.

Only in Harare's opulent suburb of Borrowdale -- home to diplomats, business and political elites, staff of international nongovernmental organizations paid in foreign currency -- are the Van Heusen dress shirts advertised along the road from the airport. They are likely to be found in Chinese- and South African-owned private shops, which are alongside new-car dealerships, nightclubs, international fast-food outlets and grocery stores filled with goods deliberately displayed without price tags in testament to Zimbabwe's inflation.

"Borrowdale," says the wife with the $57 million family income, as if she's mentioning a dirty word. "Two different countries inside one country."

Sanctions blamed

President Mugabe, 84, and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front government, the country's rulers since independence in 1980, say it is sanctions imposed by Western countries that are to blame.

Sanctions and not the destruction of the agriculture industry brought about by the government's decision to seize commercial (mostly white) farmers' properties beginning in 2000 and redistribute them to black farmers lacking the technical knowledge to operate them.

Sanctions, such as they are, target arms imports and the international travels of Zimbabwe's rulers, not its economy. And the commercial farmers lost their land largely as a result of their own doing, their refusal to share holdings -- 70 percent of arable land held by 1 percent of the population -- conferred on them by Zimbabwe's before-independence, racist colonial legislators.

How people are surviving is simply baffling.

The inflation. The 80 percent unemployment. The 21 percent HIV infection rate. The exodus of Zimbabwe's best and brightest. And now a cataclysmic food shortage looms as a result of horrendous rains that devastated the planting of maize.

But the news is not all bad.

Some commercial farmers have been invited to reapply to the government for land. Others are working as behind-the-scenes managers of farms redistributed to blacks. I saw a number of productive, well-run farms and drove past an agricultural estate owned by a Zimbabwean Cabinet minister with a sign at the gate advertising eggs for sale.

A substantial portion of the population is being supported by remittances from about 1 million Zimbabweans abroad.

And the rains that ruined maize planting created lush grazing pastures: In a few months there will be meat from now-skinny cows and goats (if anyone can afford it).