HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Poor and desperate Zimbabweans hang out in Harare's crowded low-end betting halls, placing stakes as little as U.S. 20 cents on world soccer matches and international horse and dog races with fervent hopes of getting quick returns on their bit of cash.
The gambling intensified in January, when many families were cash-strapped after year-end spending and children's school fees were due. Many short of cash responded by flocking to Harare's downtown licensed betting shops in search of a windfall. Five new betting agencies opened in the capital in the past year, frequented primarily by poor men.
At one, unemployed 28-year-old Tinashe Marira said he spends his days gambling on soccer matches and depends on sporadic winnings to feed his family and elderly parents.
He won $140 from a $5 wager on a soccer match and rushed out to buy long-overdue groceries.
Although he doesn't win all the time, Marira declared gambling is now his full-time job and won't be looking for formal employment again anytime soon.
"This pays better than any job I could ever find," Marira told The Associated Press after his shopping spree.
Zimbabwe's already high unemployment rate, estimated at more than 80 percent, increased in the past year when hundreds of companies shut down. The country's economic crisis has deepened since long-time President Robert Mugabe, who will turn 90 in February, won re-election in July.
Factories in the once bustling industrial zones in the main cities are eerily silent. Job seekers on foot in the scorching heat are turned away. Railroad tracks once used by trains to ferry in raw materials and supplies are now overgrown with weeds.
The jobless drift into to Harare, the capital, to look for opportunities to make money and many end up selling vegetables, trinkets and mobile phone airtime on the street. Forty-six percent of Zimbabwe's 13 million people now survive by running such informal businesses, according to the World Bank.
Both young and elderly unemployed say gambling is a way of making money.
"It is a relief to many unemployed people roaming the streets," said Roger Tekwa, 46, another regular at the betting shop.
"Gambling here is done with seriousness coupled with a sad desperation," said Harry Ndlovu, bookmaker and manager at Zimbets, a downtown betting shop that provides, along with slot machines, an array of sporting events to bet on including televised horse and dog races, European soccer matches and virtual video roulette.
A subdued atmosphere engulfs the shop; there is no animated chatter. At one end elderly patrons sit at tables in pairs whispering betting tips to each other and occasionally breaking off to watch horse races on giant TV screens. At the other end, a huddle of younger men is deeply engrossed in an English league soccer match. The somber mood is suddenly broken by boisterous cheers of youths celebrating a goal.
"These people don't bet for fun, for them it's a desperate search for money to pay for household expenses," Ndlovu said.
He said many gamblers try to play it safe, placing $1 bets on several games to maximize their chances of winning. Their fear of losing is palpable and some walk away sad and dejected after a bad day, he said.
"After losing a couple of times, they don't come back for a while," Ndlovu said.
Others are rash and gamble away all their cash away and resort to begging for money to get home. One daring gambler, feeling lucky after a previous win on a virtual roulette game, wagered $3,000 meant for wages at his company and lost it all. He was later arrested and is now serving a prison term, Ndlovu said.
"The thrill of just thinking of the possibility to become what they always dreamed of makes them take reckless chances," he said.
Ndlovu told the Associated Press that he can take up to $50,000 in cash on bets in a single month and pays out about 40 percent of that in winnings to gamblers.
The young men, like Marira, say they feel confident to bet on top flight English soccer matches that are popular in Zimbabwe because they are familiar the team stars and their form.
"You nearly always get something from soccer. We know the game," Marira said.
Older betters stick to what feel they know best — horse racing, which has a long tradition in southern Africa.
Jonathan Muchenje, 44, said he has always dreamed of owning a big house and a top-of-range car for him and his family.
A security guard for a local company, Muchenje placed $15 in bets on several international and regional horse races being screened live.
So far, five of his predictions have come through, he waits for the sixth one to hit the big jackpot and win what he describes as "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to enable him to "give his family a better life."
It's his birthday and he is optimistic. But after the race is run, he is crestfallen that once again his hopes have been dashed.
"I will come back again next week and keep trying; I was so close," Muchenje said. "Who knows? Maybe next time."