Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Professionals Join Ranks of Street Hawkers

Skilled workers forced to abandon their careers in order to make ends meet.
By IWPR Srdan
In the face of hardship, Zimbabweans from all walks of life have learnt creative survival skills which a few years ago would have invited ridicule.

From standing for hours in the long, winding queues for basic commodities to hawking all sorts of wares, Zimbabwean professionals have grown used to doing just about anything - except the jobs for which they were trained - to get that extra dollar to see them through the day.

Everybody seems to be buying and selling something, as nurses, artisans and teachers join other vendors in making journeys to remote rural areas to buy items like dried fish and mopani larvae - a traditional African delicacy - for resale in the city.

“This has enabled parents to send children to school. But this is something I would never have imagined doing,” said Frank Ndebele, a teacher who quit his rural school this year and now sells mopani larvae.

“I buy a few bars of soap which I trade in for the fish and mopani larvae. The rural people have no way to afford the prices of these commodities and it makes sense for all parties - I leave with fish and they get the soap.”

Ndebele also keeps a small chicken run in his backyard where he is trying his hand at poultry farming.

Zimbabwe’s recession has seen underpaid professionals ditching their jobs for the informal sector, where many now spend their time chasing shady deals and ducking law enforcement officers.

In the past, women would earn extra cash by forming “clubs” where funds would be pooled together each month and deposited into the bank account of one member. The money would gather interest and members would then share savings accrued at the end of the year.

But with Zimbabwe’s voracious inflation having massively dented people’s savings, most clubs have now ceased to function. However, some enterprising women have found new ways to beat inflation and keep their clubs going.

“Instead of putting the money in the bank, we now buy foreign currency which does not lose value like the local dollar. At the end of the year, we either change it into the local currency so we give members what is due to them or we send someone across the border to buy our groceries,” said Sandra Nyoni, who is the brains behind the scheme.

“This country has taught us how to survive or else our children would surely starve.”

Few people in this city of about two million are willing to carry out transactions in the volatile local dollar. Currencies from neighbouring Botswana and South Africa now dominate all forms of monetary transactions, from buying a mobile phone to paying rent.

While the authorities say this practice is illegal, this has not stopped trade in foreign currency. In their pursuit of much-needed foreign exchange, the Reserve Bank and cash-strapped power utility Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority, ZESA, are splashing billions of so-called bearer cheques on the informal market, allegedly fuelling the fall of the Zimbabwe dollar even further.

The millions of Zimbabweans without access to foreign currency feel the pain of hyperinflation the most. Those managing to get by have found ways to make ends meet from black-market trade.

Thabani Shoniwa buys a 50 kilogramme bag of maize meal directly from the Grain Marketing Board, GMB, at a subsidised price of about 20 million Zimbabwe dollars (about three US dollars on the black market). He then makes up small five kg packets of meal that he sells for anything up to 15 million Zimbabwe dollars.

Nearby, in the city’s oldest suburb of Makokoba, a notorious haven for criminals, a vendor siphons cooking oil from a 750 millilitre bottle to a tiny 250 ml one - just enough to prepare one meal for a family of six - which she sells for a million dollars (a street value of about 16 US cents).

The Zimbabwean government accuses black market traders of fuelling inflation - which official statistics now put at 66,212 per cent. However, the ongoing economic decline means that basic commodities are only available on the streets at exorbitant prices.

As national elections loom, President Robert Mugabe - who turns 84 this month - continues to display his trademark resilience and shows no intention of stepping down. But observers warn that deepening poverty and disease are igniting an anger that might just see the country turning into another Kenya, which saw an eruption of violence following disputed presidential elections at the end of last year.

A sociologist who teaches at Hillside Teachers College, Bulawayo, told IWPR that the high levels of frustration being experienced by young people in particular could erupt with the slightest provocation.

“The frustration we are seeing is dangerous as we approach elections,” he warned. “All these people seem to know who has caused them this much misery, and because of the elections, we can only hope that the outcome won’t trigger the anger that has been building up for years now.”

Yamikani Mwando is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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