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

Thoughts from a Petrol Queue

Long lines of cars waiting for fuel that rarely arrive form a strange subculture, with engine-less vehicles joining the queue, and street kids sleeping in Mercedes.
By IWPR

I have been waiting for the past 48 hours in a "fuquel". Don’t reach for the dictionary yet - in Zimbabwe, the words "fuel" and "queue" are so closely interconnected that the words have fused together.


So what exactly is a fuquel? It's a queue at a petrol station that has no fuel to sell. Like every other petrol station across the country, it has not received any fuel for two weeks or so.


But because its storage tanks have been empty for so long, we desperate motorists delude ourselves into thinking we might get lucky and find ourselves in the right place when there is a delivery.


The lack of petrol is because of the crippling shortage of foreign exchange resulting from a sharp decline in export earnings, an international donor community suffering both fatigue and irritation, and the International Monetary Fund's withdrawal of funding to support the balance of payments.


The National Oil Company, a state-owned monopoly, is finding it hard to import petroleum because its debt to foreign companies more than 80 million US dollars and growing.


Our once-rich tobacco industry has collapsed, but the small amount that is still grown cannot get to market because the farmers have no petrol for their trucks.


Even Air Zimbabwe flights are grounded because of fuel shortages. More than 100,000 bus drivers and crews have been laid off because there is no diesel for their vehicles. Education is collapsing because teachers either cannot get to school, or have joined the fuquel.


The reason I am in this particular fuquel is that the last time it received any petrol was two weeks ago. S, I reckon it's high time for another delivery. I have been here for two whole days and nights.


The length of each fuquel ranges from a handful of cars to hundreds. Some are five kilometres long. If a filling station has only just run out, most of the motorists will drive away in search of a better prospect.


But even then a few will remain – the cars with no engines. This bizarre concept is purely Zimbabwean - in any given fuquel, at least ten of the cars are mere shells, in which only the petrol tanks are still intact. They belong to the black marketeers, a patient and resourceful lot who can win great rewards. After pushing the car bodies along for a few days in the queue, they will eventually get them filled up. Then they will drain the tanks off into jerry cans, and rejoin the queue.


The black market requires a short course in mathematics, but we Zimbabweans are experts by necessity because of runaway inflation which sees prices changing every day, sometimes every hour.


The pump price of one litre of petrol is 10,000 Zimbabwean dollars, but on the black market it will fetch anything up to 70,000. So for a 40-litre tank, the traders pay 400,000 dollars but will earn as much as 2.8 million. That will at least pay their rent and buy them a few groceries.


The fuquel brings rich and poor together. The flashy cars – Mercedes, Pajero 4x4s, that kind of thing – belong to guys aged between 28 and 40. They dress in the latest fashions, and carry several mobile phones which ring continuously, so that their owners have to juggle them to answer them all.


But these men don’t spend the night here. Instead, they hire street kids to sleep in the cars and to push the vehicles forward if the fuquel begins to move. They themselves sleep in the comfort of hotels and lodges.


The ordinary guys in the fuquels drive 20-year-old Peugeots, Datsuns and Mazdas, but they have their own fun. They spend most of the waiting time in the pub drinking lager, maize beer or the cheaper spirits. The pubs close at 1030 in the evening, but the men don’t go home. They pick up prostitutes and take them back to the fuquel to "keep the cold away".


When the fuquels started, some six months back, people at first stood around in groups discussing politics.


“Mugabe has failed this great country,” the conversation would begin. They would hold forth on how President Robert Mugabe has proved such a disappointment after leading the country to relative prosperity. Then they would discuss the prospects of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change party.


But now the fuqueller are suffering from politics fatigue, and spend the time reading about their favourite football teams in the newspapers. The national team, the Warriors, are doing well for a change, and stand a good chance of qualifying for the African Nations Cup finals in Egypt and the World Cup finals in Germany next year. There is almost universal agreement that the only good news to come out of Zimbabwe in the past five years is the Warriors.


All fuquellers agree that Zimbabwe's cricket team, on the other hand, is a national disgrace and say their grandmothers could bat, bowl and field better.


The war in Iraq is a big story among fuquellers, who generally supported the regime Saddam Hussein. Why this sympathy? Mugabe has always hated the West, particularly America, and this has rubbed off on most Zimbabweans, including my fellow fuquellers. Because the Seventies war of liberation is still in living memory, Zimbabweans remember American policy towards the black fighters whom they called terrorists.


But in plain contradiction, Zimbabweans admire American technological feats. The fortunes of the latest Space Shuttle flight were followed very keenly here, and the lines of petrol-starved motorists were alive with would-be astronauts.


Another man in the queue has read on the internet that in the far-off town of Mutare, police bullied their way to the front of a fuquel after a petrol delivery. He tells us how riot cops with dogs were called in after our fellow-fuquellers threatened to beat up the police bullies.


Someone gets fed up and leaves his car to go off for a beer or two. We all laugh when he says he is not worried in the slightest about his car’s safety. “I doubt that any car thief will manage to get enough petrol to fill it and steal it while I’m in the pub,” he says.


But excuse me - I have to go. There's a petrol tanker arriving, and the queue-jumping is about to begin. The drivers of shared taxi buses are highly skilled at aggressively pushing in to the front of the queue, and they are at it already.


Benedict Unendoro is the pseudonym of a IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.