Last night I sat nursing a brown bottle of Castle in a little restaurant called the Tam Tam in central Harare. As I was paying my bill, I jokingly said to the waiter that I was in a hurry, that I had to get to the airport. He looked at me enviously and said that he wished he were, too. I asked him where he’d go if could leave right then and there. He replied: “Anywhere but here.”
He’s trapped in this nightmare place along with countless other Zimbabweans reeling under the weight of poverty, hopelessness, and simmering anger. Earlier that day, I’d tried to get my car tires pumped up. Most of the service stations have stopped operating since they no longer have any fuel. No fuel means no oil. And no air, either. I asked an idle petrol attendant where I could get some air. Pointing across the road, he said, “Try those guys under the tree.” I looked and saw a group of men sitting on concrete blocks fixing tires under a sprawling jacaranda tree. I turned to the petrol attendant and asked whether they charged for air. “Of course,” he said, “but you must just negotiate.” In Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, even air comes at a price.
Chatting with a friend at the bar, I asked her what she would pay for air. She said she reckoned she’d be damned if she’d pay anything at all. That works for her; she’s got a bicycle and a pump. But with my front tire sagging, I’m going to have to pay. Over our beer we got to talking about what we can’t buy in regular shops, what we’re forced to buy on the burgeoning black market, and what we’re buying out of guilt. Instead of lining the shelves in supermarkets, sugar, salt, and cooking oil are stacked up in the dust on the side of the road. As you drive by, roadside entrepreneurs whistle and shout pointing their fingers vigorously at their stashes. The black market can satisfy all your needs—at a price, of course. Meanwhile, thousands of Zimbabweans continue to try to survive honestly and with dignity. Vendors crowd the streets selling tomatoes, prickly pears, magnificent bunches of green leafy rape; plastic pouches filled with multicolored cool drinks sit in neat piles on rickety old wooden planks that straddle piles of bricks. Earning a living in Zimbabwe is desperately difficult these days.
At shopping centers, my guilt at having more than others forces me to come up with new and different ways of avoiding the increasing number of beggars, street kids, car guards, and People Who Sell Everything. There’s this really old guy who must be over 90. He’s got one yellow tooth left in his slack mouth, and his hair is a knot of shocking white. He sells spoons. Wooden cooking spoons ideal for stirring sadza—a starchy porridge that is the staple food for Zimbabweans—until it’s perfectly cooked. And the other day I came face to face with a vendor who told me his name was Steven. He was peddling painted plates. Beautifully illustrated and carefully crafted. When I declined, shaking my head in a weary “no,” his face fell. But he pressed on saying that his daughter had a head the size of a pumpkin. She needed to have an operation the following day. To make her right. And beautiful again.
I need money. Please buy a plate.
The ruses that are used to bring in a few dollars a day are becoming more and more creative and elaborate. Only minutes before, I had fielded a request from a boy who looked about 9 at best. He trolls the shopping center with clipboard and sponsor form in hand asking for money for a rugby tour. Meanwhile, plain old ugly hunger looks like its winning the game with him.
I eventually found a service station that was open and still had an air pump. I pulled in and a young guy walked over to give me a hand. “You’re lucky,” he said, “your tire’s nearly flat.” We talked awhile about whether he’d have a job next month because of the fuel shortage, which means that’s it’s likely that his place of work will close down.
“Go well, go Shell,” he said smiling cynically as I drove off.