Friday, April 21, 2006

Street friend

I consider Simon as my friend. We sort of hang out together each time we bump into each other in town. He's much shorter than me, which of course is explained by the fact that he's much much younger than me. We both live in Zimbabwe so that gives us a lot in common. But Simon practically survives on the streets. Though he doesn't necessarily sleep on the street at night, his life is a life lived on the pavements of Harare's central business district. The last time I met him, which is now a while ago, he wanted some money to buy a school trousers.

Simon and I go back together a number of years. He was not yet of school going age when we met. Now he's grade 3 or 4. So hows life for Simon like? Each time I think about it, I cannot even start to image how it must be for him. He once narrated (still with all the childhood innocence) to me how he got arrested during the days of the clean-up operation. He told me how he had to sneak out and run when he got a chance. That day he had walked from Epworth into town, now, I'm not too good at estimating distances, but it should be at least 10km outside town. Seeing that Simon is probably 8 – 9 years old, you cannot help but ask why?

Simon didn't choose to be on the street. He didn't choose to beg for a living instead of doing what every other 8/9 year old should be doing. I don't even think Simon dreams about what 8/9 year olds are supposed to dream. Simon now knows who is likely to leave him something when he begs. He knows which shops he's not allowed to enter, and which corners of the street are the most 'fertile'. Simon thinks in money. He is my friend. He knows if I have something to give I will give. He knows he doesn't have to ask me to give him money, but each time we hang around together, he'll still try to sweet talk me into giving.

Simon was telling me how life has become tougher now. More and more people have 'taken to the streets' for survival, and its not accommodation that's any issue, it's just more and more people can barely survive without an income. People are now giving less, Simon says. Simon raises his own school fees, and money to feed him, his brother, sister and grandmother from what people are willing to give. So, though Simon doesn't pay any taxes, he's employed and already burdened with responsibilities to look after the family, just like you me, only that Simon is a street beggar by profession and he's 8 years old.

Simon's grandmother by the way, sits at some corner, not really begging, but waiting. She waits for Simon to go round begging and bring all he gets to her 'for safe keeping'. This is a new trend in Harare's street begging tactics. Children are now being (ab)used to beg because, hey, who doesn't feel for the kids? People respond more to kids than adults. So that's why Simon is my friend, that's why he stays on the streets until 9, 10 or even 11pm on school nights. Isn't Simon's future already destroyed? Haven't we already taken away his innocence?

I wonder if Simon can grow up to be a doctor, or a computer geek, with all the iPods, mp3 players, blackberry enabled cellphones and all that stuff? Will he even know such things exist? Will it be his fault when he ends up a thug or in prison? How many children out there are in a situation like Simon's? Surely someone's to blame... who?

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Hundrend Thousand Dollar Bread

Several times when someone discovers I'm from Zimbabwe, I immediately get questions like, “So, how are you surviving?”, “So, how's Zimbabwe these days?”. How's Zimbabwe? If you are hopeful, your answer to that question, ranges between, “Not so good.” and “Don't ask.”. The price of bread is up again from about $60,000 to at least $88,000, which is not news anymore. I remember a time long ago when bread was 75c, our parents were already not too happy about that price. I remember the discussions in the streets, people reminiscing on the old days, telling us how so cheap bread was back then. Then bread went up to 99c, I remember the boycotts, the complaints people saying we can't get only 1c as change from a dollar after buying bread.

I remember it going up again to $1,50. Those were the days I learnt about strikes, demonstrations and all that people do to let it known that they are not happy about the way things are. Where's this country going, people would ask. Then after that, I lost track, but today I'm getting into a supermarket and bread that was $60k yesterday is now $88k and I don't complain. I look around and I don't see anyone complaining. You dig deeper into those empty pockets and folk out the extra $28k (if you have it) and buy the bread and go home. On the way you might meet your friend going to the shops, you warn him that bread is now $88k. He will say “Ah! Zimbabwe!” and thank you for the warning.

So what the price of bread is up? Unosvikepi uchichema kuti chingwa chakwira? What about everything else that's been going up everyday? With an inflation rate that's has never been imagined before, if you make a fuss about every increase in price, you risk a serious heart attack that can easily be followed by death. Now, it's also not news anymore, doctors rates are up. I heard consultation fees are close to $6,000,000. So getting a heart attack is out of the question.

It's now a trend that hospitals and clinics get a surge in the number of patients when it is a month end. One way of explaining this would be that people tend to get sick towards the end of the month. The real explanation however is that, you cannot afford to get sick any other time of the month. If you do decide to get sick mid-month, you've got to get yourself prepared to nurse yourself until you get paid so that you can afford just the consultation fee.

I know some people who are taking home $6m as their monthly salary. Don't ask me how one survives the whole month with that. I know they commute twice to get to work. Assuming that it costs $50k for them to get into town, and also another $50k from town to work, it means it costs them $200k a day to go to work and back everyday. In a month they spend $4m on transport costs. Here, we just have to assume the impossible and say they don't buy bread at all, then it will take them 3 months to save the $6m consultation fee. And that's just consultation fees, for someone who has not been eating for 3 months. What with the inflation as high as it is? What are your chances of getting to the doctor's in 3 months time to be told that the consultation is up again?

So the next time you walk on the streets and meet people with heads bowed down and whispering to themselves, you know they are feeling what you are feeling. They are suffering the same pain as you, so that loaf of bread you are holding, make the best of it. If it happens that bread goes in short supply while you are still holding it, put a price, any price, and sell it to get the consultation fee.

And if you are in the diaspora, call home and tell them you are sending £100 or US$100 this weekend. Tell them you will do what you can to help. Tell them to buy bread, and keep healthy. Tell them you do not recommend that they get sick.

P.S. Prices quoted in this post are valid only for 12 hours from the time of publishing.

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