Harare is a hustle and bustle, especially in the central business district, with all sorts of activities taking place almost 24/7 despite the worsening economic situation in the country, which has left most people with little or no disposable incomes.
A Malawian national, Yvonne, in a recent visit to the city, found it to have quite a “convenient” night life.
Running away from an expensive dinner at a local hotel, Yvonne sauntered into the streets of Harare, dreading she would not find anything to eat since the clock was now ticking towards 10pm.
But much to her surprise, she discovered something bizarre, yet exciting.
In one street, she saw scores of people lined down the pavement, each with a makeshift gas or charcoal-powered grilling pan.
Cooking in the pans were a variety of foodstuffs — from chicken livers to pig testicles and chicken feet, while roasting on improvised charcoal heaters, popularly known as tsotso stoves, were fresh mealie cobs.
After buying her favourite roasted mealies and chicken gizzards, she left for her hotel room. For the entire week that Yvonne was in Harare, she ate from the stalls and fell in love with the city’s odd status, quietly hoping Lilongwe would have such convenience.
But for locals, what Yvonne saw as convenience was in fact the result of the worsening poverty and unemployment levels that have seen more vendors resorting to selling anything and anywhere in the city centre at night when the municipal and state police, who haunt them during the day, would have retired for the day.
In addition to those selling various foodstuffs, apparently with no regard for basic hygiene standards, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors all over the city centre selling anything from needles to second-hand clothes, fruits, sex enhancers and cosmetics products.
As soon as the sun begins to set and municipal police put down their sjamboks, vendors start to emerge, one by one, with each claiming their territory on the pavements and any free space until they spill into some of the outer lanes of major roads.
Some lay their products on the pavements and streets while others, mostly the fruit vendors, bring hand-drawn carts to enable them to easily navigate around the city from one spot to another.
Others sell their products from car trunks and truck trailers.
All of them use battery-powered torches for lighting — given that most of the streets in Harare are unlit, owing to decades of dilapidation.
Downtown, particularly and rather ironically Robert Mugabe Way — named after the 92-year-old Zanu PF leader, whose 36-year rule has taken Zimbabwe’s economy to the graveyard — has the highest number of vendors.
The one-way street, which runs from the Kopje area, is left with only one navigable lane for motorists between Harare and Fourth streets, where there is the highest concentration of vendors.
To add to the chaos, commuter omnibus crews move their buses out of designated ranks into the major streets to solicit for passengers in a rather haphazard way.
Known for being some of the worst road users, kombi drivers and their crews disregard road rules, much to the nightmare of drivers in private vehicles who will be forced to use any necessary defensive driving skills to avoid colliding with kombis.
But what drives vendors into the streets at night?
According to various vendors interviewed by this paper, the night trading is driven by the desire to maximise on the absence of municipal police and to target those who are in the city at night.
Fortunate Phiri (26) travels 20km from her Epworth home into the city centre at around 5:30pm everyday to sell second-hand clothes.
She says she has to be punctual in order to find time to make a reconnaissance of the best trading place for the day.
“I change places depending on which part of town there is likely to be more people,” she says.It’s all based on instinct, she adds.
Today is a Friday and she is at the corner of Rezende Street and Robert Mugabe Way, a busy intersection that faces one of the popular night clubs, The Razzles, perched on the first floor of Hotel Elizabeth.
Tonight at the Razzles, the disc-jockey is playing the politically charged anti-repression Leonard Zhakata’s Mubikira; unusual in this type of club, but sounding so much like a soundtrack to the sad story of the vendors lined downstairs.
Phiri is a mother to a girl. Her husband, who has a day job at a local construction company but has not been paid for the past four months, alternates baby-sitting roles with her.
“Things are getting tougher each day and with my husband not getting anything, I have to work harder,” she said, adding that she was actually happy that despite being unpaid, her husband was still in formal employment in a country where over 85% are out of employment, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.
“He will continue to work because that means the company owes us the salaries and someday they will give him his dues. It is better than being at home. I can cover some expenses with the money from vending”
Her second-hand clothes tonight mainly consist of men’s and ladies’ shorts that are selling from $5 each going downwards.
As we discuss, a customer stops by and scans through Phiri’s products.
Phiri immediately springs into action, and picks three pairs of shorts and waves them in the face of the man, rather awkwardly, as she charms him to buy.
“Ma5 chete kwalaz plus style ka kana maiguru kumba uku vanonakirwa nawo maapfeka,” [they are going for $5 and they are of good quality and they are stylish too, even your wife will like them].
The man bargains until he buys two at half the price and still Phiri is in the profit zone, having calculated that she breaks even at $1 per pair of shorts.
With a smile on her face, she stuffs the money into her purse. She is on course to make the $10 profit that she targets daily.
“At night, I have the potential to make the most money as there are no bribe-seeking municipal police and back at home, I also sell my stuff during the day after I have rested and done my chores,” she said.
Although she could not reveal the source of her products given that government recently banned the importation of second-hand clothes, conversations with other vendors revealed that the clothes — which come in bales from western countries — are mainly sourced via the porous Mozambican border.
According to the vendors, there is a sophisticated network of “politically-connected people” who bring the bales via the many unofficial crossing points to Mozambique and work in cahoots with the officials who guard the border.
This paper could not independently verify these claims.
In addition to the bales, the vendors at night also sell some of the banned products like skin lightening creams and grocery items that were recently banned from being imported into the country under Statutory Instrument 64 of 2016.
In what appears to confirm the hand of some senior political figures in the sale of prohibited goods, many of the vendors refused to talk about the source of their products, with some simply saying, “ndezvevakuru izvi zvinonetsa kutaura nezvazvo” [These belong to the big fish, so it is not easy to talk about it].
Far from the controversy of the source of their products, the vendors, according to the survey this paper carried out, are mostly unemployed people desperate to make a living off any means.
Like Phiri, many of them come to the city centre at dusk and sell their products until the early hours of the morning.
They then retire on the pavements till morning when they can find transport to get home.
This reporter witnessed hundreds of vendors, mostly women, tucked in their blankets, sleeping on the pavements and waiting for another day.
Interestingly, some of them still had their products lined up, as they slept, seemingly unworried about the chance of thieves stealing their goods.
“We have strength in numbers. No-one dares steal from us,” said one elderly woman.
For them, perhaps the biggest hazard is the unavailability of ablution facilities, with many of them either pleading with security guards to allow them to use the facilities on the premises they guard.
“Often, we end up using some of the alleys,” added the woman.
Harare mayor Ben Manyenyeni said while the number of vendors was worsening on the back of a dying economy, bolstered by the jostle for festive Christmas trading, his council was approaching the issue with consideration of the unfortunate circumstances the vendors had found themselves in as they struggle to survive.
Manyenyeni said this had slowed down their attempts to enforce the city by-laws.
“The human survival side to this crisis is quite strong among us as the city fathers….It certainly has slowed down our enforcement intentions,” said Manyenyeni.