Harare and its vendors, what is a city but people?
Ignatius Mabasa Shelling The Nuts
I can assure you that we will soon be buying live chickens, goats and sheep in the city centre because anything is possible with these people.
William Shakespeare once asked, “What is a city but people?” Yet, “Sheer numbers do not make a community either rural or urban,” according to one Gordon Eriksen in his book Urban Behaviour, “but numbers plus a kind of behaviour.”
But what kind of behaviour?
Obviously overcrowding, facelessness, noise, littering, chaos, crime, coming and going, loitering, rushing, meetings, visiting, survival, buying and selling, among others.
So the city is many people, unlike kumusha where sekuru can spend the whole day herding cattle with his thin dog and without seeing a single person.
Albert McClellan in his book “Look, Look, the Cities!” says; “People are the city, people meeting other people, passing, smiling, talking, frowning, one after another all day long. Some are met again and again, others seen but once.”
So if people are the city, or if the city is many people, should we be making a lot of noise about the many vendors that have invaded Harare?
I think we should make a hell lot of noise about the vendors because they are a chaotic and inconsiderate lot.
They are rude, selfish and terrible noise-makers as they try to outdo each other.
The vendors of Harare, Zimbabwe’s Sunshine City, are painfully in your face and obstructive. Because they have taken up almost all the pavements, they will not allow you to walk or go into a shop freely without accosting you.
As you try to avoid their wares and tables, you keep bumping into other confined pedestrians. Walking in Harare has become so frustrating. Literally, the vendors have managed to strangle and physically change the appearance of the city in such a very short space of time.
Their presence and dominance has been photographed, reported, discussed, interpreted, analysed and criticised – but these desperate and defiant citizens will not budge. Instead, they seem to be increasing in numbers and introducing new things to sell.
These vendors are keeping Harare awake for real as they sell their stuff until very late into the night when pubs vomit out their patrons. Now that the Harare council is saying it is “not mainly going to chase out people” but instead “work with the vendors” because “engagement is the way to go,” I can assure you that we will soon be buying live chickens, goats and sheep in the city centre because anything is possible with these people.
It’s not that vending is the only thing that is happening in Harare and Zimbabwe that is drawing crowds.
The prophets too are drawing bumper crowds to their mega churches.
And I am sure there are a lot of other worrying things happening away from the eyes and ears of inquisitive and observant journalists, but the vendor invasion of the city of Harare has gone viral to ignore.
The vendors of Harare have been in the news more than the things that usually make news. Whether the vendors know that they are in the news or not, I am not sure because they seem not to care.
I also think that to them, buying a newspaper is a luxury they can’t afford because touting instead of reading is what brings them a dollar. Actually, only a few of the vendors own the stuff that they are selling.
The majority are “runners” or employees of some boss whose major task is sourcing and procuring, and collecting profit from sales at the end of the day. This brings me to the problem I have with the hawkers.
To me the problem is not in their numbers, but in their behaviour. The manner in which the vendors have colonised and are choking the pavements and any small space that looks free reminds me of the invasions in the Bible that are likened to locusts.
One book in the Bible graphically describes how the Amalekites “would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number – both they and their camels could not be counted – so they laid waste the land as they came in.”
The vendors in Harare come in the morning tugging boxes, sacks, bales and bags.
Some come in hired taxis, cars, kombis and push-carts.
Some use their cars as shops, offices and places to pee in containers which they eventually toss onto the pavements or place under their cars.
I pity the City of Harare cleaners because some of the stuff that they have to deal with is disgusting. Some of these containers are dumped in storm drains which eventually feed water sources.
While the City of Harare said it is not going to chase the vendors away, I really wonder what measures they will put in place for more affordable ablution facilities.
Last year we saw the terrible consequence of poor waste management and of letting vendors use storm drains to hide goods and to dump waste.
When it rained, the streets of Harare were flooded and people had to wade in the swirling dirty waters.
Right now the recently installed and beautiful metal sculptures by the footbridge area along Julius Nyerere Street in front of the Town House are being used as bins and they are choking with rubbish.
I have discovered that there are some vendors that are now putting up in the city so as to save transport money.
In all this competition and desperation to earn a dollar, I pity the blind beggar sitting in the dust, hunched like the capital letter G.
Who will notice her and her old cracked yellow plate? Who will hear her strained voice calling out, “Ndiyamureiwo vanhu vaMwari?”
This colourful urban land appropriation by vendors is chaotic and noisy.
The vendors selling rat and cockroach rat poison have managed to upstage the commuter omnibus touts in noise-making. Mushonga unouraya mapete nemakonzo ipapo ipapo! In a nation where people have become so impatient about almost everything – the promise to have rats and cockroaches exterminated instantly sounds good to the ear.
The economy may not be looking good, but the presence of all these vendors tells me there is money in the country.
Vendors have taken over the city, but vendors don’t exist where there are no buyers.
With all these vendors in Harare, the economists must certainly be baffled.
To the economists, a city is factories, stores and government. Yet, the stuff most of our vendors are selling is not produced in our factories.
The stuff vendors are selling is not inside stores, but outside and in front of the shops that pay the city council licences and fees.
Where is the government and local government, and should they partner with people who are killing local factories and stores? Could it be true that there are some people who are benefitting from the madness?
Even if the politicians see all these people as potential votes, they should know that there are high chances that these are not locally registered voters.
If they are registered as voters, they will not vote anyone into power who will threaten their livelihoods by taking action against them. Perhaps that is why city council is talking of taxing the vendors $1 each a day.
Yet I worry that these vendors are becoming a powerful political constituency that so far has succeeded in “overwhelming” the city council and seriously compromising its sunshine city by 20 something slogan!
Generally, cities are associated with certain cultures and characteristics which are mainly derived from its sights and sounds.
In Europe, Vienna means music; Milan, opera; Paris, art and Literature. The cities are the pulse and life of civilization.
Yet we cannot have City of Harare allowing vendors to create a new culture where what we become known for is selling second hand clothes and all sorts of paraphernalia everywhere and anyhow.
Cities are a result of social forces prevailing at any given time and the vendor problem in Harare is more than a political, economic and survival game. While cities are active creators that shape concepts and values, the question for Harare is whose concepts and whose values and with what effect?
If cities can print their influence not only upon their citizens, but upon all who mingle with them, then Harare is experiencing a revolution that will ultimately kill something that has always been synonymous with the city. Harare was beauty, orderliness and peace of mind personified, but I now hate that place!