Tiller Maringa and Tanaka Mahanya
Mbare Musika bus terminus nestled in one of Harare’s oldest high-density suburbs, Mbare, is a melting pot that never runs out of things to do.
From second-hand clothes traders, women selling takeaway food, touts, crawling babies and conmen, the long-distance bus terminus rarely rests.
It is Wednesday morning and young children play games near a “river” of burst sewage on the periphery of the long-distance bus terminus.
The place is noisy. From rumbling unmaintained bus engines, to human traffic, the noise is somewhat ear-splitting.
The only way to be heard is for those going about their business to shout at the top of their voices.
Here, “zvigunduru”, squatters and money changers prowl the bus terminus in search of food and fortune alike.
Fake mineral water, juice
One of the male squatters is holding a huge plastic bag packed with used empty 500ml plastic water containers.
The man slowly approaches a group of potential female customers, says something inaudible and money exchanges hands.
Moments later, one of the women fills the containers with tap water. We learn she will pass off the water as mineral water to unsuspecting customers in the capital’s Central Business District (CBD).
At the bus terminus, some vendors pack fake orange juice in branded bottles passing them off as the real deal. It only takes the travellers one sip to know they have been duped. Many fights have broken out when such fraudsters are caught.
The area near the public toilets is engulfed in a strong stench of urine, rotten fruits, decomposing garbage and exhaust fumes from buses nearby.
At the terminus, people catch buses to all parts of the country from far flung areas like Chidodo, Senga, Victoria Falls, Plumtree, even to neighbouring countries like Bostwana.
The only functional free public toilet is always filthy as most travellers require its services burdening it with their waste.
The three pay toilets charge $4, which hard-pressed citizens cannot afford.
Some touts often do uncanny things that include relieving themselves in empty plastic bottles, between parked buses, and on walls. Human waste wrapped in plastics, and buzzing flies swarm some parts of the bus terminus.
On islands that used to house bus shelters are cash vendors with distinct “cash out” signs written.
Heaps of coins ranging from $2 and $5 and notes in the form of $2 and $5 are neatly arranged on wooden tables.
There is a rush for their services. The cash vendors offer reasonable cash out rates, ranging from 20 percent for coins to 25 percent for notes.
We meet a female squatter, Mai Gamu. She is holding a 20 litre bucket and moves around the terminus in circles as if in search of the long lost lonchess monster. They have no access to water as the borehole they fetched water from was closed.
She claims council closed the borehole over unpaid fees. As such, she cannot wash her clothes, bath and do other chores in her small shack.
“They want money from us, and until we pay, we will not have water anytime soon,” says Mai Gamu.
Tea, bread and butter
Early mornings are a hive of activity. Touts run for sweet, hot tea with huge pieces of buttered bread.
It’s first come first served and those who arrive late eat plain bread with black tea.
As soon as tea service ends, $20 plates of sadza and chicken intestines, fried eggs soaked in “ponds” of soup start exchanging hands. Regular customers without money are given food on credit based on trust they will pay later.
Most of the “restaurants” are situated along sheds in the terminus built with timber, plastics and card boxes.
Sheds are packed and disfigured in structure. Some of them are close to the public toilets.
Near the bus terminus is the busy Mbare Musika wholesale and retail vegetable markets. At the wholesale market, vendors start trickling as early as 3am, buying fresh farm produce for resale from farmers.
It is a hive of activity as cash changes hands faster than a bolt of lightning.
Heaps of left over tomatoes, and other rotten vegetables from previous days decompose, bringing out a horrible odour. The area is a congested mess.
“Huya utore tsunga yese (come and get all the mustard greens),” shout most of them as a way of attracting customers.
From a distant, voices of touts looking for commuters can be heard around the same time as they pick up passengers to different destinations.
Even those who do not intend to board the buses are mobbed, luggage pulled from all directions.
The touts have devised strategies to lure commuters to their buses.
First, they organise themselves into groups, with some of them acting as thieves in the midst of commuters, while others act as “messiahs” to the masses.
“Pindai mubhazi sistren munobirwa (board the bus my sister, otherwise thieves will steal your belongings),” says one tout pretending to save the woman from “thieves”.
It is organised chaos to lure commuters onto the bus. We board a bus plying the Gokwe route. It is filthy, from dust to plastics on the seats and floor. The windows are closed and an unpleasant odour welcomes passengers.
Despite the smell, passengers seem to enjoy doughnuts which are as long as their arms. These seem to be everyone’s favourite.
Crime, pick pockets, swindlers
Thieves take advantage of the huge population to pick- pocket from unsuspecting travellers or shoppers.
The crooks “welcome” new comers to Harare in style.
“People coming from the rural areas are frequently left stranded after being conned of all their belongings; they leave their goods with strangers as they visit rooms of convenience”, said a vendor identified as Dadza. The place is also known as the hub of swindlers.
Some of the passengers are conned of their belongings by some who pretend to be vendors and travellers.
“Fortunately, the police station is inside the bus terminus and they are doing their level best to save our clients from thieves,” said Inter Africa operations manager Robert Mukumba.
Vendors pretend to be engaging in conversations with passengers, and steal some of their belongings on their way out.
Such instances do not surprise Mbare residents anymore.
Pushcart operators have their “niche market” targeting commuters travelling to and from rural areas.
The pushcart operators are easy to spot. They are muscular, wear dirty, torn clothes and always stand near their carts.
Fares range between $10 to $15 depending on distance to be covered and quantity of luggage. Loading and offloading luggage on top of buses is also a paying job but only requires the physically fit.
Those in this trade pocket up to $200 per conventional bus with smaller bus companies offering to pay up to $300. We hear some noise and head to the source.
A fight has erupted between two push cart operators over a customer, who they both claim is their “catch”.
People nearby chant for them to continue the fight until one of them wins it.
When the two are done fighting, the customer is long gone. There is a police station nearby, but the huge number of criminals outnumbers police officers.
It is survival of the fittest!
A lady selling fresh vegetables sits by the roadside, waiting for customers in the blazing sun. She seems not to pay any attention to her three-year-old child who strays and disappears in the crowd.
She only notices the child had strayed when another vendor returns her.
Another 5-month-old baby is sleeping underneath a table, and as soon as she wakes up, crawls to the heap of baggage nearby.
“I do not have anyone to leave the child with at home, so I bring her here,” says the mother Anna Madamombe.
Car wash business
Youths from a nearby car park fetch water from a burst pipe to wash cars.
They pocket up to $15 per car. On average, they wash eight cars.
As night falls, the other face of the terminus awakes and business continues as usual.
Ladies of the night stand on most corners and streets, attracting potential clients who include touts, bus drivers and vendors.
A prostitute tries her luck and as soon as she notices no one is interested, she goes to the next car. Many other activities, especially criminal, take place as the blinding darkness thickens.
Others after a long day’s work count their day’s takings at home as they wait to return at the break of dawn.
By now we are satisfied. This is no place for the faint-hearted.