Cathy Buckle: How street vendors have emerged as Zimbabwe’s unsung heroes in a time of economic chaos

In the midst of Zimbabwe’s economic turmoil, a chance encounter with a mongoose on a bustling hospital road offers a fleeting sense of hope. Amid skyrocketing medical bills and currency devaluation, everyday life becomes a precarious balancing act. Yet, amidst the chaos, street vendors emerge as unsung heroes, providing warmth, hospitality, and sustenance in a nation teetering on the edge. This letter is a heartfelt tribute to their resilience and indispensable role in keeping Zimbabweans afloat.

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By Cathy Buckle

Slowing down to go over speed humps at the local hospital I watched a slender mongoose running across the very busy road. A beautiful russet brown with a black tipped tail, the mongoose was surely dicing with death but amazingly it made it to safety and immediately disappeared into the shrubbery. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen the little mongoose running across the road here and it always gives a moment of hope, a breath of life in our rapidly deteriorating situation.

Ten days before Easter the message came from the local medical insurance company on my cellphone. ‘Your new bill for April 2024 is 2,91 million dollars,’ it said. Last month it was 2.45 million dollars and in January it had been 1.39 million dollars. Ten days before Easter the street rate for currency exchange was Z$18,000 for one US dollar. The same time in February it was 16,000 to one and in mid-January it had been 11,500 Zimbabwe dollars to one US dollar. Zimbabwe is undeniably in a state of rapid collapse again.

Waiting until just before Easter the rate had crashed again and I changed currency at 25,000 to one in order to pay month end bills. This month, along with everyone else, I got burnt. The exchange rate jumped dramatically from 25,000 Zimbabwe dollars to Z$32,000 overnight; four days later it jumped again to a staggering 40,000 Zim dollars to one US dollar. One moment I had enough money for a month, the next moment I didn’t, simple as that. Just like that Easter was off, completely. Government officials said nothing, did nothing and so, following the example of the mongoose, we all just ran across the road and took our shopping lists to Zimbabwe’s army of unsung heroes on the roadsides.

What an amazing nation we have become after living through twenty-four years of disastrous economic policies. Every day we find ourselves juggling with the priorities of normal life: food, medical and bills – deciding which to cope with from one day to the next. If its bills we pay small amounts off at a time to ease the pressure and let the providers see that we are trying. If its medical we go into a hospital only in dire emergencies and then immediately request a payment plan so that our loved ones can have the emergency life- saving surgery they need before it’s too late. It is a truly terrifying encounter as the surgeon, the physician, the anaesthetist and then the hospital all hold their hands out and say money up front. You beg and borrow what you can and then agree to pay the rest of it off in monthly installments, a terrifying reality of life, and death, in a broken country.

If it’s a food day we go to the street, to the vendors. Shopping couldn’t be nicer, the sellers always warm and welcoming, greeting you as if you were a long-lost friend, going out of their way to let you touch, feel and choose every single item you want to buy. Nothing is too much trouble and you are treated with such respect and thanked profusely for your business. Under the vendors home-made tables their kids are there playing in the dust and soon you learn their names and they giggle and hide when you call out to them by name. From first light in the morning, to last light at night they are here, Zimbabwe’s real work force, keeping the country afloat, the people alive.

Meanwhile out there in the shops, supermarkets and businesses its mayhem, they are having to change all their prices from one day to the next in order to stay afloat and be able to restock shelves. As it did in 2008, this feels more and more unsustainable by the day.
This letter today is for all the vendors, thank you, we see your toil and are grateful.

Ndini shamwari yenyu (I am your friend)
Love Cathy

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Copyright ©Cathy Buckle