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Stories of Home: Makwikwi


I've been going through my written work over the past decade. I discovered quite a few pieces which I wrote each time I travelled home. i figure they are probably enough to form a small book. I called them "Stories of Home", so that will be the title. They were my observations of life at home.

The stories remind me of Chenjerai Hove's Shebeen Tales - short anecdotal stories which give a vivid picture of life in Harare in the 1990s. I love that little book. Who knows, may be someone reading my "stories of home" in the future might find a window into the decade we are just about to close. I have decided that I will make a collection of them in 2020.

Meanwhile, I will share one of these little stories today. I wrote this on 29 December 2015, which is exactly four years ago. This story like all others is based largely on actual events. I enjoy writing these little stories more than legal and political analysis. They are in themselves a form of analysis but in a way that I find beautiful - analysis through story telling. That is why the story of Mamvura is much loved among readers of the BSR. I called this little story "Makwikwi".

Stories of home: Makwikwi

Every time I'm home, I'm impressed by the vibrancy and creativity of the language of the streets. It's always evolving, always changing. If you have been away for just a few months, you realise wakasara (you're behind) as they say.

“Wakasara mdhara!,” the young ones say, laughing at your expense. It is usually the young ones who invent and popularise the language of the streets. As time goes on, the rest of society catches on. So you have to pay attention and catch up pretty fast, otherwise unosara.

I’m at Magaba, the vibrant market in Mbare, where everything is bought and sold. The long-running cliche about this place is that you can find a spare part for an aircraft here. There is everything, all you have to do is ask. There are people who know things. And if they don't know things, they definitely know someone who knows things.

I ask a group of young chaps how things are. We have already established familiarity and cordiality because they already tried to sell us things. They call me "mdhara" not necessarily on account of age, (although that is a factor) but as a term of endearment and respect.

Apparently, they judged by the vehicle I was driving (even without verifying ownership) and by my appearance that I was worthy of this title.

"Unongoona wega kuti iri idhara iri" (it's evident, you don't have to ask) quipped one of the chaps when I asked later why they held that opinion of me. He said it with a smile that said; "You can't refuse the title".

"Makwikwi mdhara,” one chap says, laughing and shaking his head, the way a defeated person shakes their head while acknowledging their limited options. Laughter is an absorbent.

The other chaps around him join in and form a disjointed chorus. "Haa, Makwikwi mdhara!" they all say, sounding defeated. It is tough. That is their way of describing the challenges they are facing. In the circumstances, "makwikwi" is intense contestation.

I look around the market. For sure, it's a dog-eat-dog situation. Everyone is up to something. If they are not doing this, they are doing that. It looks like everyone is selling something. But then Siyaso has always been the home of Harare's hustle; a free market in the rawest form; never a place for idle hands or sleepy eyes. Here it's either sink or swim.

Siyaso - mind your own business, is probably a rough equivalent. That is the common name for this bustling centre of wheeling and dealing. Do not interfere in matters that don't concern you. If you see a punter being overcharged, you don’t interfere. Siyaso. It’s none of your business. It's one of the unwritten rules. To adapt a common cliche, what goes on here at Siyaso stays at Siyaso.

This is Harare’s version of the school of hard knocks. It's survival of the fittest. Wheeling and dealing. It’s a brutally competitive environment in which only those of high pedigree live to tell the tale. Everyone who comes here knows to play by the rules. It doesn't matter who you are. A minister? This is Siyaso. Play by the rules, shefu. A corporate executive from the north of Samora? This is not the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange, "madam boss", as they say. You blink, you lose.

"What can we do for you, mothers?" the chaps are skilled in the art of persuasion. Make the customer feel special and important; that seems to be one of the cardinal selling points. They might never have been to marketing school but they could give a lesson or two at any business school.

I’ve been struck by how hard it has become driving around Harare 's pot-holed and chaotic roads. Not so much because of the potholes, no. I have become accustomed to those. It’s the fellow road users that cause the most trouble. Everyone seems to be in a hurry and impatient. Everyone seems to be angry and in a rush. Virtually no courtesy whatsoever. You try to reverse, and he drives through nevertheless, cursing you as he rushes past at high speed.

He overtakes you at that crazy speed, but a few metres later he is turning or stopping just in front of you. What's the rush? You wonder. I express my frustration to the chaps during our conversation. What has happened to us?

"IKarate muroad umu mdhara!" says one of the chaps, shaking his head. He says driving in Harare is equivalent to a karate match, in which one must remain alert and vigilant at all times otherwise you be punished.

That’s the language of the street to describe the extreme challenges of driving on Harare’s streets. And life itself today, they laugh, shake their heads and say, is also like playing karate! A soft spoken chap in the group thinks people are bringing their frustrations to the streets. It's an interesting opinion. I later learn that he was studying at a local university but dropped out because of lack of funds. His mates still conferred a degree upon him anyway, so they refer to him as "the degreed one".

"Pakaipa Mdhara!" one young chap says, laughing, as he swiftly dashes across the dusty road to get a head-start on an approaching customer. Their greatest asset is their vision, my friend says, describing the "salesmen " at Siya-so. The young chap who dashed across the road had spotted a potential customer.

"We can see a customer from a mile away, mdhara!” says one of the chaps as he takes a long pull on his cigarette. He swallows the smoke momentarily before slowly blowing it into the air. This brief exercise leaves a teardrop running down his left cheek, which he swiftly wipes with his free arm.

“Ndikatirewo Fatso,” says his half-asleep mate who is resting on a stack of tyres. He wants his friend to leave a piece of the cigarette for him. Sharing cigarettes in common-place. “Ibhoo,” says Fatso very cooperatively. You can sense there is a beautiful bond of brotherhood here. They all look out for each other. Thieves in particular, are frowned upon and the punishment is instant and often brutal.

"Mbavha dzinodzinga mhene" explains one of the chaps showing that they understand the concept of risk - theft drives away customers, so thieves are not tolerated. Make your money from selling - overcharge if you want, they say, but do not pickpocket customers. There is a fascinating if ironic moral logic to it all.

Across the road, the new customer has a swarm of merchants around him, all trying to coax and impress him with their wares and promising to take great care of him. But he is a seasoned warrior. He knows exactly what he wants and where he wants to go, so he promptly dismisses them.

He looks very happy when another chap runs confidently towards his car. He is his “regular” merchant. You need a trusted and regular merchant here. He will protect you from wheeler-dealers.

The young chaps scatter away, going back to the respective stations. They respect their fellow merchant because they realise this is his long-term customer. "Imhene yake," they say, deferring to him. It looks like an unwritten rule here. They also have their own "mhene", so it's important to have mutual respect. But they will try again when the next customer comes.

"Ha-a, makwikwi mdhara, says the young chap, as comes back empty-handed. "Dhora harisi kubatika zvekumhanya, mdhara." It's hard to earn even a single dollar, he says, disappointed that an opportunity had just been lost. But he will wait for another chance. All day. He knows he will win some but lose some. This is how their day goes. You have to wait and hope. It's like hunting for prey in the jungle. It doesn't go the lion's way all the time.

"Yah, it's Karate, for sure, Makwikwi chaiwo!", I say, making an effort to adapt to their nomenclature. This effort is greeted with wild, excited and approving laughter from the group.

"Makumberi mdhara!" one of them remarks approvingly, commending me for catching up on their vocabulary. I'm making progress, apparently. It's time to go and I say "Time Time, maGhetto Youth. Thanks for the chat"

"Bho mdhara, ko hamusi kusiya one here, mdhara?" the chap we now know is called Fatso says, clearly echoing the thoughts of all his friends. It's a polite request for an alcoholic beverage. I have a six-pack of lager which my friend fishes out of the cooler-box and hands over to Fatso.

I leave two crisp US dollar notes. There’s some excitement at sight of “clean money”. "Ndookuti mari", (This is real money) says one of them approvingly. A dollar buys a bottle of Super Chibuku, a popular carbonated opaque beer.

“Maspaka mdhara!", says the chap who was asking his mate to “cut” a cigarette for him. He’s now fully awake and already holding his pint. They all join in. Maspaka Mdhara! That is their way of saying thank you.

We wave to each other as we drive away. A few merchants try one last shot at us but they are quickly told to back off by our new friends "Haikona kunetsa mdhara wedu iwe". Leave our big man alone. Echoes of "maspaka mdhara' still ring in my ears as we drive away.


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