Zimbabwe: Street Vendors Turn To Comedy To Lure Cashless Customers

By Ray Mwareya

 

Zimbabwe´s cities have some of the highest numbers of street vendors in Africa´s urban areas. A blistering competition to attract dwindling customers means vendors are adopting bizarre tactics to sell toothpaste, bathing stones, DVDs, even packets of rat killing poison.

Some of the unusual tactics are; ghosting into bank queues to play guitars and jingoistic sticks while tempting customers to buy freshly baked oven scones – and praying municipal police officers won’t detain you for “loud music at a bank.”

More daunting is the class of jobless, but professionally trained Karate artists-turned-vendors. These comb shopping malls, roll in gymnastics and dangle fake swords past the faces of customers while at the same time selling a pirated DVD, a faulty Chinese cellular phone power bank or both.

For vendors, the task is enormous. Diminishing factory jobs and a limited US dollar currency means most city dwellers are squeezed. They are less likely to use their precious money to buy a movie DVD or a tube of fancy sparkling water from street vendors who now go to insane lengths to impress.

Karate vendors

Street vendors who lure clients to buy their wares through displays of open air Karate arts can use astonishing methods. For instance, they suddenly appear in lucrative spots like international bus terminuses. In Batman style, they spin into thin air, collar bones bowed out, and toes deftly avoiding sand holes that line Zimbabwe´s urban roads.

They pretend to exchange bruising blows in front of bemused onlookers but refrain for the sake of school children who are watching. They swirl plastic swords past customers’ faces – and at last, out of goodwill, beg for a US$0, 50 cents from thrilled crowds, and try to sell a movie CD or bottle of fake English Blazer perfume.

“The mantra in Zimbabwe today is – with many thrown out of formal jobs, a street vendor must offer something tantalizing, entertaining before customers can buy her/his bananas,” explains Never Jambaya, 24. He is part of well-known family twins of street Karate vendors that move from city to city, selling DVDs, demonstrating astonishing Karate whoops and jumps.

“In this case, our Karate gymnastics is the sweetener to stand out and lure customers,” explains his sibling Anopa Jambaya, 24 too.

Never and Anopa chose to be Karate street vendors after failing to raise the $US40 annual membership fees required by the nation`s regulatory agency, The Zimbabwe Karate Union. It is the fee required before one takes part in formal contests, he says.

“Zimbabweans are hyperactive people,” says Never. “They love Chinese Karate CDs, Thai kickboxing maneuvers. It cools down our mental stress in times of economic difficulties. We thought here is a way to thrill people, push them to buy our DVDs out of goodwill. Business is rolling.”

Karate is healing

Never and Anopa, born twins, says they used to perform as a crew of three until a drunk van driver mowed down their colleague on ill-fated performance visit to Johannesburg, neighboring South Africa, in 2014.

“Karate performances, vending these arts from city to city, is also our way of obtaining healing from the tragedy,” Never says.

Today the pair´s Karate vending road show brings them to Mutare, a border city of 188, 000 inhabitants, in eastern Zimbabwe, which is also the country´s main gateway to the Indian Ocean.

This city`s streets is brimming with hundreds of vendors struggling to hawk mangoes, potatoes or movie cassettes. “To maximize cash and sell our CDs we must carefully choose lucrative spots to perform our Karate kicks,” explains Never.

He points to a bevy of street vendors blaring radio speakers to attract customers too. “Or else who`ll buy from us?”

A street vendor displays Karate gymnastics in Mutare city, Zimbabwe. Photo credit: Ray Mwareya

Suddenly they pick a spot in front of six international buses that must soon take off on the 1200 km journey to South Africa. “At least these traveling customers can pay $US3 for a CD. We must be clever in our Karate kicks and impress.”

They cloak hoods and hats across their faces. A crowd streams out of idling buses. A scruffy bus tout has recognized the two Karate vendors. He whistles to passengers and crews to disembark from buses, “I once saw them. They fight like Jackie Chan! Come, come see.”

Never and Anopa jog, whirl to the air, take turns to drop their arms to the dust-beaten tarmac, and squat on their palms, like frogs. They spin in theatrics; their waists bend to the westerly wind until joyed onlookers ululate, clap and yell “Master, Master, we want more Karate kicks.”

Never goes into overdrive, picks up yellow swords, and spins in circles, with the swords barely missing his collarbones and teeth.

“These are not real Samurai swords, just plastic imitations,” laughs Anopa to reassure nervous crowds. Zimbabwe police rules ban the display or swinging of metal swords knives in public.

With the crowd hooked, the real job of vending selling Karate DVDs begins. Never, sweaty from arduous Karate stretches of hands strolls in front of admiring faces. “Buy DVD, $3 only, see us in the comfort of your homes, not merely here.”

There is a stampede. Their forty DVDs are snapped up by throngs of bus customers who are taking Zimbabwe´s now-familiar refuge trek to South Africa. “These boys are unbelievable Karate artists; at least they delight a customer before selling,” says Yamurai Woyo, a bus passenger who splashes $US5 on a DVD that should cost $US3.

Yamurai whispers her real motive: “I love the Karate pictures yes but I will digitally copy this Karate DVD contents and resell massively in South Africa.”

Piracy? “Yes,” she laughs. Delighted fans throw yellow bananas, notes and tiny coins of Zimbabwe´s surrogate “Bond coins” currency until a shrill goes out – “thief!”

Pickpockets, a growing menace in Zimbabwe´s cities today, have taken advantage of the Karate displays to pilfer a passport and a $US20 note from a woman`s handbag.

Vendor musicians

Jacob Moyo, 25, ghosts into a queue at a Standard Chartered bank branch, one of the remnant British banks that operate in Zimbabwe. He is not a bank customer – or else furious depositors would assault him for overtaking a queue.

Jacob grimaces cracks a wildly laughable pop tune and swings jingle wooden bells into the air. He steals the attention of the queue of depositors who await their chance at the only ATM that dispenses US$50 greenback notes today.

Jacob, an agriculture college graduate who says he no longer bothers to look for a job, now bakes ginger scones and cakes for a living. “Customers are a headache. No one buys now because every vendor in the city sells scones and cakes too.”

Necessity has forced him to switch tactics. “I now move from bank to bank, play music and recite poetry about my sweet scones and oven biscuits. I dance like a yoyo hoping bank customers will laugh and rush for my baked food. I`m the only vendor doing it in this city; no one must copy me.”

It works! Bank customers melt into loud laughs at his childish songs formed over scones and biscuits. They momentarily forget the punishing sun, rush to empty Jacob´s scones basket. Some tussle to place a US$0, 50cents notes into Jacob´s hands. Jacob is excited by the brisk business, struggles to temper the voice of his melodious music and transact to his customers at the same time.

In a frenzy Jacob flees, munching into his mouths the last biscuit from his basket, and takes to his heels. “Police!” A municipal police officer, alerted by the wildly popular oven scones, jogs behind Jacob and pursues him for “noise and illegal selling.”

Ray Mwareya is Africa Humanitarian Correspondent for the Global South Development Magazine and 2016 Winner of the UN Correspondents Association Media Prize. www.clippings.me/raymwareya83

Subscribe to our mailing list