I met Plaxedes Ngwena when she rang the bell at my gate. She was selling potato-printed cloth. I always like to support artists and her work impressed me. She seemed like an interesting and well-educated woman. She had a story to tell. At the time, I wished I could help her with more than one sale. I have a lot of respect for people who take to the street to sell their wares and it struck me that this lady deserved more of my time. It is easy in this city to say no, to dismiss that face at our car window. We don’t have time for another vendor, another person at the gate wanting our time or our money. Survival has made us insular.
It is easier to not get too involved with other people’s ‘problems.’ I have noticed that in Zimbabwe’s economic downfall, more people have taken to the street to make a living. The entrepreneurial spirit remains strong in ever-increasingly difficult times. I decided to listen to Plaxede’s story; everyone needs to be heard, especially in this land of the voiceless.
Plaxedes is an older woman with three children, whom she completely supports. She grew up in the Mazowe district, attending a mission school. She went on to gain a teaching diploma at Hillside College, art being ‘[her] passion.’ She has taught in several schools, including the prestigious International School, and she has many qualifications to her name: a degree in psychology, a diploma in community development, as well as a counselling certificate. Indeed, this is the woman at my gate, who is selling her artwork from a bag, so well-educated and experienced. According to her, “If you educate the women, you educate the whole nation.” For her, education is the greatest form of empowerment.
She told me she last held a teaching job nine years ago at Ridgeview High School. She left formal work ‘to do [her] own things’ and she has been selling her hand-printed material for 15 years now. She converted a garage into an art studio at her home in Waterfalls. Now she is a mobile sales woman, or what we like to call, a vendor. She takes her business to people’s houses, mainly in Harare’s northern suburbs. She has even formed connections within the diplomatic community, creating a successful business where “[she] is the artist.”
In a good month she can make $900 in sales. She sells a table runner for nothing less than $10. She does not rely on others; “I do it myself!” she told me emphatically. Over all these years, she has become a good researcher; she is a creative force and she knows her market. However, she also has dreams and aspirations for her business and she wants to help other artists in the community, to impart her knowledge, and to help with the marketing of crafts.
Plaxedes Ngwena would like her own shop. She would like an established business in a shopping centre. She finds it tiring to walk and travel so much. She would like to involve other people – other artists who make crafts who could benefit from her experience, knowledge and skills. She says she always had “future plans to help the grass roots people, to help people get into businesses and to find people’s strengths.” She knows that many Zimbabweans are highly skilled but unfortunately have not benefited much from education in the way of jobs. She dreams of creating a Craft and Technology Centre where she can employ and assist such people. She values her education and love for art-making and feels disappointed by the current system, which she believes is not allowing for development. She is also critical of the education system which she believes has not adapted to the changes in the economy where so few jobs are available.
Plaxedes Ngwena does not want her art business to just be bread and butter on the table. She would like to have recognition for her work and to have customers come to her. She wants to be in a position to have a dream shop with a network of artists, to be free of the endless walking. However, even for a woman of her standing, dreams are hard to fulfill in such an expensive country.
The ‘Mop Lady’
Plaxedes Ngwena’s story is an insight into one aspect of a mobile sales woman. Another woman who works on her feet, but in a harsher environment is Netsai Chimbwanda. I have always referred to her as the ‘mop lady,’ She works at the traffic lights near the Pomona shops in Borrowdale. She sells mops, brooms and rakes, walking with a limp, trying to sell her wares to motorists. A real character, who at one stage used to beg at the Chisipite shops, but now with great determination ekes out a living by the roadside in Borrowdale.
Despite her age, her weak legs and hands, she works tirelessly. In an area associated with the richest of Zimbabweans, Chimbwanda has her spot amongst the newspaper sellers. Her brooms and rakes displayed in a plastic bucket on the pavement. Just another vendor who most motorists try to ignore, just another person in the way of busy lives. But she too has a story to tell, one that needs to be heard.
She has been selling for many, many years. She buys a broom in Chitungwiza for $2 and sells them in Borrowdale for $5-$7. On a good day, she can make $20. Every day she travels to Borrowdale from Chitungwiza, where she rents a house for $250. She has six children who she supports on her own. She struggles to pay school fees.
“I have got no husband, so I have got a big problem.” She told me.
Chimbwanda like quite a lot of women in Zimbabwe, has to look after a big family without any help. Age or even disability is not a determining factor for retirement for a lot of people. She is 50 and despite her legs and arms having ‘no power’ for the last 3 years, she has continued to earn her living on the street. Doctors have not been able to diagnose her problem. I could tell from her gait and her difficulty in eating food with her hands that her legs and arms make work very hard for her. At times, her legs are too painful and she has to stay at home. The future is so uncertain but how else can she support her family without this work?
I wanted to find out her thoughts on Zimbabwe, what could be improved to make life less difficult. I found it interesting that her outlook was very fixed. Her main concern was a roof over her head, to own a house and to have lodgers. A house would improve her life:
“Houses can give me more money, than to sell.”
But Chimbwanda knows that the big problem in Zimbabwe is money itself. The lack of money in general is stopping people from helping each other. A sad truth for so many.
“When I have many stuff, my job can do better.” Unfortunately without much money, she cannot invest in her business, and owning a house is just a dream.
But if she had a choice, she would like to have a tuckshop in Chitungwiza. A quieter life at home without the difficulties of walking and selling in the harsh winter months.
Chimbwanda despite her disabilities, likes her job and enjoys selling. However she does worry for the future. But she earns her living on the streets of Harare, and like so many she has to keep walking.
All images by Lucy Tingay