Over the years, Macheja has become a familiar face along the corner of Baines Avenue and Mazowe Street in Harare’s Avenues surburb. Known either as “Aunty Majecha” or “Jechaz” to her friends, wheelchair-bound Tapfumaneyi has set up her fruit and vegetable vending stall daily at the same spot since 1984.
Majecha’s jovial nature and determination to make the most of her circumstances has won her many of her friends. But thus far, her life story has been one of great adversity. Born in 1956, Majecha has lived as a paraplegic all of her life due to the debilitating effects of a bout of poliomyelitis (polio) she suffered in her infancy.
My mother used to tell me that I used to cry so much that I would go hoarse in the throat from the pain,” she explains.
Due to the effects of the polio, Majecha has little functionality in her hands which have coiled inwards. She also has limited speech and speaks in a murmur which is often hard to understand. Certain words are particularly difficult for her to enunciate and make her stammer continuously as she tries to bring out the consonant sounds from her mouth.
Despite her difficulties, Majecha remembers the first part of her childhood as being filled with happiness. Though she lost her three older siblings to childhood diseases, Majecha survived and says she was raised in a loving environment by her parents.
At nine years of age, she began to attend school at the Jairos Jiri Centre near Harare Hospital, where she says she made good progress in her studies. Because her family could not afford a wheelchair for her, she had to resort to crawling to get around.
But Majecha’s relatively happy life would soon change.
In the same year that she began her schooling, her father died. And five years later, her mother also died, leaving Majecha an orphan.
“There was no one left to take care of me in Harare, or pay my school fees,” she recalls. Majecha was therefore forced to leave her studies in the sixth grade and relocate to rural Marondera to live with a paternal aunt.
It is that period, almost a decade long, that Majecha recalls with particular sadness.
“I struggled so much,” she remembers, her eyes becoming distant as she bows her head into her chest.
During her stay with her aunt and her family, Majecha was tasked with doing most of the daily chores (such as cooking, cleaning and sweeping) without any assistance from other family members.
Doing the household laundry was particularly challenging for Tapfumaneyi as she would have to crawl a great distance to a nearby river to carry out the task. She explains how she would put all of the dirty clothes and linen into a travel bag and then attach a piece of string which she would sling around her neck so as to be able to drag the bag along.
Because of many chores and constant crawling, Tapfumaneyi developed painful sores all along her legs. But it was only when her mother’s younger sister came to visit that the alarm was sounded about Majecha’s poor living conditions.
Her mother’s sister facilitated Majecha’s transfer to her maternal grandmother’s home in Murewa. Though her standards of living rose immensely, her aunt was not satisfied with having Majecha – a creative young woman – live out her days doing menial chores.
Even amid all her adversities, Majecha still smiles.
In 1982, at the age of 26, Majecha moved back to Harare to live at a home that looked after the physically disabled. There, she was given a wheelchair and was taught skills to enable her to participate in income generating projects. Two years later, she began to sell at the stall she still tends to today.
But business has not been easy.
Previously, Majecha sold fresh fruit and vegetable which she ordered from Mbare Market. But she had to stop as she was often throwing away rotting produce and therefore making a loss. Also, she says she had incidences in which people she’d sent to order produce would steal from her.
Today she only sells biscuits, popped corn (maputi), sweets, juices , cigarettes and airtime. In a good month, she says she makes about USD 50, which barely covers her daily needs at the self-catering home where she lives. All of her family members have since died, which means that Majecha is largely forced to fend for herself.
Majecha manoeuvres her way around in a wheelchair she operates manually. Harare’s terrain of broken cement pavements and pot-holed roads only adds to the strain on her contorted hands which must push and wheel her weight around to various locations. Majecha was fortunate to receive a donation of an electric wheelchair a few years ago, but it has since developed a technical fault and for the past year, Majecha has been forced to revert to her manual wheelchair.
“I am tired of working and making no gains,” she says. “Don’t you know any old people’s homes I could go and live at?”
Majecha reminds me that she has been working for 28 years now and has never had a moment to rest.
I ask her if she wouldn’t get bored sitting around doing nothing.
“Maybe if I rested, I could find what it is that I really want to do with my life.”
Another silence ensues.
It seems only fair that Majecha should be afforded this opportunity to rest. But this is Zimbabwe. And rest, it seems, is only for the rich and the dead.