Not too clean but a lot of fun 

Not too clean but a lot of fun

I went to Johannesburg recently. While there, I met up with a friend of mine who moved down there a year or so ago. Kevin is a dark-skinned coloured gay man, outspoken and full of life. He’s had more than his fair share of trouble with the law, has an idea a minute, brilliant fantasy visions of the life he’d like to create for himself, and boundless energy. He struggled for the first nine months or so that he was down there, as so many of Zimbabwe’s “economic refugees” do, but he’s finally found a sold job for himself. More importantly, he’s also found a much more out gay community that, on the outside at least, is far less closeted, shamed and afraid than that in Harare. An old family friend, I lived with Kevin for a year or so. He didn’t keep the flat very clean, but he was a lot of fun to be with. He misses home terribly, but he’s not yet ready to trade the freedom and excitement that he’s found in Jo’burg. Seeing him even briefly in his newfound home, it’s clear he’s in his element. He’s happier, more focussed and more sure of himself than he was in Harare. So far, at least, he’s a success story in the face of a long line of Zimbabweans struggling to make a living abroad, in countries that resent the influx of Zimbabwean jobseekers and make it difficult for foreigners to obtain visas, get work permits, and live with any security.

He brought a friend along with him, another young Zimbabwean man working two jobs, without a stable home, busy trying to earn foreign currency to support his parents and now responsible for the school fees for his two younger siblings. Petros also misses home, but with a heaviness far older than his years says simply “it’s what I have to do.” Kevin brought Petros to meet me because he needed a favour. He had R450 that he needed brought back to Zimbabwe, changed into Zim dollars, and put into his sister’s bank account to pay his brothers’ school fees in Gwanda.

I’d never met this man before, but because I’m from home, and because I know his friend, he trusted me with this responsibility. When I got back to Harare, I scratched around until I found a fair rate, and phoned the sister to get her bank details. She’d also never met me, but willingly gave me the information, and thanked me for helping them out. The 450 Rand converted to 14 million Zim dollars, less than half the necessary school fees, but a huge sum of money for Petros and his family.

I joined the snaking queue that lead far outside the banking hall to deposit the money. Old and young, men and women, we waited together patiently. Some held bulging brown envelopes full of notes. Others carried school satchels or gym bags over their shoulders, full of money. The wizened old man in front of me, in his torn jersey and mutton cloth wrapped around his neck clung tightly to a weathered plastic packet. The largest note—not even a proper bank note, but a “bearer cheque” is for $50,000—less than the cost of a loaf of bread. The automatic note counters at the tellers’ desks were working over time, rattling through screeds of money as parents, siblings, relatives and friend deposited their money in advance of school starting next week.

As I was queuing, I was reminded of the story a colleague of mine had told me some days earlier. A mutual friend, known for her helpfulness, had been approached by someone who needed some help depositing $100 million, but for some reason couldn’t deposit it himself. Ever one to lend a hand, this friend had agreed to do the banking for him. She didn’t realise at the time that the $100 million was in $1,000 notes. Bound together in bunches of $10,000, the money filled five large boxes. She spent from 8 in the morning until 6 in the evening depositing the money. First she had to find a bank that was willing to accept the notes. $1,000 notes these days are like loose change, and most banks resent having to carry too many of them. When she finally found a bank willing to take the money, she had to wait for one dedicated teller to count all the notes. Even with the automated money counters, it took the better part of a day to count them all. She did it anyway, because she’d given her word. But it’s one favour she won’t volunteer for again in a hurry.

There are many amazing attributes of Zimbabwean society. The social networks of relationships and mutual support, along with a steady stream of foreign currency remittances, keep the country going. There is an incredible resilience and adaptability that has kept people afloat over the past years as the economy continues to freefall. But perhaps it is this same adaptability that keeps people from standing up collectively for themselves and organising against state repression and mismanagement. As it can be for anyone, Zimbabwe’s greatest asset may also be one of its greatest weaknesses.

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