By Charles Tjatindi
As the clock strikes midday, hordes of lunchtime shoppers disperse in all directions. Some rush to furniture shops, clothing outlets and other trading places to pay their accounts. The one-hour lunchtime is limited therefore everyone tries hard to fit in as much as possible.
In the midst of it all, and seated on the intersection of two of the harbour town’s streets is Joel Banton. Like all others, he too revels at the lunch hour break, albeit for a different reason. As a craft seller, he tries to sell as many of his products during lunch breaks. He has been trading here for the better part of the last three years or so. As he narrates his story, a customer approaches. He kindly excuses himself and attends to the inquisitive customer.
“This is the best price. What about this one … This is genuine African art at its best, you won’t regret buying it …” goes the conversation.
After a while he returns, clearly disappointed that he couldn’t secure a sale.
He paused for a few seconds, before picking up his story where he had left off. Although he tries to put on a brave face, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that he desperately yearns for more business.
“That is just how it is. You see locals do not really buy our products. Our biggest customer bases are the tourists. Locals would just complain about the products being expensive,” he notes.
Joel is not a craftsman. In fact, he tells us, he couldn’t craft the simplest design even if his life depended on it! Despite his lack of craftsmanship skills, he has found a way to make money – benefiting from those that have the talent. A Zimbabwean by birth, Joel has established strong links with his craftmen friends back home, and imports their products for sale in Namibia.
It is not a gold mine, but it puts food on the table for himself here and his family back home.
“People look at us as Zimbabweans and think: ‘These people are really suffering’. Well, we are not living a life of luxury – that is true, but we are simply surviving like any one of them. In fact, the person that is apparently feeling pity for you literary has nothing. No job, no money – nothing at all,” he says.
At this point, Joel’s friend and co-stall owner, Kudakwashe Soraidema joins the conversation, nodding in agreement to his friend’s last comments. Kuda, as he is known to his friends, also has a family back home – a wife, and relatives that benefit from what he plights here. He too feels locals should stop feeling pity for them and turn their efforts to making a living for themselves.
“It is fine they feel sorry for us, but the same person that feels pity for us does not even know what he will be having for dinner. Who is the one suffering now?” he questions.
Nevertheless, both Joel and Kuda agree that Namibians are by nature very friendly people that would gladly offer their hospitality whenever required to do so. Living in Walvis Bay, where communities are more closely knit than cities and mainstream towns elsewhere in Namibia, they confess to feeling at home here. They should know better – after all, they have seen it all. From harsh treatment at borders with other countries, to verbal abuse and insults from those countries’ citizens.
Faston Chuma is another trader at these stalls. Unlike his friends, he trades in clothing materials such as caps and socks. He also sells fashionable T-shirts, towels and other sports fashion accessories. He smiles broadly when asked if he also feels at home here. To elaborate his point, Faston narrates an incident in South Africa where he and some of his friends were allegedly assaulted and their goods taken away from them back in 2004.
“It happened a lot in South Africa. People there are not that receptive of foreign nationals, especially us Zimbabweans. We are called ‘Makwerekwere’, and are labelled as scavengers. But Zimbabweans are by nature very friendly people,” he says.
Commenting on the recent attacks on foreigners, among them Zimbabweans in South Africa, Faston notes that he is not surprised as it was inevitable.
“If something like that happens in Namibia, we would be very surprised. But if it happens in South Africa or Botswana, it would definitely not come as a surprise. Don’t get me wrong, there are some peace loving people in those countries as well, but the majority just do not like foreigners,” he notes.
Joel echoes his friend’s sentiments: “In Botswana, we are referred to as criminals. Anything that gets stolen, a woman that gets raped, or any crime that is committed, journalists have a field day. But it is not their fault –
it is what the people of that country like reading about,” he says.
In a wave of nostalgia, Joel reflects on his life back in his home country back in the eighties. Life was good then, he recalls. Zimbabwe was figuratively referred to as the land of plenty. He had a good job, a stable income, and life with his family was always good. As things changed, however, life became expensive and almost unbearable for its citizens. Prices of goods and commodities went through the roof, jobs became scarce and the cost of living simply skyrocketed to uncontrolled dimensions.
Although not at will to leave his beloved country of birth, Joel and some of his friends had no choice but to venture into unknown territory, leaving their families behind in a bid to secure a living for them and their families.
It was such a search for survival that took them to neighbouring Botswana and then later to South Africa. For the past three years or so, however, they have been living in Namibia, but would go back home to acquire more merchandise, or when their stay in Namibia legally lapses. Once there, they would spend a week or two, or sometimes only days with their families before embarking on the return trip to their trading countries.
The ride between Zimbabwe and the countries where they trade, in Joel’s case Namibia, is not usually a smooth one. Due to the exorbitant fare of N$500, excluding luggage, charged by minibuses operating between Windhoek and Harare, Joel and his friends are most of the times forced to hitch-hike. This fee is even higher when travelling to the coast, where Joel and his friends are based. During such an exercise, luck is not always on their side, and the usually one-and-a-half day journey could take up to three or four days before reaching their destinations. The modes of transport are usually cross border trucks.
“If it wasn’t for the economic situation back home, I would be sitting with my family right now. But what can you do? Life goes on, and we have to survive. That is all that matters at the moment.
As Faston attempts to lure young passersby to his stall, his friends wave to passing tourists, appealing to them to make a turn at their respective stalls.
For a moment, the tourists seem interested as they turn towards the stall. Joy and relief lights both Joel and Kuda’s faces, as they prepare to close a deal or two with the tourists. Their joy is, however, short-lived as the tourists walk on after pausing for a few seconds.
“They don’t come here. Although we appreciate the efforts of the municipality that placed us here, this place is not really that ideal. I think tourists are not informed about us during tour guides briefing of the town,” Kuda notes.
Their largest customer base are the foreign sailors descending from their ships at the harbour, a stone’s throw away. Some have even become regular customers, and would frequent their stall every time they come to town.
Despite seemingly enjoying good hospitality in Namibia’s harbour town, Joel and his friends would not stop hoping that the situation in Zimbabwe improves, so they can return home for good. Like any other father, Joel notes he would want to see his kids grow into young men and women. And for that, he would like to be there with them so he could instil good morals and values into them as a husband and father.
For now though, the beat goes on. Joel and his friends have seemingly found a new family in the locals they trade with at the stalls. Although communication at times is a problem as the language becomes a barrier, they nonetheless enjoy doing business alongside the Namibians, who comprise Rukwangali and Oshiwambo speakers.
Just then a female Oshiwambo speaker who also owns a stall at the premises joins them. Joel, being a seemingly natural charmer jokingly tells her he will be taking her with him on his next visit to Zimbabwe, and make her his second wife. Appreciating the humour, she replies that she always wanted to go to Zimbabwe and would do whatever it takes – even marry against her will.
Laughter erupts. For a moment, true camaraderie clearly fills the air.
Kuda says that their relationship with the locals is so good that taxi drivers at times even stop to offer them free rides to the location after work. Such is the relationship that dominates their new-found family.
“For communication, we use Vamblish – a combination of English and Oshiwambo. Sometimes, we speak in English and they rely in Oshiwambo…Eish, It is tough, but we like it here,” laughs Kuda.
All their eyes are now pinned on the oncoming presidential election run-offs, as they hope for restoration of their home country’s ‘ailing’ fortunes. They could not stop counting themselves lucky that they were not in neighbouring South Africa at the moment, amid ongoing xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals.
“Despite them attacking our brothers and sisters in South Africa, I am sure their nationals are safe in Zim (babwe). We do not retaliate, we are peace loving citizens,” notes Faston, before returning to his stall, where he patiently waits on customers.
If they do not come soon enough, tomorrow is yet another day that presents its own prospects. In it lies the hope that most of his products will disappear from the shelves, and be replaced with welcome cash.