Elsewhere the setting could have been that of Parisian sidewalk bistros. The food was sold and enjoyed al fresco.
Hungry customers licked their fingers and returned for more.
Vendors beamed. Business was good.
But this was one of Harare’s open air food markets, and there was nothing French about the cuisine or the ambience.
The blazing sun appeared to drive the flies into a frenzy as they buzzed and mated over all kinds of food stuff, prepared and unprepared.
Vehicles sped past cooked meals, dust from the wheels of colossal trucks coating roasted meat as hungry folks used sharpened pieces of wire to select their lunch.
From fried fish to fried chicken and chips, raw fish and uncooked pig ears all could be found here competing to trigger volcanoes in consumers’ bellies.
This was not the usual playground for a 12 year-old, but it was here where young Gamu could be found every day of the week.
From sunrise to sunset, she joined hundreds of vendors, and all things pointed to a rapid entry into adulthood.
She carried a dish made of reeds, filled with fried chicken feet for sale here at the slum’s bustling food market.
“Nhai Gamu iwe. Chimuka,” Mai Chizuva, her grandmother would call out each morning, rousing the sleeping child.
Yet there wasn’t any need for her to shout for they shared a single-roomed shack, where everything pointed to decay: the clothes, the blankets, the food, the air.
The melancholia could be touched.
Amid the decay, Mai Chizuva feared life more than death for she reasoned, when death comes it shall find me ready, when a new day comes, it harbingers the gnashing of teeth.
Then she would reach for her old hymnal and mumble her favourite song about how the poor would inherit the earth.
“Life is terrible my child for the more we live, the more we do not know what poverty awaits us,” she would say and the young girl wondered what the old soul was going on about.
Chizuva, Gamu’s mother had built the shack, her calloused hands becoming permanent reminders of the work she put in to start a new life in the city.
She had plucked her mother Mai Chizuva from what she said was the unparalleled hardship of their rural home at the zenith of the fervor and promise of a better life in a city of a new Zimbabwe.
It was this promise that gave birth to a huge wave of movement from the villages to the city after the coming of democracy more than a generation ago: better jobs, better homes and better life for all.
Only once arriving here, Chizuva had died shortly after giving birth to Gamu and more poverty awaited the little girl.
Mai Chizu poked the child with her walking stick to rouse her from deep slumber and repeated:
With eyes burning not only from sleep but also from many years of exposure to paraffin and wood fumes, the only source of energy they had ever known. Gamu stirred as she rubbed the pain off her eyes and headed to the nearest communal faucet.
She splashed water on her face, the only contact her young body would have with water for the rest of the day.
When she returned, Mai Chizu was already busy re-heating over a paraffin stove chicken feet leftover from the previous day’s market run, and Gamu was set for the day ahead.
From the densely neighbourhood hovels that made up the only homes these urban dwellers had known since the coming of black majority rule, concerned citizens always warned that it was a matter of time before tragedy struck.
Grown men emerged from the flimsy-looking plastic shacks that provided highly incendiary propellants for paraffin stoves, and it was curious why the dwellings did not collapse as these big men turned on their beds or made violent love to their many sex partners.
For Gamu, business began as soon as she stepped out of her shack, selling chicken feet to bachelors who had no bother for lighting up a paraffin stove or chop wood to make a fire to prepare food but still had no qualms about taking generous quaffs of liver-melting homemade hooch, the type more potent than Russian vodka.
“What do you have today Gamu?” a shirtless middle-aged man with a rotund middle smiled, bearing yellow teeth that did not appear to have any association with oral hygiene.
Gamu moved closer as she lowered the reed dish from her head.
It was a little after 7 o’clock in the morning but the African Savanna heat was already being felt here with the ferocity of Mount Pinatubo.
As Gamu lifted the cloth that covered the chicken feet, an unannounced swarm of flies descended. Instinctively, Gamu used the only swat she had to her disposal: her bare hands.
“Ha, ha, ha,” guffawed the fat bellied man.
“You cannot do anything about these damn flies, look,” he said pointing at stagnant water outside the communal lavatories just a stone’s throw away where flies and mosquitos had made their home.
As he continued to guffaw, he reached for a wizened chicken foot. He handed Gamu a few coins, and started chewing with his mouth open.
The fat man had given Gamu her first sell, and if all went well, she would be home early with an empty dish and a purse full of coins and dirty notes.
“When are you going to come and cook for me?” he asked as the child counted the coins.
His bloodshot eyes suggested it wasn’t cooking he had in mind.
Gamu shrugged and said: “But I’m only a child,” and walked as fast as her feet could carry her. The fat man gave a Mephistophelian laugh as he watched her disappear into the shack alleys.
Mai Chizu had warned her to look out for men who would want to treat her like a grown woman, and it wasn’t unusual to get reports of a 50 year old man taking in a 12 year old girl, firmly believing this would cure them of a mysterious sexually transmitted ailment.
Gamu joined grown men and women at the open market where business was already so brisk, it suspiciously looked like no one but her had gone home last night.
Women with dazed looks in their eyes sat with dishes in front of them, legs wide open as if to let something into their panties, or perhaps it was a sure way to draw customers.
Whatever it was, open legs and food certainly did not go together.
The women were still in last night mode, a zone of carnal pleasures best enjoyed lying on their backs and legs wide open.
Vendor by day hooker by night was their moniker, with their bloodshot eyes telling a story of years of taking in psychedelic substances to numb the shame and pain of such a hard life.
“Hey Gamu, come here,” the one they called Mai Nhamo beckoned.
She spoke with a slurring voice that said “I had one too many last night.”
But no was bothered. This was the life.
Everyone minded their own business.
If you had nothing to do, you poked your nose into other people’s business – that is if you had no problem having your nose bloodied.
“How old are you now,” Mai Nhamo asked.
It wasn’t known whether she was called Mai Nhamo because she had a son called Nhamo or because her life was a summary of hardships, thus became known as the literal “mother of hardships” for that’s what Nhamo meant: hardship.
“Twelve,” Gamu replied, her one word response knowing where this conversation was going.
“How many times have I told you to come with me so you can make better money?” Mai Nhamo asked, reaching for a khaki covered bottle from where she sipped what must have been a bitter brew for she grimaced as she swallowed.
“Ah, will you leave that child alone,” interjected Mai Chisadza sitting next to Mai Nhamo’s stall.
“What do you know,” Mai Nhamo charged. “Lord knows when you last had a man.”
“Just go away child and stay away from this prostitute,” Mai Chisadza retorted.
In the hustle and bustle of this slum neighbourhood, drama and comic relief was immediately in the offing.
With the agility of a prize fighter, Mai Nhamo lunged at the weightier Mai Chisadza.
Gamu jumped off Mai Nhamo’s path of wrath, who in her haste to land a punch, tripped over her own motely stall of chicken feet, fired pig ears, fried fish, and fried chips.
But Mai Chisadza had seen it coming and ducked.
The drunk Mai Nhamo landed on her mouth, and before she could get up, a thin man wearing a security guard uniform so faded it must have been sewn during the Rhodesia Federation appeared with the swiftness of a wraith.
Apparently, public fighting was illegal but not endangering people’s health by selling all kinds of foodstuffs in the open and under very unhygienic conditions.
The young girl hid her face and giggled as the knickers of a grown woman flashed in the full glare of public eyes.
She giggled because she thought she saw a hole in the knickers.
She wondered in her young mind why the most garrulous were also almost always the physically weak.
The cadaverous man in the faded uniform sprang into action and dragged away the bellicose Mai Nhamo.
What had happened to the promises of that man who had visited her slum neighbourhood not so long ago that this open air food market would be shut down and a new one built with shades and toilets and stuff, Gamu wondered.
What had happened to his promise to her and many other orphans that they would soon be going to school and the man would meet costs?
Yet in her mind, she knew one day, a new day would bring joy to her heart.
Amid all the gloom, Gamu loved life. It was a cruel irony.
Mai Nhamo was led away, to where, Gamu did not know, but she was certain she would see her again.
What she did not know was that as the security guard and Mai Nhamo turned the corner with the crowd cheering and jeering, the two had gone straight into the uniformed man’s shack where a barely conscious Mai Nhamo had paid her fine: in kind.
Not far from where she sat, Gamu could see young boys, perhaps 14, perhaps 15 years old, standing around a table where they played poker.
As they played, they smoked Shamrock rolled in newspapers. She did not understand why they never got into trouble with the thin man in uniform.
It appeared that’s all the boys ever did: play poker and smoke Shamrock.
Had they ever gone to school, the young mind wondered.
It appeared strange that all sorts of high-end vehicles drove past her each day and she never understood how it was that some had it made while she and her grannie had never known any joy all their lives.
Mai Chizuva had told her long-winding tales about her husband, how he had disappeared many decades ago when he had joined other young men to look for well-paying jobs in South Africa’s Wenela.
These were the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association mines where thousands of young men from the great southern African expanse made small fortunes, some dying anonymously deep in the earth, granny explained.
She always spoke fondly about her husband and Wenela, how life had been terrific when granddad sent goodies in their then idyllic village long before the forests disappeared, before mysterious diseases whipped out young men and women.
But the good life had ended abruptly.
“Maybe he died many meters underground,” Mai Chizuva said.
The young child listened and nodded, with no clue what the old woman was going on about.
But as she grew, Gamu began to have a sense of what having and not having meant, and it was her experience here at the food market that opened her eyes to the harsh realities of her life.
She watched men with well-trimmed clothes walk around the food market, bend over as they poked all kinds of foodstuffs before they paid and disappeared into the crowd.
If they could afford those nice clothes, surely they could afford better food, Gamu reasoned.
The paradoxes were unending and only succeeded in torturing the child’s mind with existential puzzles not even the wisdom of her grannie could decipher.
It was a Gordian knot no ordinary man, woman or child in this slum could untangle.
It was now mid-morning and hunger gnawed Chifundo’s young belly.
“What am I going to eat,” she laboured, knowing that Mai Chizuva had counted the chicken feet and knew how much takings she was supposed to bring home.
Gamu’s small frame told a story of under-nourishment, and where her properly fed peers were showing signs of approaching pubescence, she remained a plain Jane in a loosely hanging dress that said here was a girl who did not have many dresses in her wardrobe.
She could take one chicken foot and snack on it, but it was temptation she knew she must resist.
Mai Chizuva never attempted to find out what Gamu ate all day as a vendor in a public place teeming with all kinds of prepared food.
More often, Gamu relied on the benevolence of a customer who would say those magic words: “keep the change.”
No such soul had appeared in the hours she had been here. She tightened her belly. It’s a matter of time before such a one comes.
Suddenly and without warning, the heavens wept.
It was that time of the year where you would expect the weatherman to say something like: “today we can expect high temperatures and humidity, with a chance of afternoon showers.”
But then the weatherman was branded a professional liar by residents of the tin city who twiddled the dials of their small battery-powered wirelesses every evening to listen to news and weather updates.
The coming of the rain was the worst that could happen.
Vendors and customers alike scurried, but there was no cover to talk about.
Some rushed to their shacks nearest to the food market, but there was still no refuge as raindrops fell through leaking roofs, hitting the heads of infuriated shack dwellers who, remembering an old nursery rhyme, could only pray for the rain to go away.
Others stood under garden umbrellas they had erected for protection against the sun.
Gamu covered her food dish and squeezed herself among adults crammed under an umbrella.
Fires and makeshift barbeque stands that had been set up to roast all kinds of items from fish to chicken to corn hissed and went dead.
“Ah, now you see, these people promised to build us a proper market with shades, now look at this,” a man hiding under the umbrella complained.
“These idiots who want nothing but to stuff their faces with the finest food ever known. I will wring any politician’s neck who comes here selling us shit.”
As the rain fell, they watched the ground getting wet under their feet. Then they felt themselves sink as sand became mud. Then they felt the water get into their shoes. And the anger grew.
“Aghhh fuck!” someone screamed, kicking an invisible object.
Gamu wondered that if grown men had no clue and no control of their circumstances, what chance did she have?
After a few minutes, it was all silent. The heavens had stopped weeping.
Food dishes were re-opened, and like old flames, fires were re-kindled and the humdrum returned.
Wiping his charcoal-coloured brow as the sun returned with a vengeance to suck up the little water puddles that littered the market, the uniformed man who had arrested Mai Nhamo approached.
“You must go home now, something terrible has happened. Come with me,” Gandanga the security guard said as he picked up Gamu’s wares.
The girl followed behind, almost running to keep up with the quick-paced Gandanga.
As the vicinity of the shack Gamu called home came into sight, she could see black smoke billowing.
The paraffin stove had blown in Mai Chizuva’s face, everything including the old woman going up in flames.
A few neighbouring timber and plastic shacks had not survived the raging inferno. Among dumbfounded “home-owners” was the fat man who had given Mai Nhamo her first business that morning.
“Why, that old witch, I always told her to be careful with lighting that goddamn paraffin stove inside the shack,” he cursed.
“But it was raining wasn’t it? Would you make a fire outdoors when it’s raining? Are you a fool?” Gandanga asked, rage filling his eyes.
“He’s saying that because his own house was not affected,” another resident chipped in.
As residents waited for the police to take Mai Chizuva’s lifeless body, no one seemed to notice Gamu disappear. No one knew what became of her.
But the fat man knew: she was now preparing meals for him.
Bio: Marko Phiri is a Zimbabwean writer and journalist. He could be reached on twitter via @phirimarko
Photo Cedit: Lanre Buraimoh