by Marko Phiri
From the long queue of people ahead of him in the supermarket, Skara knew right away he had to abandon everything he had on his “to do list” for the day.
“One thing that I have learnt since this nonsense of using other people’s money was introduced is that you don’t go to the shops when you are in a hurry,” Skara heard someone behind him curse.
“Yeah,” a second voice responded, “this is what happens when you hand over the country to a group of incompetent nincompoops.”
“If I were you I would be careful what I say,” a third voice warned.
“What kind of country are you not allowed to complain? Nx!” the second voice responded.
And Skara knew it was going to be like that for as long as they stood miserably in the queue. If these people had a choice, they sure would have gone home, but how can you go home to the children without buying any groceries? What are you going to eat? Mouthfuls of air pie, that’s more like it. Skara looked ahead of him. The long queue showed no sign of moving. He knew that if he left and walked to another supermarket, he would find the same long queues, and not because it was the end of the month and the civil servants had just got paid, but because the tellers had no change.
Livid Bulawayo shoppers could be seen standing next to tills as the teller served others with the hope they would purchase whatever it was they wanted with “loose money.” This was a place where dumbfounded shoppers made their purchases in one currency and got change in another, creating the ideal conditions for aisle rage. Skara recalled the time he would spend the whole day in fuel queues a few years ago, where agitated motorists in long winding fuel queues did not hesitate to throw what he felt were misdirected punches at each other instead of the political elites who had given birth to this misery.
“But at least things are better now,” a voice said behind him, as if to placate the shoppers’ boiling tempers.
“There is now food in the shops than that time when people had the money but there was nothing to buy.”
“You really think it is better now? Look at the money we are earning. All this food on the shelves does not mean anything if no one is able to buy it. What is your mother in the rural areas eating?” a female voice chipped in.
Must be a very angry teacher to make reckless reference to a stranger’s mother like, Skara thought. The contradictions of trouble in the land of plenty didn’t ended there. This after all was a country where filthy rich politicians lined up to generously give hundreds of thousands of dollars to a television reality show loser and ignored a poor father who appeared on national television appealing for five hundred bucks for a life-saving scan for his five year old daughter. Skara recalled in his tortured mind that he had received an SMS from a neighbour asking for a “soft loan.” You see, the children had gone for days without any meal because the factory owner had said he had no money and had instead paid his workers with the products they produced: shoes! So they had to sell the shoes to pay themselves, the factory owner reasoned rather confidently. But who bought locally made shoes when everyone was turning to the Chinese shops that littered Bulawayo’s CBD at every turn? And this was where you could find a pair of shoes for a dollar, never mind that the soles fell off after just one wear. And many could still be found saying things were much better, and Skara wondered what they used to measure this despite the glaring contradictions. Fights had broken out as buddies argued not about the politics of the day, but because one was insisting “things” were better when the other said it was better for thieves and spivs.
“So you think things are better huh,” a guy said to another one hot day as they stood taking generous gulps of whatever brew they could get their throats on. “If you think things are so good, why don’t you buy us a round of beer,” and that was the measure, the ghetto index, the boys used to gauge how you kept your head above the brokenness now known by many here as a second nature.
“You must be crazy to think I will buy you beer instead of buying my kids bacon and eggs,” the rather arrogant man responded, and that was enough for him to find himself at the local police post narrating how he got his swollen eye and missing tooth! Why, even the local tabloid had reported the other week how a tout had lost an eye after a work colleague had gouged it out with a fist as they tussled over a five Rand coin! There is too much cash around, some continued to insist, but one had to ask the tout with the missing eye if this was at all true.
Meanwhile, back at the supermarket queue, the minutes dragged by and finally it was Skara’s turn at the till. He produced a USD100 bill for his purchases and as the teller punched the till keys, about four other people stood by the side waiting for their change. The looks on their faces said it all: this was stuff a revolution and wildcat street marches were made of, yet the sentiments in the queue told a story about the folly of speaking one’s mind.
“How many people have died since the year 2000, killed by the police, the army and political hooligans and have you ever heard anyone being arrested for it? You think your complaints will change anything? You just want to disappear for no reason. Just mind your business or you will leave your children suffering for no reason,” said a pedagogue-looking type with formal clothes that had been thrown together just for the sake of it. He had a face that was not particularly pallid, but something said here was a guy who did not exactly balance his diet and did not want any problems in his life as he already had very little on his plate, literally. You know the kind of guy who does not hesitate to soliloquise when he is having one of those moments when the world becomes too much for him? Yea, for some reason he looked like that kind of guy. His words of admonishing total strangers were followed by complete silence, and because the paranoia knew no bounds here in the land of rabid nationalists and sell-outs, real and imagined, some suspected the chap must be an intelligence operative, a C-10 as they were called and dreaded. Why hell, the C-10 tag, derived from the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) abbreviation, was even bandied around as if it was some badge of honour, with members of the public appearing to romanticise the whole spooky and murderous aura that had come to be associated with anyone thought to belong to the dark outfit. And only the other day, a daring lad had been thrown into the penitentiary for masquerading as a C-10!It had it pecks no doubt, but only as long as you were the real McCoy.
But then for this thin man admonishing other shoppers it would have been a cruel contradiction: a member of the intelligentsia languishing in a queue with ordinary types when he sure could have used his intelligence to get the few groceries he had with him elsewhere without going through this madness. Yet still it had been whispered that such types did mingle with the masses as part of the miserable crowd only to eavesdrop on potential trouble-makers. It was crazy but so true and everyone in the queue seemed to know it by some kind of esoteric connection. Yet this was still Bulawayo where some imagined they could speak their mind and not regret it, claiming the spooks had no business browbeating anyone as the nationalists had long been rejected. “We rule this city,” some would say in rather careless confidence. But the nationalists were quick in their own ways to retort, “No you don’t,” and had thrown such types into Khami prison to cool off!
Meanwhile, the silence lasted until Skara got to the till, which seemed an eternity. He joined others beside the teller who said to him:
“I have no change sir, do you mind waiting?”
“Like I have any choice,” Skara mumbled under his breath.
The teller gave him a tired smile, and yelled: “Next please.”
She served a man who made purchases of a few items then turned to him and said: “Here is you change sir, but I have no coins, do you mind if I give you some sweets?”
Skara did not know whether to laugh or cry.
“Sweets you say?” the man pot-bellied man asked looking rather dumbfounded.
“Yes, sweets or anything so that I can round off the figure.”
“No thanks. I just want my change as it is.”
“Then you will have to wait.”
The teller said, her smile morphing into an irritated snarl.
“Next!” she said, signalling to the man she was done with him.
“Yah, change sure is pain,” yet another man said as he emptied the trolley and stacked his groceries on the counter.
Minutes passed, and the irritation of the shoppers was getting palpable, the teller increasingly becoming unnerved. It was then that an employee of the supermarket took to the intercom and bellowed over the speakers: “Attention please! People want change, can anyone help? People want change, can anyone help?”
Either the guy is a wisecrack or he just ain’t listening to what he is saying, Skara thought. The announcer said it as if he was appealing to someone who by some lucky chance was moving around with a sack full of South African coins. Skara, like everyone in the queue thought it was amusing and the whole queue was jolted into knowing mirth. But change had become a problem for everyone and it had become a popular refrain and a convenient metaphor for everything that was wrong with the people’s lives. Vendors were now selling change to all who sought it, including big supermarkets, and thus the madness continued to public transport where very uncaring touts paired total strangers to split the change among themselves along the way after dropping them off! Commuter omnibus drivers now kept sjamboks under seats for self-defence after incensed passengers complained they had been fleeced by the tout in changing US dollars to South African rands and vice versa.
Shortly as shoppers stood waiting for their change, a security van screeched to a halt just outside the shop’s entrance. Out came not-very-muscular guards weakly brandishing assault rifles while two others carried a heavy steel trunk, like the one loved by boarding school kids. Shoppers cleared the way, and soon there were whispers that change was here at last. A few minutes more, coins were being emptied into tills.
No one awaited their turn as stretched hands extended to till operators, tipping tills in the process and sending South African coins racing across the floor!
“Please, order, order people!” bellowed a voice through the intercom.
But who would miss out on a chance to pick up a few coins that would save many change headaches? The street urchins lurking outside swarmed the supermarket and went off with coins they would later sell to shoppers and other stranded strangers who were failing to go about their affairs because, while they had a hundred dollar bills in their pockets, they still found themselves miserable because they could not get change. Soon, the supermarket guards were on hand to bring order out of the chaos as baton sticks rained on the backs of looters and non-looters alike.
Reflecting on the day’s events as he nursed a bruise from a baton stick, Skara managed to smile. He had managed to grab the $100USD bill from the till and make off with his groceries.
But he knew one thing for certain: change is pain.
To comment and talk about this piece with the rest of the KR Community visit our Facebook Page.
Marko Phiri is a Zimbabwean writer and journalist. He has written dozens of short stories, short film scripts and has also produced a short film. You can read more of his work on Kubatanblogs and on his blog.