Joseph Nyoni is usually brimming with other men looking for jobs as touts.
Matopos Road in this suburban area of Fourwinds shops is a hotspot where several men come from different suburbs to work as touts.
But it has been eerily quiet since the initial lockdown. Everything is still — one could never imagine listening to the sounds of birds chirping in such a busy area.
But I did — almost in disbelief.
I soon spotted a group of familiar touts huddled in a corner.
I stopped and asked them, from a safe distance, if they were following the lockdown guidelines.
Nyoni, who comes from Cowdray Park, said that he knew there were policemen manning the streets but they still took their chances.
“Every day I have five people to feed. We will run out of food in a few days. I know the risk of coronavirus, but I can’t watch my children go hungry,” he said.
Across the street, under a tree, Joyce Chizilika, 52, sits at her vegetable stall waiting for customers.
But there are none in sight. Most Zimbabweans have heeded Government calls to stay at home.
“Food is my major problem, so that’s why I come here to work. I have no choice. I thought it was better to come to work, maybe a few customers would buy chomolia. But there is no one here. I regret ever coming here today,” she says.
The income Chizilika makes in a week, is insufficient to meet her daily needs.
“I take care of my three grandchildren, who all look up to me. Now that they are home, they would need food all the time. It is going to be costly for me.”
Further down the road, Nobert Maphosa, 70, trudges along the deserted Matopos Road to buy mealie-meal at the shops.
In one hand, he clutches a letter showing his proof of residence and a shopping bag; on the other, he holds firmly to his walking stick.
To his dismay, there is no mealie-meal and the security guard is already closing the shop.
The frail Maphosa pleads with the security guard to at least be allowed inside to buy bread but his efforts are in vain as he is turned away.
The 70-year-old works as a gardener.
“I came to the shops to find mealie-meal. I cannot just sit at home and starve. Usually my boss does not want me out of the yard because he fears I might bring corona. I managed to get out of the house today because he has gone to work. I don’t even know what to do now. This pandemic has just come to worsen things for me. I am already starving, and being forced to stay indoors for that long will further depress me,” says Maphosa walking away from the shops.
While affluent Zimbabweans stocked their pantries with food in preparation for the lockdown, and some are still stocking, poor people were unable to do so. With basics such as mealie-meal in short supply, many fear they may not survive.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Zimbabwe has the second largest informal economy as a percentage of its total economy in the world, after Bolivia. In a working paper titled, “Shadow Economies Around the World: What Did We Learn Over the Last 20 Years?” in which 158 economies were studied, Zimbabwe, with a score of 60,6 percent, came second to Bolivia which topped at 62,3 percent.
Most security guards, cleaners, streets vendors, garbage collectors and domestic helps do not have access to pensions, sick leave, paid leave or any kind of insurance. Many do not have bank accounts, relying on cash to meet their daily needs.
Already, these people have been the hardest hit and have been feeling the pain. The sayings: “I would rather die of coronavirus than hunger” or “It’s either we die of hunger or of coronavirus, we have to choose” or “Hunger will kill us before corona does”, are common among them.
Now, because of quarantines and confinement, stoppages and curfews, there is no work. No work means no income. No income, no food.
Without alternative income sources, the International Labour Organisation warned: “These workers and their families will have no means to survive.”
The World Food Programme (WFP) warned that 7,7 million Zimbabweans — about half the population — would face food insecurity this year. The agency said it needed $111 million to support people between March and August.
“WFP is determined to ensure that it continues to meet the urgent food and nutrition needs of almost 4 million people in Zimbabwe who depend on food assistance,” said WFP communications officer Claire Nevil.
WFP’s and other donor organisations efforts are applaudable, but it is sad that not every poor Zimbabwean benefits from the assistance.
Nyoni mentioned that part of the reason he had to risk being a tout in Fourwinds although he stays in Cowdray Park was that other communities receive food assistance but where he stays they have not yet received anything.
Nyoni’s resident chairperson Lindiwe Sibanda echoed the same sentiments.
“Life is very hard here because of this pandemic. Nyoni is one of the residents who usually comes to my house to ask for mealie-meal. I used to give them but right now I don’t have. I am also struggling,” said Sibanda.
She added: “You might be shocked if I tell you that some residents have figured out there are edible tree leaves and that is what they are surviving on these days. That is our reality in Cowdray Park. I heard some people in different areas got food but we have not received any. We are just hoping that donors who promised us food like the popular prophet Madzibaba Emmanuel Mutumwa will deliver.”