Just before midnight recently, a middle-aged man staggered across one of the busiest streets of Harare and fell in front of oncoming traffic. We pulled out of the road and tried to help. Instead, the lad started spewing choking obscenities.
My innocent mother, hundreds of kilometres away, wasn’t spared the torrent of venomous vulgarities that followed. We were only trying to help. But the torrent of abusive words, soaked in raw effluent, left us wet. He acted like the worst kind of a degenerate. The moral of the story lies in something more unusual and horrifying.
I shall revert to this in due course.
We had been told that the Ximex Mall, along Angwa Street and adjacent to Joina City in the central business district of Harare, would be demolished and in its place, a high-rise building would be built accommodating the corporate sector, transforming a dark part of the city into a swanky high-class and busy environment with high-end boutiques. This triggered imaginations of Angwa Street being transformed into a zone akin to the French’s Rue de Rivoli or Paris Champs Elysées.
The Ximex Mall had become a hub of hundreds of unemployed youths selling cellphones and other electrical gadgets. Their resilience was spectacular. They spent the whole day standing or leaning against the wall selling their wares. There were bad and good people there. And there was a strong thriving criminal element that is hard to detect — duping people out of their money. In the crowd a sprinkling of graduates that failed to make it into the formal mainstream sector was ever present. This is an articulate, sophisticated generation, which matches the police pound-for-pound at all levels — intellect, manoeuvre and subtle manipulation that can be executed in “cool” terms by words and actions.
It’s difficult to entirely blame the youths who still hang around that place and everywhere they can in cities and towns. They yearn for jobs that never come. Unlike in the commuter omnibus brigade zone of touts and drivers, the colloquial township language is also brewed at former Ximex Mall site, now a car park, and communicated in a manner that will provoke memories of the piercing tone of the form and content of Mordekai Hamutyinei’s poetry Zavirira RaTateguru.
In this brilliant piece of poetry, perhaps the longest written in Shona, Hamutyinei, one of the greatest and adored writers in the country, depicts the frustrations of those beneath the bellies of the earth or stuck in the caves who ponder and wonder at the brutalisation of our norms and values. Hamutyinei captures their frustrations as they lie muhapwa mamakomo (in the armpits of the mountains) in a manner that assumes a spiritual metaphysical dimension.
At stake is the language itself. And how certain behavioural patterns and a new language has taken a new form and content that is perhaps adjusting to the new world and its technological gadgets, but suddenly shaping our sensibilities and collapsing our social tenets and doctrines.
This very active and deadly generation at the new Ximex car park want progress, they want to make it. Some can’t make head or tail of their quandary. This is because the elusive opportunities are blamed on either sanctions or misrule depending on your ideological persuasion or political preferences. But the burning desire to make it and live a reasonably decent life is alive in this youthful generation. It’s difficult to adjust and acclimatise to a harsh economic environment. Some told me they aren’t marrying because they can’t afford the burden of family responsibilities that come with it. After losing their “youthhood”, they are also afraid they are also now losing their “adulthood” due to the prevailing socio-economic environment.
While they think trading in the open streets, particularly at the Ximex park gives them a bit of dignity, as time wanes, hopes slowly wilt like mushrooms and they are easily tempted to take something stronger, deadly and tormenting. Hopes are raised and dashed each day, as each morning at the crack of dawn they stare at an innocent landscape carrying a burden of hopes and despair in a country with virtually everything to succeed, but nothing to show for it. It reminds one of the rich Shona proverb, which loosely translated says when a mother’s back is burnt and the child tummy is burnt too, she cannot carry the infant on her back. As hardships bite, there is nothing in the middle at all. It’s just pain and suffering.
It is this youthful age’s determination that is uplifting and comforting. As men and women in suits walk out of their cars from parking, the youths watch with admiration — that they could have been like them, but they can’t firmly place blame or fully express their exasperation. Their predicament began way back. Nothing has changed or is changing, except the occasional change of weather, as it transforms itself regularly from summer, winter, spring, autumn the same predictable natural cycle.
Inside this youthful generation are potential doctors, nurses, engineers, whose future is painfully on ice. Among them well-meaning men who will give you a fair value for your cellphone. Some tricksters, with no conscience, who will take pride in conning an old blind woman seeking direction to Budiriro are also there. There are some heartless blokes that would certainly need a heart transplant. They have no heart at all. Yet they live. This mix-up of different behavioural patterns at Ximex area sums up the tragic and complex form of the level of desperation that, like acid, is eating deep into our collective conscience.
While these youths struggle to make ends meet, they would have left in the townships, back home, houses of hunger. Their siblings are toiling as well in this economic heat of October to proportions that call for family austerity measures forcing them to go for a single meal a day. Their closest to shopping is getting to Mupedzanhamo flea market in Mbare, where with US$5, they can buy second-hand clothes just to keep themselves clothed and going.
If we could, we would prefer this never happened. It incinerates our soul, dignity, hopes and our pride as a people.
That an unemployed sister leaves home early evening and brings money for groceries at dawn is not a subject matter for our usual traditional interrogation. It’s now encouraged. Why, because nobody is working and everyone wants to survive at all costs. Where I come from in Zvishavane, the immediate Chasura clan elders would seek and demand answers. Unexplained proceeds are treated with intense suspicion. Even an unemployed young man buying a top-of-the-range vehicle would be grilled.
In the popular 1969 novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo, where a vicious tale of a Mafia family is told, the writer selected an interesting epigraph. It starts with Balzac’s famous quote that “behind every great fortune is a great crime”. But in Zimbabwe today, it matters not where you get the loot or even the groceries. When the sense of right and wrong are expunged and decency is ridiculed, the end result is moral decadence that yearns for divine or spiritual interventions as envisaged in Zavirira RaTateguru.
The value system in an African traditional milieu is set at home. But such questions never arise at present. Many of us are now behaving the same. As Hamutyinei writes: “Tose vakuru nevaduku, tasiti mumahumbwe bvururu. (All of us, the old and young, we are immersed into kids’ play).
Away from the Ximex park every morning, in the townships, the youths visit local bridges for small talk and drugs. They converge into groups. Gangsterism is a thing associated with hard-core elements in difficult townships where drug smuggling elicit much societal support as it racks in millions of dollars every year. We haven’t reached that ugly level yet, hence you will never hear of Mexican or Colombian-style underground cartels, gangsters or drug lords that instil fear and declare certain townships no-go areas for both the police and public.
But the low-level drug smuggling syndicates are marketing and abusing available drugs like Bronco, easily obtained from pharmacists who, in this harsh environment, are pushing into the market the drugs to unemployed youths who in turn, due to frustration, are turning to drugs to contain their anger, frustration and desperation. A deadly syndicate that has made a fortune overnight is pushing hard drugs in the townships among the idle and unemployed youths. Some of these drugs find their way to Ximex park and back.
The devastation caused by the economic hardships has created a debilitating sense of hopelessness and frustration among the youths. The protracted period of economic decline has shattered the foundations of human feelings and stalled progress. The temptation to douse off the flames of frustration using drugs is what has compounded the social crisis.
Psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud exposed before what he termed the death instinct and the “hidden strivings and conflicts beneath the mask of civilisation”. Freud observed that human life is a “constant struggle against the death instinct that we must learn to keep these destructive strivings within bounds lest they send us to our own destruction”. Freud wondered why humans so often act against their own best interests even the desire to survive. Human beings’ propensity for self-destruction is just baffling.
Picture this, CPZ is a drug for the mentally-challenged. The Annex department at our hospitals is a place for mentally-challenged people. To sedate them, doctors use CPZ, a first generation anti-psychotic agent which works by blocking dopamine receptors in the brain. The drug has many side effects which include excitement, making it suitable as a drug of abuse.
CPZ is now being abused. It makes the youths either sedate, helpless and sleepy or even violent, from what I hear. The key objective is to sleep and forget the burning worries abound. These are normal people who with time will end up joining others at Annex without knowing it.
And Histalix and Bronco are commonly used cough suppressants. Their chemical form is designed to stop cough and dry secretions of mucous. They contain a chemical element that has a rare side effect of being hallucinogenic — some form of instability. This side effect is being exploited extensively in townships. We now have an idle and dying generation in our midst. A 150ml of Bronco and Histalix is selling for US$3. Musombodia, a deadly blend of ethanol and some spirits from Mozambique, is selling for US$1 for the 100ml or US$7 for the 750ml bottle. Youths would rather buy this, not milk or bread. That is their answer to mounting hardships and suffering. The only solution is to die rather than adapt.
The addictions are now resulting in palpable social deviance, paranoia and anti-social personality disorders which now range from violence, dissociation, catatonia and bipolar. Walk in the townships ad or in the streets towards or during weekends, it’s showing.
Youths battling to talk and walk are now an everyday sight. In colloquial street lingo, they say aka sticker (he or she is sedated). This is what Bronco does to them. Deaths associated with such abuse are commonplace. And the worst victims are the relatives, friends, with the state, losing a very productive and efficient generation. Parents are bereaved, wives widowed and children orphaned.
Such tendencies towards self-destruction are running rampant. And ways of controlling this horrible death instinct has lost much of its hold. It’s now difficult to restrain man’s destructive tendencies.
While the youths drown into the abyss, a business-as-usual attitude is our answer to this phenomenon. We are in a state of denial about what is happening around us. It is the most destructive of attitudes — unproductive criminal indifference.
As for the lad in Samora Machel, he appeared to have taken something. We later gathered from his colleagues that he had taken CPZ. I gather it causes agitation and alters brain chemistry and propensity for violence or crude behaviour. As he spewed the unprovoked obscenities, he struggled to get up and say something. He suddenly lost his anger and became helpless again.
Street kids — themselves an indictment to managers of Zimbabwe plc — advised we shouldn’t bother calling an ambulance. He had taken something intoxicating. Something that made him throw himself in front of oncoming traffic. He would rather be knocked down by a car than be creative and find something productive to do. Life just can’t be this devastating to our own youths. We can’t adapt to and adopt this.
Perhaps, to some extent, what could have helped are more recreational facilities. The little that was set up after the 1995 All-Africa Games is gone. Of course, at a broader level, competent economic management and empowerment of youths could help. But for now we are stuck with the “sticking” youths. A lost generation.
Hungwe freelances for BBC and is also a lawyer.