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Jo'Burg Days: A Small Present

Poor Mary has to travel many miles from her home to a distant city in another country, there, hopefully, to sell hand-made goods...

Read Barbara Durlacher's article about the plight of the poor in Zimbabwe, and experience pity and anger in equal and generous measure.

She was in late middle-age, waist thickening, hair going a little grey in front, but she still had all her teeth, white and perfect, and such a beautiful smile. I saw her infrequently, but whenever we met we always chatted and exchanged news, although she seldom had anything of great importance to impart. It was always the same sort of everyday trivia; children, work, the current high cost of living and the difficulties of being in business. Her name was Mary, and I knew she travelled a long way to get here.

Looking over her stock I admired one or two items, and asked her how business was going. “I sold two of these the other day, and then one yesterday,” she replied, proudly displaying the articles and obviously hoping I’d buy one. “Yes, business is good.”

Then something caught my eye. I felt the price she quoted was a bit high, but said I’d think it over and come back later. At that she immediately lowered her first figure, saying, “For you, I’ll give you a better price,” then mentioned an amount that was far more in line with the article’s value.

Nevertheless, I delayed, and popped into several other shops, making several large purchases. After all, it was nearly Christmas and the family expected it at this time of year.

Then, somewhat reluctantly, having nothing further to delay me, I walked slowly back to the woman, feeling obliged to fulfil my earlier half-promise to ‘think it over and come back later.

Seeing me, she took the article off the pile and wrapped it in special paper, and I felt I could delay the deal no longer. It seemed churlish to disappoint her, and worse, it was not possible to ignore her thinly disguised desperation.

Handing her a R50 note and receiving a beautiful hand-crocheted cotton table cloth in return, I was shamed to the core when she clapped her hands in grateful acknowledgement. Beaming with delight she said, “Oh Medem, thank you so much, this is my first sale, now I can buy hafalof* … Today, I can eat. The first time for four days. Also, I can send money to Zimbabwe. Medem, you are so good, first you give me the sewing machine, then you help me with food and now you buy this tablecloth, thank you, thank you, thank you!”

The absolute desperation of these poor oppressed people, forced to leave families to cope alone in their economically broken country, refugees from the despotic regime which has robbed poor, simple people, destroyed their homes and livelihoods and wrecked their country, is one of the saddest and most cynical acts of political chicanery enacted in the past fifty years in Africa. Once again a suffering country has been robbed of economic stability and reduced to nothing by corrupt, grasping politicians with greed and self-love as motivators. Nearly two million people have been put out of their survival employment; now many barely exist by selling crude handmade goods to wealthy tourists.

Mary makes the long and exhausting journey twice a month from Bulawayo to Johannesburg to bring her handmade tablecloths, dainty net ‘showers,’ oven gloves and ironing board covers to the big rich city, where she stands, day after day, wordlessly offering her goods to passers-by in the hopes that somebody will make a purchase. It is the only means she has of keeping her family alive.

[half-a-loaf of bread]

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