Notwithstanding the hold-ups determined to thwart her dreams, 45-year-old Silibaziso Mpofu has been vending from the same spot in Harare’s First Street Mall since 1992, having been introduced to hawking by her mother in 1990 when she was barely 13.
As the women’s month reels out, Mpofu’s story is more than pertinent in that it explores how women endure the hard knocks of life for the sake of their children.
Born in Insiza District, Matabeleland South Province, in 1977, Mpofu has been literally raised on the streets, hich are known to scald and break women down. She has also taught her daughters, Clara Ncube (25) and Vanessa Jaricha (21), how to navigate their way out of the fear associated with the streets of her trade, which have often brought her tears—tears of both exhilaration and dejection—in equal measure.
Hers is a story of the resilience that only a hen eagle exhibits in a jungle where eaglets are a delicacy. It is a tale of motherhood. From an early age Mpofu learnt that the nature of their being exposes women to all forms of fear—the fear of the unknown being paramount.
Beating the early morning dew at 0430hrs, Mpofu’s day begins with a sojourn to Mbare Musika before she hits her vending spot in the central business district of Harare around 9.30am. She knocks off at 7pm when the large retailer from whose pavement she operates closes shop.
A mother of two daughters and a son, all of whom she has taken through boarding school, Mpofu takes The Herald down the vending lane that shaped her resolve.
“I had my first contact with the streets as a vendor in 1990 when I was waiting for my Grade Seven examinations results,” she says, attending to one of her customers.
It is mid-morning and the streets of Harare are already bustling, with everyone appearing to adopt that devil-may-care attitude which Zimbabweans are known for. An occasional acquaintance, friend or loved one from the redolent alcoves of both the past and present stops-by for a chit-chat, as Mpofu doles out generous servings of salted roasted peanuts amid peals of laughter and hearty giggles.
“You know that my address is at the corner of First Street and Nelson Mandela Avenue; that’s where you find me, not home!” she tells one of them, a male, before dipping her hand into a winnowing basket balanced on a pile of bags in front of her.
She pours a helping of peanuts into his open palm the way old friends do; reminding one of generous granny back in the day.
It really feels like home! She often has to break conversation to attend to her customers, inquiring about this service, item or that.
“You see, when my father died, my mother left the five of us; my two sisters, two brothers and I, with our maternal grandmother in Insiza to try her luck in Harare in 1987,” she resumes.
“She was taken in by her elder sister, a vendor, who lived at the Matapi Hostels in Mbare. My other brother, the youngest in our family, was only two years old then.”
Without taking her eyes off the basket from which she scoops roasted nuts and packs them in plastic sachets, Mpofu says vending became the only option for her mother to fend for her children back home in Insiza.
“She used to sell packaging sacks and sack bags at Jasbro along Kaguvi Street. That is where I joined her for the first time in 1990. She later moved to this place at the corner of First Street and Nelson Mandela Avenue in 1992,” she reveals.
Being the eldest child, Mpofu would later help out her mother during school holidays when she moved to her new hunting ground. After the holidays she would take groceries, clothes and money back home for her siblings and grandmother.
Through her mother and aunt, Mpofu realised that the responsibilities that burden a mother in a seemingly careless patriarchal and cosmopolitan world, create anxiety and fear, leading to psychological and emotional imprisonment. Society expects a woman, especially a married or widowed one, to behave in certain ways, and if she does otherwise she is stereotyped and ostracised.
“My mother was multi-talented, I would say. The load would have been exacerbated had she relied on packaging sacks and sack bags to provide for us, her children, and of course our grandmother,” Mpofu says.
“She was adept at crocheting doilies, handbags and hats, which were in vogue then, and popular with tourists as well as travelling white clients.”
Mpofu says as they grew up, so did their demands grow, increasingly making it difficult for their mother to provide for them. By the time she got to Form Three in 1993, the pressure was overwhelming for her mother, who by then had another child.
“Owing to lack of school levies and the required examination fees, I dropped out of school during the first term of Form Four in 1994, and joined my mother in the vending enterprise on a full-time basis,” she says.
Thus, beginning a voyage of twists and turns resplendent in a woman’s apparel, basically replaying itself ad infinitum. It is a journey in which the individual attempts to outpace society. However, with fear constantly whispering in many a woman’s ears, for how long does one keep pace, or even outstrip societal expectation?
“When I joined my mother at this spot, my siblings and I’s fortunes changed for the better. I would occasionally go to Insiza with provisions and school fees,” Mpofu recalls.
As fate would have it, however, she married young. That was in 1996 when she was 19 and her husband, Ncube, was about 22.
New responsibilities of her own meant that she had to be weaned from her mother, who kept her under a protective wing, though. Leaving Mpofu on their original spot, she moved a few paces away. A vendor to the hilt, Mpofu’s mother remained a pillar of strength to her daughter until her death in 2014.
She was still operating from the same place she introduced her daughter to way back in 1992, having taken a brief hiatus in the mid-2000s.
“In early 1997, when our daughter, Clara, was about three months old, my husband fell ill. His parents subsequently took him to their family home in Bulawayo, since I was too young to look after him alone, considering, also, the piling medical bills,” Mpofu says.
“I would later join him there, and before the year was out, he died.”
Devastated by the death of her husband and burdened by the responsibilities that come with motherhood, the irrepressible young mother soldiered on. She would remarry about three years later, but the marriage, which produced a daughter, Vanessa, and a son, Ephraim Jaricha, did not last long.
“It hasn’t been a smooth glide; nothing about the streets is ever smooth anyway; what with the running battles with the police and predatory men looking to bring harm to any vulnerable woman who comes along!” Mpofu reflects.
“It is a matter of life and death if one has children. A mother learns to grow a thick skin where her family’s bread is concerned. That is how I have been able to trade from here all these years.”
With an eye for new opportunities, over the years, Mpofu saw her range of merchandise transforming as the operating environment also received its fair share of whacks.
“A lot has changed around here, I may say. From the wares that we sell, through the modus operandi, to the environs. Some shops have closed, while others have been opened,” she says.
“Gone are the days of packaging packs, sack bags and the mobile vendor who runs after potential customers. I was the first one to spread-out wares here; ranging from carrier bags, plastic bags, hats, socks and the like, depending on season.”
First Street, she reminisces, was “beautiful”.
She particularly recalls a time when a branch manager at the hypermarket at whose pavement she had laid base took them in as helpers.
“It was between 2003 and 2005 when the branch manager at the retailer, Mr Salim, allowed the five of us younger vendors and two others to operate from within. The arrangement was that we would pack customers’ groceries and sell our sack bags to them. We would also keep our merchandise in the shop,” she says.
“Because the shop offered promotions, business was brisk. With the added advantage of having peace of mind as we no longer had to run from law enforcement agents, we even started a savings club which bettered our livelihoods in a big way.”
Mpofu would also encounter what every mother fears when her daughter reaches puberty—the fear of early pregnancy.
In 2012, when her first daughter, Clara, was 15, and in Form Three, she fell pregnant. Deciding on better game between her shattered mother and the unknown, Clara eloped with the 18-year-old young man she was pregnant by. The young sweethearts were from the same neighbourhood of Glen View 4 in Harare.
“I was heartbroken. Clara was intelligent. Although she would help me out here during school holidays, since Form One, she had so many big dreams”, Mpofu says.
Three years later, with a toddler daughter, Cleopatra, in tow, the young mother tracked back home, wiser on the pressures that usually weigh the matrimonial base down.
“I knew that the couple was too young for marriage and would soon call it quits. So, I took my daughter and grandchild in. I told her to go back to school, starting from Form Three,” the grandmother of one says.
Clara, who later wrote her Ordinary Level examinations, and passed six subjects, is now pursuing a course with the Red Cross Society of Zimbabwe.
“I was a wayward child, but I am grateful that my mum gave me a second chance,” Clara opens up to The Herald.
Clara and her younger sister, Vanessa, have now joined their mother as they always do every day after school or other errands.
It is around 3pm now.
“I have known the streets since I was 13. They are not for the spineless, particularly the girl child. Some men believe that girls and women vending in the streets sell more than wares, but their bodies also,” Clara says. “Gauging your desperation, they will pester you nonstop.”
Mpofu has since added bulk airtime and salted roasted peanuts to her wares.
“When the shop here was being renovated in 2017, I realised that I could not make it on vending alone. So, I resorted to barter; trading goods for maize grain in Mvurwi, which I would later sell to the Grain Marketing Board,” she says.
The Covid-19 pandemic was also an eye-opener to Mpofu, as the lockdowns aimed at curbing its spread played havoc on her trade. She set her sights on Muzarabani where she barters goods for sorghum and groundnuts through a relative.
“Barter has proven to be quite a profitable enterprise,” she intimates.
She sells the sorghum acquired through barter to the GMB, and used to sell the shelled groundnuts in bulk at Mbare Musika, but has since stopped.
“It dawned on me that I would realise more profits by selling salted roasted and packed peanuts to vendors at Mbare rather than trading groundnuts in bulk. At the moment I have 30 buckets of shelled groundnuts,” she says.
Every morning, except on Sundays, at around 4.30am, Mpofu and her husband leave their Ruwa home for Mbare where she sells bulk airtime and sachets of roasted peanuts. She says she gets about US$30 for each bucket of roasted peanuts, instead of US$20 or less for the same quantity if sold in bulk.
Twenty-one-year-old Vanessa is all praises for her heroine—her mother.
Having passed her Cambridge Advanced-Level examinations, she was offered a place to study medicine and surgery at Edern University in Zambia, starting from May this year.
She has already accepted the offer, and her mother is raising the requisite fees.
Meanwhile, she is doing a baking and catering course in Borrowdale which set her mother off US$360.
“I salute my mother for all she has done for us. My father relocated to Botswana when I was very young, but I never lacked anything,” Vanessa says.
“She has taught me that with patience, determination and perseverance one can make it in life regardless of background. I have also learnt from my mother the essence of hard work, and how to handle and respect money.”
Vanessa says though her mother has not gone far in formal education, she breaks her back to cater for their schooling.
“She has managed to take us through boarding school. After primary school at Glen View 6 Primary School, I attended Sodbury High School, which is a private boarding school in Darwendale, before moving on to Terrence Cecil Hardy High School in Ruwa for my A-Levels,” she says. “My elder sister, Clara, enrolled at Pamushana High School in Nyika for her secondary education.”
Their 15-year-old brother, Ephraim, is doing Form Three at a boarding school in Norton, burning a US1 000 dollar hole in their mother’s pocket every term in fees and other requirements.
Beating the odds stacked against her through ingenuity, Mpofu managed to buy a stand in Ruwa through Parirenyatwa Cooperative and build a cottage. In 2018 she and her family moved from Glen View 4 to their new home.
“She also bought two cars, which she uses as taxis; one of which is used by my stepfather, who has been supportive throughout. If all goes well, she wants to buy a kombi to use in her business as she intends to open a grocery shop in Darwendale,” Vanessa says.
Vanessa says the streets, which she was introduced to by her mother at 13, have the capacity to make or break any woman.
“There are times when my mother comes home dejected after having lost goods or money to police or council raids. She would brave it the following day as if nothing would have happened,” she says.
“It is not all roses and orchids in these streets. It is not everybody who makes it here. If you ask around, you will learn that most vendors around here are my mother’s relatives; her aunts and sisters. But, the lady of good fortune smiles or scoffs at them differently.”
To Vanessa’s mum, the sky may not even be the limit. If given a chance, she can soar above the glass ceiling fashioned to scuttle women’s dreams, and weigh mothers down.