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Homeless in Harare Another Day
Patricia McFadden

It has become a daily occurrence—I find myself headed towards the intersection between Tongogara Ave and Second Street, almost on the 'edges' of the city of Harare, because it's the easiest route to take to my son's school, each day of the week. It is also the quickest route given that I am almost always invariably late leaving my office, which is about a mile from the school. And so each day as I approach that intersection, I realize that I will have another encounter with 'the homeless', one of several, seemingly unavoidable meetings, each time I go into town.

The 'homeless'—and here I am using the term homeless not only in relation to the absence of a structure or place of domicile, especially as the limited research that exists on children who beg on the streets of Zimbabwe and some African capitals shows that many of these beggar children do have an adult in their lives, and they have a shack to which they return each night. It is most certainly not a home as the middle class or working class and/or rural person might define a home, but it is a place of location at the end of the day, as un-homely as it might seem. I am, however, using the notion of homelessness in relation to the absence of a set of civic rights which each and every society is assumed to endow to its constituents, particularly to its young; a set a civic rights which have been assumed to be inalienable and to lie at the very core of what makes a society decent and dignified. Human—in other words.

These are the civic rights that have come out of a long, precarious and innately collective struggle by humanoids to become persons in a social sense, through the construction of an aesthetic of living which is essentially inclusive of all who are born into such social moments. What we call societies. In all these social moments, over time, humans have prided themselves with having crafted the most special and most revered place of existence—a place we call home. It is a place that is supposed to be the natural site of love and kindness; where we are received when we enter this planet, and where we are guaranteed safety, security and survival. That is the theory, of course, which the state, for example, is supposed to translate into reality for all who live in human societies.

It is the ideal for which women are prepared throughout the first years of their existence—to aspire to become a wife/mother/homemaker. In all patriarchal societies, young females are molded and shaped into 'homemakers'—it is the core of femaleness and the highest status that a woman could possibly achieve—patriarchally, that is. 'Home is where the heart is', the heart of a person/a community/a nation/a species. Making a home has become a critical instinct in all living creatures, and for humans who claim that they are above all other creatures in terms of intelligence and the ability to survive, home is the true marker of having arrived, of being there and having lived.

Therefore, to me 'the homeless' are not simply persons who bother us on the streets and who make us feel annoyed that the lights turned red just as we approached an intersection, and we will have to deal with their being there, swarming around us while we pretend their absence and drum our fingers on the steering wheel or reel up the window as we approach those 'stupid' lights that have trapped us for a few seconds in a place of anxiety. These are people who have been denied their civic right to live a dignified life and who have been driven onto the streets—into the public—as beggars; persons who are dependent on the generosity and kindness of other persons who are going about their business in the public—going to work, to school, shopping, passing through to another destination and so forth. In the midst of all this traffic we meet 'the homeless', and they come in all shapes, sizes, ages and conditions of life.

Some of the homeless persons I meet each day are recent arrivals into our society, and they basically have 'landed with a thud', so to speak. At a guess, and using my limited maternal experience as a female who has bred and raised children, I would say that the youngest child I have seen on the street as a homeless person was about two weeks old. She/he was strapped onto the back of probably a sister, although I have often seen babies of a few months older on the backs of young boys as well. What strikes me each time is the realization of how poverty erases the gender divide in moments of extreme crisis; how it does not really matter, in its conventional sense, within situations where the presence of a baby is supposed to elicit the sympathy and material response of a better endowed person—usually riding in a car—instead of signifying the reproduction of an age-old gendered socialization process that has naturalized the social reproduction of humans as a 'female chore'.

And this expectation of sympathy almost always works with me. If I have to choose whom to give that last ten dollar note from among the children who are crowding my window just before the light turns green, I will definitely give it to the girl with the baby on her back/or to the boy who is still trying to negotiate this new identity and quickly learn the skills of moving in and out between the cars; carrying his baby sister or brother on his back without getting run down. Much later, when I think about an encounter and the faces of the children flash across my memory, I wonder how those little girls and boys—often not older than six or eight years—manage to keep hungry babies quiet on their backs. I have yet to see one of those babies awake, let alone hear her or him crying, as most babies do (even the well-fed often over-fed middle-class ones scream frequently).

Maybe I should ask their caregivers how this feat of human ingenuity is achieved, although on second thought, those little ones are probably in a state of coma from the hunger into which they are born. Starvation does have the effect of lulling one to sleep, especially after it becomes a constant state of being, and while those babies could be described as 'good babies'—they sleep as much and as often as possible and every mother knows how wonderful it is to have one of those—the reality is that they are probably starved into silence. For their sisters and brothers who lug them around all day, themselves starving from the lack of food and basic necessities, a quiet baby is a necessity because it makes the arduous task of begging a little easier, I suppose. It also probably frightens those anxious motorists less if the 'homeless' are not accompanied by the screeching cries of a hungry baby. I suspect that between starving, a whiff of glue and the basic instinct of survival, those babies have simply accepted the reality of being without a home—they have learnt to survive from day one.

Either way, they are on the street begging for a living. And as I approach the intersection, I go through a whole gamut of feelings and motions. Sometimes I feel prepared for the encounter; I know that I have some small notes in ten or twenty dollar denominations, in that little pull-out compartment most cars come with, which was made for smokers to use; to dust their cigarette ash into and or stub that incorrigible cigarette out when it comes to its often too rapid end. Because I am no longer a smoker (although I will always be a nicotine addict and now and then I still long for one of those tubular hazards twenty three years later), I use my 'smoker's drawer' as a little safe for my philanthropic resources, because that is basically what it is—philanthropy. I am often in a good mood—I love living in Zimbabwe, the country of my choice in terms of putting down my roots (being the wanderer that I am, I have an instinctual need to roam); I like my job working as a radical feminist in a regional organization, and even if I still have to growl now and then to protect my intellectual turf and insist on feminist ideals and principles, for years I have enjoyed doing the work I do and having the professional status that I have achieved.

Therefore, I am usually feeling generous towards other human beings, particularly those human beings who are obviously in need of sympathy of some form—material and otherwise. That is why beggars and so-called street children do not frighten me, as such. If I am in the queue to turn left onto Second Street from Tongogara, which means I have about three minutes to turn off from the daily hustle and bustle of being a busy activist/household manager/radical feminist/research coordinator etc, I can chat with the children who come up to my window; ask them questions—simply things like a name, the gender of the baby on her/his back, who the unsighted woman or man is that he/she is leading around the intersection—things like that. In that way, maybe, I come to terms with my personal status as a privileged person/black woman living in an African society that is clearly failing an important segment of its people; maybe asking their names makes me feel better about 'homelessness' and about being philanthropic. I am not sure. What I do know is that I am not always willing and or ready to enter this experience—albeit only for a few minutes once or twice a day, five days a week.

Some days I am fed up—with something, and as I drive up towards that intersection I find myself cursing—annoyed that I did not take another route, because I simply do not want to have to be nice. The problem with philanthropy (one of the problems, that is) is that you always have to be the same to the person who is receiving your generosity—because the relationship is so fragile, and on the street, the tensions around poverty and begging make the milieu even more fickle. A frown or the sign of a bad temper can ruin months of work (on one's part to be received as humane). Then (if you are interested, that is) you have to start from scratch, building up the relationship block by block, getting the confidence back—that look that says I am not an enemy; don't be afraid of me; I am actually a friend even if I am sitting in this car 'looking rich and hostile and uncaring'.

So, when I am in a bad mood, and it shows on my face and in my body language, I would like to avoid the Tongogara/Second Street intersection, simply because I like to keep the friends that I have made. Many of the children who beg there have become 'sort of familiar' to me. I try to remember their names and faces and sometimes they get to my car just as the light is turning green, and we can smile at each other knowing that the next time is not so far away, and they will get that twenty dollars [ca. 36 cents in US $] later in the day or tomorrow—we both feel the better for it—well, that is how it feels for me. For the beggars it is probably a farce because twenty dollar in hand is most certainly better than twenty dollars later or whenever.

But, to get to the point, I am not always happy and friendly, and homeless people make me aware of my temper. So at those times when the lights turn green just as I approach the intersection; or I am able to keep moving between the light before the intersection and my chance to turn, and the lights are green all the way, and I am in a bad mood; or I realize that I do not have ten dollar notes in my 'philanthropy drawer' or will have to find my bag, rummage for my wallet, open it in full view of those pleading, expectant eyes (sometimes I pull out a five dollar note and as I turn to give it to her she says, 'madam, why not the twenty dollars?' and I feel ashamed because why not?—but I have to maintain control, whatever that means)—if I am able to avoid the interaction, I breath a sigh of relief and feel freed from something I have voluntarily taken on as a social obligation.

Why do I feel that being humane to beggars is a social obligation when I know full well that the state in every society is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that every citizen lives in dignity—and by that we all know that poor people simply want a roof over their heads; the possibility of a fair paying job; basic education for their children; minimal health care—an antibiotic and a bit of friendliness is basically what most working people would really appreciate; and the possibility to live with a sense of security that they will not be evicted or murdered with impunity. In poor communities, which are usually centuries old and under-girded by a sense of self-preservation and autonomy that is not dependent on the gratuitousness of the state—poor people learnt long ago that the state exists largely for the rich although it owes them some kind of accountability—after all they vote those mandarins into power every so often—have a sense of existence that other classes have no idea of.

Therefore, as a person who decided many years ago that the most productive ways in which I could live my life were linked with the struggles of poor people for dignity, I know that although giving ten dollars to a beggar child does not change anything, it simply reproduces her disputable social reality; because I refuse to take on the responsibility of the state to care for its citizens, I give her/him something, knowing that it does not really make a difference. Unlike the person beside me on the street or in front or behind me who refuses to even confront the reality of homelessness as it presents itself at the window of her/his car; who has convinced her/himself that giving beggars ten dollars (or one dollar, which I think is disgraceful) is 'totally wrong' because 'these people are parasites; they don't want to work; they are drug addicts', they are a damned nuisance and a public liability; I am not obliged; why don't the charities take care of them; why did they vote the damned government into power; they are thieves and liars; they just like being on the street; they are whores who should be shot; it encourages irresponsible behaviour; etc, etc.

These are the sanctimonious 'citizens' who know that they would not put their children out to bed—unless they had reached rock bottom; they know that these children have nowhere else to go but on the street; they know that if the children don't beg they will have to sell their bodies or their bodies will be used to sell sex as a commodity—and there are lots of 'uncles' out there ready and willing to buy young, sweet little girls and boys—yet they look the other way; pretend that the children's yearning faces are not only a few inches away from the metal that separates them and the street; that they cannot recognize the human need of a little five year old who would rather be playing care-free in a school yard, with the sounds of laughter of her peers ringing in her ears. How can we pretend that our children are monsters simply because they are poor and living in crisis? What makes that little boy different from your little sweet boy—except that yours is clean, well fed and safely tucked in, while the child of a homeless woman or man is roaming the streets in search of something to keep body and soul together? How can we, as Africans, proud and beautiful people who have lived for millions of years; built amazingly modern societies when everyone else was living in the dark ages, become the uncaring and inhumane caricatures of what is life and Ubuntu?

As I wave good-bye to my little friends—most persons on the street are children because children, especially young ones, are able to invoke a sense of pain and feeling that modern society has taught us not to even imagine let alone feel—it hurts me each and every time when I see a black Zimbabwean turn away from a child on the street; pretend that they are not there, or even have the gall to scold them for daring to be there—disturbing them in a place where they should not have to have feelings. This is not to say that white Zimbabweans (the notion of being Zimbabwean encompasses black and white and any other 'colour'—because citizenship is supposed to include all the specificities that divide and segregate us, and in that way the notion is greater than the part); yet, we still are African, and black and ethnic in our own sense—and we like being black and what that feels like, has been like, sounds like, tastes and is still—so maybe my passionate resonance of anger is linked to being an African in that way. I feel that Africans should respond to the plight of an African child because we have African children in our lives, our homes, our schools—we were African children once—and that while someone of European ethnicity and identity might empathize with the crisis in the life of an African child—being African is about loving that person who is you on the street; who needs your help, your heart, for as long as it takes to put one meal in her/his mouth every time you stop at an intersection where a mirror image of yourself presents itself in dire need.

And while I know what most people who will read this article have recited many times—that the state is there to serve the people and we must find a way of making it serve us because we are the citizens and we are never going to give up that demand as long as the state as an apparatus exists—we also know that our continent is in terrible trouble and we know why. We have allowed the hyenas and the bandits to take over our land, our birthright, our promise to our children. We have been careless and casual about democracy, and our children; those who are most vulnerable are paying the price for our carelessness. We know what Africa needs and yet we wait for someone else to take the first step. Many of us have become fat and self-interested even as we proclaim that we are radicals and angry about the violence and the shame that marks our continent as a place of despair and hopelessness. But we also know and feel the passions of a people who have survived because we are proud and we love freedom. The love of freedom is what sets us apart; marks us as a people who can never be conquered and enslaved indefinitely—and that is where our future lives.

These are the echoes that I take away with me each time I see myself in the face of a homeless Zimbabwean—in the sleeping face of a three month old baby; a little girl wading uncertainly through the traffic—terrified—with an ear-shattering scream bursting through the corners of her tightly held, three year old lips and her heart-breaking innocent eyes; in the still defiant shoulders of a nine year old girl, hair unkempt and skin still glowing in spite of a prematurely depleted youth (I dread the thought of seeing her in five years time, my heart has broken already even though I cannot even imagine the horror that will destroy her in the dark and pernicious alleys and piss-filled lanes of the city); I see myself in a strange way in the eyes and attempted dignity of the boy who had to become a man at eleven—leading his tete, blind, or was she deliberately blinded as an economic strategy that works because I always find a dollar to give her; and of course the angry young man—he is twelve, maybe fifteen (it seems to work better if the males are young because they are perceived to be less threatening—remember the 'black peril', angry black men who are instinctively violent). The neo-colonial petit bourgeois has imbibed the crime fantasies of the settlers well and a young black man on the street is definitely a real threat (as a woman, how could I contest that, but I do nevertheless). And so I look into his eyes, and I see him a few years from now—from this moment, taking his anger out on the most vulnerable in our societies because patriarchy allows him to do so, and that is the bottom line.

And as I head down Second Street to collect my son from what is appropriately an elitist school, my world becomes 'normal' again, and even as we head homewards, and he asks me 'is your door locked' the moment he enters the passenger side of our car, and I still feel the twinge of resistance because this is not the Zimbabwe I chose to live in but that has become our reality, I know that most likely at the first stop light he will be persuading me to give the beggar child who approaches us the fifty dollar note which is the smallest denomination I can find in my wallet having already disbursed the smaller sums earlier at the Tongogara/Second Street intersection—my intimate public space. And I also know that I will not argue with him (which I do a lot these days) because his humanness is a political and aesthetic quality I have nurtured for the last fifteen years and it echoes a beauty about being African which I totally embrace and desire.

Patricia McFadden is a well-known African feminist, born in Swaziland. She was women's policy coordinator for the Southern Africa Regional Institute for Policy Studies (SARIPS) in Harare, and is currently on a Ford Foundation fellowship to the Five Colleges Women's Studies Center at Mount Holyoke, where she is writing a book on feminism and nationalism.