What happened to our empathy?
I visited the Glen View 8 home industry on 29 July, just hours after a fire burned almost all the furniture and wares to ashes. It was a disaster; pieces of burnt and broken asbestos, bricks and metal.
My first encounter of traders’ tempers was that of a father and son fighting. The son was bleeding from the head. His father had hit him with a bottle.
Trying to find out what had caused the fight was also difficult because I was not sure how to ask the next person without offending them. But it was easy to understand the anger of a man who had just lost a whole life’s investment in the flames.
I then heard from the conversation the two were having, that the son had told the father that he was the reason they all had worked for had been gutted down by a fire.
Some had jokingly or rather thoughtlessly attributed the fire to the killing of now famous dead lion ‘Cecil’. The explanation was that the ancestors could have been so angry about the incident that they decided to punish their children. It was that accusation that led to the fight.
The fight only prepared me for what I was likely going to encounter for the next two hours of interviews, Interviews that became unnecessarily long because I was getting petitions, complaints and pleas instead of accounts and statements.
They didn’t see me as a mere reporter, they saw me as a medium through which they could transmit what they had to say to whoever they thought would care that the that the income of over 10 000 people (this figure is according to the traders) had been compromised.
They even wanted me to give them answers to who was going to save them from the poverty and misery that was to follow, and when.
With each person I interviewed, I became more empathetic. It’s not easy to have to constantly avoid answering a question from a grown man who is asking you what he should do next about his life.
A sorry sight
It even feels uncomfortable when an older person who is also a stranger shows you that they are willing to do whatever you say to get their life back on track.
A man who has managed to create a business worth thousands of dollars can appear clueless and confused when he losses everything overnight, and it is a very sorry sight.
“Sister hapana zvamurikuzivawo kuti tichaitwa sei? Pane zvamambonzwawo nezverubatsiro” (Sister have you heard anything about what is going to happen to us? Have you had anything about assistance?) were the questions I had to avoid as I kicked my way through heaps or remains of the once’ to die for’ pieces of furniture.
It was now 5pm and the firemen were still putting out the last flames since 1 am Wednesday morning.
The silence gave the traders hope that something big was cooking, something to help them back to their feet. The following days only proved them wrong.
From the media, the responsible authorities as well as the general public, it seemed the fire was only an event that would soon lose relevance in a matter of hours.
Yet even after death, Cecil remained more relevant than the endangered livelihoods of thousands of people.
Cecil’s shooting was getting national, regional and international attention. Not even the fire could divert attention to the clueless traders, not even from government. I certainly cannot blame the lion for the attention it generated; I mean it was good in its own way, but could it be that the death of Cecil Lion was the only thing worth noting about the Zimbabwe at that time?
I cannot question that with credibility, since the only Cecil I knew was Cecil John Rhodes.
I can only blame my people for their misplaced priorities, or failure to prioritize bread and butter issues.
Or maybe the state broadcaster was right? It is about taxes. The traders do not pay taxes, so they don’t matter.
Cecil was a cash cow in his own way, it is reported that he racked in millions and it is a shame we only got to know about that after he died.
But that nostalgia is not enough to divert my attention from the traders, whose families are at living in uncertainty right now: the children who may fail to go to school, the man whose family may become homeless after failing to pay his rent, and the old woman who will not receive any supplies from her daughter as a result of the fire own my mind right now.
No one should be blamed for the fire, but the questions from the traders about assistance were a constant reminder that someone somewhere should care for the people.
Most of those who were depending on the industry had lost their jobs or had failed to secure any formal employment in the first place.
The industry was a coping mechanism for many, and many had managed to embrace what fate had offered them.
Many were in the process of building lifelong employment for themselves. Many were depending on that industry and still do, many lost everything.
If that does not demand for increased concern and attention, then I do not know what will.
If helping the traders to start on the path to recovery is not a matter of urgency than I not know what is.
It may be too early to tell where the money or resources to assist the traders will come from, but all I am saying is that a little more concern and empathy towards the traders is needed.
Daphne Jena is an ordinary young female African who likes to use her skills to articulate on big matters. A journalist by training and passion, she enjoys blogging on governance, youth and women’s rights issues.
She believes the best stories are told from the experiences of the ordinary person. An alumni of number of leadership fellowships, she volunteers for a number of women’s organisations.