In a city where everyone is a vendor, only the creative survive. Guest blogger Nyasha Chizororo writes from Harare
I stepped out of West End Clinic one sunny morning in November to find a crowd gathered to one side beyond the gate. It was just at the end of the morning visiting period at 11 and from days of faithfully turning up at the same time I could recognise a number of faces. They too had relatives admitted into the hospital and each morning the tension would grip us en masse as we sat on the concrete benches waiting for the guard to open the gates, each hoping or praying that the loved one would be much better.
Then at 11 we would ask after each other’s relatives as we exited to wait for the late afternoon visit and for some that meant another long session on the hard benches. So what could be making everyone laugh as though they did not have a care in the world when some, like me, had hope leaking out of us in dribbles and spurts after each visit?
I manoeuvred my way into the centre of the group and beheld the draw card. A young man of about 22 was demonstrating what he called the ‘miraculous’ powers of a kitchen tool. While the tool in question certainly had an impressive range of cutting, dicing, shredding, slicing, peeling and everything else capabilities in the young man’s deft hands, it was his sales spiel that captured the attention and kept the crowd glued and swelling.
“Madzimai, munorasika nekufunga kuti kurara kumaporofita ndiko kunoita kuti murume agare mumbe. Aiwa. Zvimwe hazvidi manight of this and that. Mukangogadzirira baba salad iyi moisa marose emagaka aya pamusoro seizvi, aiwaka, kana small house havachambode kunzwa nezvako.”
(Women, you rush to prophets thinking that will secure your marriage. Some of your problems do not need divine intervention. Just make a salad like this one and garnish it with cucumber roses like this and behold! Your hubby will not even want to hear the name of his now former mistress).
In one short paragraph the young man had made incisive social commentaries on at least two issues; the ever increasing statistics of marital strife and the number of Zimbabweans -especially women, who are turning to anyone who claims to be able to perform miracles. The acerbic barbs flew all over the place to strike in-laws, offspring, neighbours, relatives. Virtues like hygiene were praised while characteristics like gossiping were shot down.
For 10 minutes after I walked onto the scene, the young man kept his hands flying, his mouth running and most of his audience captive. A few people obviously had pressing business elsewhere or possibly may have seen the show before and drifted off, but the majority stayed.
The crux of the matter
Finally the young man informed the crowd that they too could be living well eating healthy food all for the price of four dollars at a shop in town. But just for today as part of this marketing foray lucky punters could grab themselves the miracle tool for only two dollars. Mind you, there were only a few available before the special offer closed.
Yes’ you guessed it, there was shuffling as grubby dollar notes were dug out from the intestines of handbags and pockets as people bought one or two graters. The salesman and his partner moved on with a lighter load and a heavier wallet. I made it a point to visit the named shop and found that it does exist but does not stock the product and the management says they have no salespeople on the loose. I eventually came across the grater going for one dollar in a completely different shop. I immediately coined the phrase “comic-preneur” in my mind.
A wide-spread practice
A few days later I had occasion to board a Masvingo bound bus and came across a similar scenario. Only this time it was a blind man plying his trade aboard the bus and selling all manner of small items including chocolates, toothpaste and stationery.
“Iyi Vicks iyi, inorapa dzihwa chikosoro nehanganwa (this vapour rub will treat colds, coughs and short term memory loss),” he claimed. Over the past few weeks I have seen many more young men (they are always young men) practicing the formula even on the pavements of Harares’ CBD. Different places, different words, different products but same format. Reel in the potential clients with humour, hype up the product, name a high price then offer a huge discount.
A different breed of comic-preneurs operates from the flea markets dotted around the city. “Two dollars bhutsu dzenyu dzinoenda paWhatsApp! Mukadzitenga mopfeka motora picture moUploader. Zvenyu zvatoita. (Shoes that are WhatsApp compliant! You buy them, put them on, take selfies and upload the pics and you are the bomb)” they outshout each other in a bid to lure clients. Shopping at Mupedzanhamo and Charge Office flea markets can be a very noisy experience.
When book knowledge is not everything
I doubt that a single one of these comic-prenuers have attended any marketing course and would be able to expound or even name the principles that they practice. But they could give the Homemark Channel advert production teams a few pointers. The jokes must be original, touch on current topics and address what matters to the ordinary person all the while remaining firmly married to the product on sale. There is also need to constantly revitalise the routine to keep it from getting stale.
Way out for the desperate
Many of Zimbabwe’s youths have to fight to find a means of survival in a country with one of the world’s highest unemployment rates estimated to hover around 90 percent. Most youths from low income families are also failing to access tertiary education. Vending is about the only option for many people, male female, young and old. Even school kids are vendors. Anything portable is sold on the streets, in homes in offices and outside hospitals; pumice stones, fresh produce, clothing, footwear, underwear, gadgets and accessories.
Realising that in a saturated industry where everyone is buying and selling something, one needs unique value proposition, the comic-prenuers have zeroed in on the nation’s love for comedy in the form of witticisms.
Nyasha Chizororo is a Harare based writer, a bibliophile and fan of Dynamos Football Club.