HARARE - Tariro Zhangazha is at corner Leopold Takawira and Nelson Mandela in the Harare city centre selling bow ties when a riot police truck arrives at the scene and the officers begin to round up vendors.
Her one-and-a-half-year-old baby is in a cardboard box. When she spots one of the police officers charging for her wares, Zhangazha grabs her stuff and begins to run, leaving the infant stranded.
“The riot cop came for me and took my stuff and when my baby saw me running away, he started following but they did not care,” Zhangazha said.
“I was thrown into their truck and I started crying and shouting that my baby was heading towards a busy road but they still drove off.
“I was taken to Harare Central (Police Station) and spent the night in cells not knowing where my baby was.
“I later found out after I left Harare Central that another vendor had rushed to save my child and took him to her home.
“It is so depressing that we don’t get to care for our little ones well and often expose them to danger struggling to survive,” she said.
Zhangazha has five children and has raised all of them on street vending.
She said nursing a child while vending on the streets of Harare is very difficult.
Though women make up a sizeable percentage of people working in markets across the country, some of their key interests are not catered for.
The situation has meant that breastfeeding mothers have for instance had to feed their babies in the open at their stalls.
“Sometimes we do not get even a bond coin out of our sales and struggle to get bus fare back home but you find police officers demanding as much as $20 bribes to release confiscated goods,” Zhangazha said, adding she could not leave her baby at home because she cannot afford a baby-sitter
For Betty Mhuri, 34, who sells plastic bags outside Choppies Supermarket along Nelson Mandela Street, she has trained her three-year-old son to stay put and wait for her return whenever the municipal cops raid.
“When I return late, I usually find him in the custody of people who control parking here,” Mhuri said.
“He is exposed to hate speech, dirt; never gets time to play with others or eat a proper meal but this has been my only means of survival.
“As you can see, I have a few plastic bags (changani bags) because they took my stuff last week and a bag that had my baby’s clothes.”
Mhuri believes that the government should engage the vendors on how to solve the growing crisis.
Dadirai Mburinga, 32, gave birth to her latest baby while on the streets and is called “mai Navuz” after National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe — a trust where she is an active member.
She recalled how her baby was almost run over by a municipal truck after she had left him in a cardboard box fleeing arrest.
“I realised the Harare council truck was reversing directly into a cardboard box in which I had placed my baby. I shouted for help and another vendor managed to save him but it is just a hard situation for any mother not to be able to protect your child,” Mburinga said.
“The other time I ran away, they took my baby and held him as ransom knowing I would return. I didn’t return until they surrendered the child to an airtime guy who was nearby,” she recalled.
Navuz leader Sten Zvorwadza said the government must not aggravate the plight of vendors — who usually sell their wares at roadside kiosks and makeshift markets, with most stalls sub-standard and lacking basic facilities.
“We have seen female vendors being harassed while carrying babies on their backs in the most indescribable manner,” Zvorwadza said.
“At one point, Masvingo local government officials ran over a child and killed him but never offered any assistance and the story was swept under the carpet.”
Human rights defender Kudzai Kadzere said: “Children have a right to a clean and safe environment all the time and their mothers should not bring them into town where vending is carried out at illegal sites without running water or ablution facilities. This puts the health of the minors at risk.
“There is also the risk of injury to the children from the ruthless police who are trigger-happy, often causing stampedes as vendors flee arrest.
“There is also the danger of inhaling teargas that is often indiscriminately discharged when running battles between vendors and police turn violent.”
Outspoken women and children’s rights defender and opposition legislator Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga said it shows how Zimbabwe as a society was not
child friendly, “which is why we have a police force that does not see the danger of throwing spikes under moving vehicle with mothers with babies, even centres for post-natal care have nothing child-friendly.
“They don’t care about children in spite of our constitutional provisions,” she said.