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Where David Waits print

Millions of Zimbabweans now live divided lives—between their home country, with the worst economy in the world, and a hostile foreign land where they can earn enough money to survive.

By James Kindle
Sept. 10, 2008

David Gumede is a proud man.

He’s proud of his four smart daughters, who live with him in Mutare, a large city in the center of Zimbabwe’s eastern border with Mozambique.

He’s proud that the money he’s earning as a street-side salesman in South Africa, after losing his job in Zimbabwe’s crippled economy, will help send his eldest daughter to a university in his homeland.

And when I ask him if he thinks Zimbabwe’s leaders can actually come together to fix his broken country, he’s too proud to let me see him cry.

So instead, for half a minute, he hides his face behind his hand and leans against a nearby chest of drawers—drawers with plywood frames he made with hands dark and skin-taut, burned in a house fire years ago—then wipes his eyes on the collar of his green-gray shirt and answers the question.

“I’m not sure how they’re going to do it,” he says of Zimbabwe’s leaders’ needing to fix the country’s economy. “At least they have to do it—for the country.”

In a different world a decade ago, David Gumede was working as a banker in Mutare. Then, though nearly half the country was unemployed, a relatively small 25 percent lived in poverty and an American dollar was worth about 24 Zimbabwean dollars. Inflation was 32 percent, according to CIA and Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe statistics.

Joshua Schoonover
Like millions of cross-border migrants unable to find a job in Zimbabwe's broken economy, David Gumede enters South Africa to work.

Ten years later, under the now 28-year-long administration of President Robert Mugabe, the economy has fallen apart, precipitated by Mugabe’s disastrous 2000 decision to take farms from experienced white farmers and redistribute them to inexperienced black citizens. The agriculture sector—20 percent of Zimbabwe’s economy—was destroyed.

The country’s inflation rate is now more than 1 million percent. In mid-July 2008, one U.S. dollar equaled more than 22 billion Zimbabwean dollars, but in a day or an hour, that number will be millions higher. At the end of July, the country simply dropped 10 zeros off the end of its currency because computers could no longer handle the number of digits in transactions.

Of the country’s 12 million people, more than 70 percent live in poverty. Eighty percent, or almost 10 million people, are unemployed.

David Gumede, 43, is one of those millions.

So he comes to South Africa, like untold numbers of other economic migrants. They come across rivers or bridges; by buses, trains or hitchhiked truck rides; with legal papers or without; to cut hair or sew doilies or maintain South Africans’ gardens or sell homemade goods. They are an army of cross-border traders, coming to do whatever they can to eke out a living in economically strained South Africa and return the money to their loved ones in a country economically defunct. And they live lives divided in two—between a betrayer country that many of them, and their families, still call home, and a stranger country where many feel unwanted but where they can earn enough money to keep their families alive.

Banker turned street hawker

That’s what has brought David here, less than a mile south of his broken land, about 15 minutes’ north of the South African border town of Musina. He sits among a fortress of upturned chests of drawers, their wooden legs sticking into the air like a castle’s parapets. Bags of wrought-iron bird statues lie nearby in the dirt, their metal beaks and claws poking through plastic mesh potato sacks.

He has a forest of eyelashes and a round, youngish face that belies his adult responsibilities. Close-cropped black hair hugs his skull, and a curly graying beard and mustache encircle his mouth. He has been here since last night, following a trip that took about a day, and he makes his bed atop a couple of his handmade chests. He could be here another night, maybe two, maybe a full week, waiting for a truck with enough room to fit him and his 50 or so chests and sacks of statues.

“I have to negotiate with the truckers,” David says. “I have to negotiate if they have got space and if they charge me the money that I have, that I can afford.”

David, who legally enters the country on a temporary work visa, is on his way to Durban, South Africa, on the Indian Ocean. The trip takes about 18 hours to drive, but David’s journey usually lasts a couple days or longer, depending on how long it takes to convince a truck driver to haul him.

In Durban, where he stays with an acquaintance, he’ll spend about three weeks selling his wares at a shopping mall market. If sales are good, he’ll make 5,000 rand (U.S. $625). He’ll spend about 1,000 rand (U.S. $125) on groceries to bring back to his family and a little more on a few electronic items he can resell at markup when he returns to Zimbabwe.

He’ll stay with his family for a month and a half, spending about 2,000 rand ($U.S. 250) to buy the materials for his next 30-day journey.

children Joshua Schoonover
David Gumede waits on the roadside to hitch a ride on a truck with enough room for him and his 50 or so chests and sacks of statues.

David began his regular sojourns in 2000 after being fired from his job at a Mutare bank. Then a father of three daughters, ages 5 to 18, who also supports his aging parents, David found traveling to South Africa was one of the few options for work as Zimbabwe’s economy crumbled.

His wife, Juliet, was able to keep her job at a wholesale store, but with few goods in the country to sell, her store is almost empty.

So with his family in mind, David began his new labor.

Though David says 30 days isn’t a long time to be apart from his family, it can still be difficult. “I’m used to talking to them when I’m at home, discussing a lot of things, so [it’s difficult] when I’m not there.”

And as Zimbabwe’s political climate remains volatile, he worries. “Maybe, there’s going to be war again. I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” he says, adding that if the situation deteriorated enough, he would try to bring his family with him to South Africa.

A nation outside its borders

Like so many statistics in southern Africa, hard numbers are difficult to come by on just how many Zimbabweans have fled their country’s economy for South Africa. According to the World Bank, only 6 percent of Zimbabwe’s population lives in other countries, but other experts estimate that the number of cross-border migrants is much higher. Peter Godwin, a Zimbabwe native and international affairs professor at Columbia University, puts the number of economic migrants as high as 70 percent in a September 2008 article in Vanity Fair.

Compared with other southern African countries, many of which also have large segments of their population working in South Africa, Zimbabwe is unique for a number of reasons, including the relatively small percentage of migrants who go to South Africa. According to a 2006 survey of 4,700 economic migrants by the Southern African Migration Project, more than 90 percent of the migrant populations in South African border countries like Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho and Mozambique go to South Africa, but from Zimbabwe only 33 percent go there. Though this is still the most common destination (only Botswana comes close, taking 17 percent of Zimbabwean migrants), Zimbabwe sees many of its migrants travel to other bordering countries like Mozambique and Zambia—a reflection of how economically depressed Zimbabwe is compared with other nearby countries—and more than 40 percent travel outside southern Africa.

The survey also found that Zimbabwe has one of the highest rates of female migration; 44 percent of the 864 Zimbabwean migrants interviewed were women. The report attributes this large female migrant population to “internal political and economic conditions and the declining socio-economic position of women.”

But probably the strongest distinction between Zimbabwe and other immigrant feeder nations is the education level of the migrants who leave the country. Zimbabwe, long renowned for its emphasis on education, exports extremely well-trained migrants like David. About half have a high school diploma or college degree; 4 percent received post-graduate training. This is markedly different from the other South African border countries profiled in the report. In Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique and Swaziland, no more than 6 percent of migrants have at least a high school education. In Mozambique’s 994-person sample, no migrants had. In Zimbabwe less than 1 percent of its emigrants have no education, compared with Botswana, where 50 percent are uneducated.

According to a 2006 study by Alice Bloch, a British researcher who has written extensively on migrant issues, most Zimbabwean economic migrants are underemployed in their new countries, meaning they are forced to take jobs below their skill level in order to survive. Though nearly a fifth were unemployed in Zimbabwe, most have skills that go underused in their adopted countries, including South Africa. For example, 21 Zimbabweans interviewed for the study entered South Africa with experience in finance, like David, but only 11 maintained a position in this field. Agriculture laborers saw the greatest increase in workers. Of 500 Zimbabweans living in South Africa, 16 had previously worked in agriculture, and 80 were now working in this field. Zimbabwean bartenders, waiters and street vendors also showed large increases between the number working in these jobs in their native country and the number working in these fields in South Africa.

Stopped at a crossroads

In the cross-border existences of David and the millions like him is the story of today’s Zimbabwe—of citizens bringing real currency back to a country whose money isn’t worth the paper it costs to print it; of lives lived in transit, away from home and country; of parents willing to sacrifice time spent with their spouse and children in order to keep them from starving to death.

It’s what has brought David to this temporary junction, where brick sidewalk meets barren lot. In front of him, in a weedy dirt ditch, lie the smoldering embers of last night’s fire, built with cans, papers and a bottle of beer. Behind him lies a once prosperous country whose political failures have turned its promise to ashes and many of its people to vagabonds.

But hope still burns in David Gumede, hope for his country, and his life, to return to the state it was a decade ago, before he ever knew he’d be sitting here on this busy intersection, wiping away tears shed for the former glory of Zimbabwe.

“I’m wishing [Zimbabwe is] going to be like what it used to be, say 10 or so years back,” David says. “I wish it would go back to the state it used to be, you know, with a lot of production on the farm, a lot of food in the supermarkets, jobs for the people and things like that.”

So he waits.

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Maybe, there’s going to be war again. I’m not sure what I’m going to do.”

David Gumede