Making Flip Flops From Used Tyres

By Mbonisi Zikhali

As you enter an African market place, you must get to know the people that make it a market in the first place. They are not as extravagant as you would envision seeing in a Western marketplace. Neither are their clients. Although they do go through inconceivable pains to make their products attractive, they know that at the end of the day, the point is not to sell their wares, but to sustain their families.

As typical of a marketplace as this may sound, there are numerous factors that lend novelty to the African marketplace when compared to the more established, sophisticated ones in the West. The obvious rules apply of course. It is all about competition, like any trader would let you know.

Yet in Africa, the competition reaches such fever pitch that a customer risks getting physically manhandled if they prefer an alternative product. And this is not because the vendors are unaware of the courtesy and respect a customer deserves, but because to them a customer lost means smaller meal portions for the family at home, at the end of the day.

Let me paint a mental picture for you. This is not North America, with bright lights and entertainment accompanying every sale. This is Makokoba, the oldest town in the second capital of Zimbabwe. I grew up here, oblivious to the bright lights that now grace my Canadian days.

Enter my recent visit to Makokoba. A scene all too familiar turned peculiar the moment I crouched through the fenced-in enclosure and came face to face with the inverse of the Byward market in Ottawa, Canada. The subdued shopping experience in Ottawa transformed into an intense personal battle between who deserved more attention and who was just lyrically waxing my vulnerability to win me over.

This was all too familiar. Not to the Canadian guest I brought with me however.

Picture this. This account dates back less than two years before I knew what Canada was, save for the pictures painted by this one Canadian soul determined to give me an idea of where she came from. She has done tremendous work around women’s rights and HIV/AIDS for Oxfam Canada.

Picture me nodding to her peculiar references to the Byward market as we enter from the rear of one of the most spectacular, yet peculiar of African markets. This is not even the main entrance, yet you are bound to be embraced by the same animated excitement.

Our first impression does not stir me in the same way as my guest, of course. I have seen this all before, and true to convention, have become desensitized to it – a fact which unsettles me when I think of the decline in funding towards HIV and AIDS in Africa.

In fact, I was listening to Stephen Lewis on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (just before I wrote this article) as he spoke about the increased passivity in the international community’s response, and my heart sank. It is all about numbers, not people. 23 million people live with HIV and AIDS in Africa. But when we think of those numbers as women, children and men, then numbers become as superficial as our fear that we are too incapacitated to act. But I digress.

It’s early 2009. My Canadian guest and I comprehend a man dissecting portions of a second hand car-tire, as if obsessed with finding out why cars move in the first place. I have seen this, and worn the sandals (or flip-flops as they are known in the West) he makes once too many times. But my guest is intrigued.

Spotting our shadows, (or rather, sniffing my guest’s curiosity beforehand) he looks up, and true to the ‘white people charm’, he spots business in my Canadian guest’s unimpaired gaze. “How does one make sandals out of tires”, she asks. He smiles and winks at me. He cannot say ‘please buy’ in English, but I have been unceremoniously appointed the mediator. His competitors, only awed by his fortune and held back by my protective glances, look on with an envious and threatening glare.

Now she is wearing the tire sandals proudly as we move on to another stall. But before we get there, let me tell you about what distinguishes this market place from others that you have known.

At the Makokoba market you will find live chickens for Christmas shoppers, baboons’ legs for those inclined towards the superstitious , elixirs for those wanting hearty looks from their husbands, performance enhancers for those feeling insecure in their love life, tomatoes for kitchens, hammers for broken fences, and sadly enough, bogus remedies for HIV and AIDS.

This in no way reflects ignorance. Rather, the marketplace is a reflection of the life known to this small community in which disease and poverty are the immediate reality, and survival is a struggle and the priority.

Sadly this is the fact around which all this trading occurs. Most of these people (including the woman selling tomatoes and various seeds for brewing traditional beer) have HIV and AIDS sketched into their lives like a stubborn tattoo that refuses to be undone. They know about HIV and AIDS and how to protect themselves. They have countless relatives that have died because of it. But there is more to overpower their will than just HIV education.

They do not wake up every morning because they adore the hustle and tussle of the market place. Most wish they could escape it. Some are school dropouts and some are forcibly retired technicians. The brutal reality they are born into is one where a mother walks into the market place in the morning and organizes her wares, and tries to organize something greater than the table in front of her. She is trying to feed either a dying husband, or a needy orphan. Ultimately, she is fighting the menacing threat of HIV and AIDS upon a loved one’s (or more) life.

woman-selling-seeds-at-makokoba-market
Photographs by Emily Wilson. Oxfam, Canada

I stared into the eyes of a woman now showing us the various types of seeds, stacked in different piles in front of her. In her eyes, I appeared blessed because of my apparent western connections. I tried so hard to look back into her eyes and convince her I too have suffered the same. But all she saw and cared to keep contact with were the eyes of my fellow traveler. Her eyes spoke of suppers unprepared but possible, medications not given but possibly provided, and an understanding shared only through buying what she had to offer in front of her.

The sad fact is that in that marketplace, it is hard to place a price on the tangible suffering of its traders. It is hard to place a price on meals that still have to be delivered to HIV patients with no medical cover. It is hard to place a price on orphans that might not live long. It is, ultimately, hard to place a price on goods that those who care for them bring to the marketplace. So, the market place remains vibrant. You are welcome to visit, browse and buy, or even sell. But ultimately, you have to realize, you are actually saving a life.

Mbonisi Zikhali is a volunteer with HAZ and a journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada. This article was originaly published on ZARMarketplace.