Business without words

Aaron Mbuka (23) and Kurai Muombe (26) spend the whole day selling recharge cards at Copa Cabana bus terminal. Occasionally, they chat and laugh as they do their business – but they don’t make a sound.

“It was difficult for us when we were growing up. I remember, my mother crying because of my condition, asking God why he gave her a child like me,” said Aaron.

“My dad left us when I was young because he could not stand my disability. I had to learn to look after my mother at a tender age,” said Kurai.

Both boys were born deaf. The Deaf community in Harare has virtually taken over the vending of recharge cards in the streets. Occasionally, they are harassed by the menacing municipal police but after producing their identification and a letter confirming that they are deaf, they are freed.

Scores of women, men and children could be seen communicating in sign language as they went about their daily activities. “On a good day, I take about $30 home and it’s quite substantial,” said a deaf vendor, Mirriam Madzore.

Disabled people registered with the Ministry of Social Welfare receive monthly disability grants of $20 per each household. According to a National Association of Societies for the Handicapped study commissioned earlier this year, only two percent of disabled people are formally employed.

The executive director, Farai Mukuta, disagreed that disabled informal traders were being given special treatment by the authorities. He said police and municipal officers were constantly arresting and harassing them. Once arrested, they were usually beaten up and their wares confiscated, he said.

Some unscrupulous vendors abuse the disabled for their own advantage, employing people with disabilities in order to avoid the police who are unlikely to chase less able-bodied sellers.

A vendor identified as Takura said that the council had declared ‘war’ on informal sellers. “We are at war. We are trying to live a decent life and the police are always on our tails. But, ever since I employed my disabled relative, my fortunes have changed for the better. Police officers are human, they cannot harass disabled people,” he said.

Takura dismissed claims that disabled sellers were underpaid. “My relationship with my disabled relative is mutual; we need each other for survival. Sometimes I am the cow and he is the tick, on other occasions the reverse is true,” he said.

Though many vendors denied allegations that they were underpaying their disabled employees, many workers said they were not receiving a decent wage.

Harare city spokesperson, Lesley Gwindi, is on record saying no council bylaws gave preferential treatment to disabled vendors, but that the municipal police were careful when dealing with less able-bodied members of society.

Social analysts and human rights activists have castigated the government for failing to cater for its disabled citizens. “When the government fails to take care of the less privileged members of society, they are prone to abuse from the community,” said Adeline Makaro, a human rights activist.

The way forward

Mukuta urged government to take the following actions to help the disabled:

– re-establish the social protection fund,

– increase the monthly disability grant,

– give money directly to individuals – not households,

– Council should reserve vending stands for disabled.

Parliament is expected soon to debate the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This proposes a range of options for action towards improving the situation. It is also expected to give teeth to the only existing piece of disability legislation in Zimbabwe, the Disabled Persons Act of 1992.

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