- Words by Angela Jimu and photographs by Cynthia R Matonhodze
It’s a dark, nippy June morning before dawn and a queue is forming at Glen View 8 bus stop. A dozen or so people, mostly men, are there as 41-year-old Mairevei Mupombwi and her friend arrive at 4.43am carrying fleece blankets. The two women spread cloths on the ground to sit on and cover themselves with their blankets to keep warm. Mupombwi starts dozing.
- A conductor records Mairevei Mupombwi’s number in the queue for the bus by writing on her hand; she naps while she waits, after arriving at 4.43am
At 5.30am, the queue is now long and a man starts moving around with a permanent marker, writing numbers on people’s hands. Although it is still dark, Mupombwi is number 31 and by 5.44am, the last person in the queue is number 65. Muffled voices can be heard as people try to make conversation through their masks.
Moments later, Mupombwi stands up, telling her friend she can feel ants getting into her clothes. She folds her cloth and puts it in her bag but keeps the blanket over her shoulders.
As the first rays of the sun appear, there is no sign of the bus. Several buses pass but they’re all going in the direction opposite to central Harare, where she and the rest of the people in the queue want to go. As the sun warms up, she puts her blanket away. The conversation at the bus stop is now getting louder. You can clearly see men and women, young and old, wearing face coverings, others have them but have chosen not to wear them.
At 7.10am, the first bus comes and parks a distance away. There is chaos, and the once orderly queue disintegrates as dozens of people run towards it. No one is allowed to board and no one knows exactly what is going on. The people start coming back to the queue saying that no one can get into town as all roads have been sealed off by the police and security forces. They start urging others to go back home.
- As the first bus arrives the orderly queue disintegrates
A few minutes later, another bus arrives, and Mupombwi and her friend manage to get on. There is a man at the door, squeezing sanitiser on to passengers’ hands as they board. Once on the bus, passengers observe social distancing.
It is now 8.18am and the bus stops at Market Square. Mupombwi gets off and makes her way towards Avondale, where she works in a supermarket. She hails a private car at 8.43am and by 8.48am she arrives at work.
- Mupombwi travels on the bus to Market Square, where she will hail a private car to complete her journey
Mupombwi says: “My typical day starts at 3.30am where I have to warm my water to bathe and by 4am I am leaving the house. I wait for my friend and we walk together to the bus stop and it takes us about 30 minutes. The bus sometimes comes at 6.45am, and if it is late, it comes after 7am. It’s the same coming home from work. We have to wait in long queues. I get very tired, and during my off-days, I just want to sleep.”
Mupombwi’s story is not unique, and many frontline workers in key industries have been affected by the country’s lockdown. They are spending more time travelling to and from work, and being deprived of sleep and quality time with loved ones.
- Mupombwi’s day starts at 3.30am. Her extended commute means less time at home
Zimbabwe imposed a lockdown on 30 March to curb the spread of Covid-19. Under the current restrictions, only the government-owned and run transport operator Zimbabwe United Passengers Company (Zupco) is permitted to run. Private operators have been banned and directed to register under Zupco if they hope to continue operating.
Many workers have been forced to start their day earlier than usual, walking in the dark, sometimes hitchhiking – a dangerous pursuit in Zimbabwe. While travelling, these workers are at risk of contracting the virus as commuter queues rarely observe social distancing.
Sandra Chikore, 33, works at a tobacco auction floor and faces the same transport problems as Mupombwi. The tobacco industry is key to the country’s economy, and this is a busy time of year. She rises at 4.35am and by 5.45am she leaves the house, walking close to 2km to get to work on time.
- At 5:45am Sandra Chikore leaves her home, walking close to 2km before getting in the back of a shared pick-up truck
“I leave the house while it is still dark and walk along the main road, flagging private cars. My mother’s asked me if I am not afraid for my life. I am, but have no choice. When coming back from work, I have to wait for the bus and sometimes I get home around 8pm, and I am just tired and want to take a bath, eat and sleep. I do not have much time to spend with my son any more.”
On the main road at 6.29am, an open truck stops and Chikore hops in with one other passenger, who sits in front. There are three other people in the back, all male. Along the way, the truck stops and two more men jump in. Eighteen minutes later, she arrives in town and walks to Market Square, where she boards a bus. Almost an hour later, at 7.25am, Chikore reaches her workplace.
Archiford Zisengwe, 38, works at a petrol station, an essential service. He has been going to work since lockdown began. Zisengwe lives in Harare’s south-west suburb of Waterfalls and works in Groombridge, north of the capital.
“There is no transport to take me directly to town so I leave the house at 4am every day and I go to Mbare. From there, I find transport into town and then from there, Groombridge. Some of the places we pass through are very dangerous.”
- There are long queues to get onto buses after work
The government recently relaxed social distancing rules and all buses now carry to capacity. However, the move has not alleviated the transport problem and for workers such as Mairevei, Chikore and Zisengwe, they continue to wake up early and spend much of their time waiting in queues.
Besides sleep deprivation and losing time with loved ones, many key workers are at risk of infection on public transport due to difficulties with social distancing. They also face the threat of physical attack in a country where violence and crime are rife.