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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

January 11, 2002

Alumna View The Case of the Missing Street Signs

by Margaret Clement '75

It's a better way to make a living than stealing," said Malvern Simbi Dambanemwiya, "because if you get caught stealing, you go to prison for several years."

I first noticed the white-painted names on the residential streets of our suburban community in Zimbabwe a few weeks ago. The first one I saw was misspelled: "Brantford" was missing its n. A few days later, I received a notice at our house—half a page of well-typed and nicely reproduced text: "Dear Resident. My name is Malvern Simbi Dambanemwiya, ID No. 59016374G75." He went on to say he had recently found himself out of a job and had "embarked on a self-help project to earn a living." He had decided, with the help of a benefactor supplying his seed money and a few logistical details, to paint the names of streets directly onto the roads at intersections, as a public service.

A word about why this service is even needed in our town of Harare, Zimbabwe. Some eighteen months ago, I noticed that the green metal street-name signs were disappearing here and there, ripped off their posts. When more and more went missing, I started asking around. As the answers trickled in, it seemed as if the reasons given were somehow symptomatic of all that is ailing Zimbabwe in these days of burgeoning AIDS death rates, fuel and other shortages, general economic decline, racial tensions, and political intrigue.

First, people said youths from the slums were coming up to the wealthier northern suburbs at night and removing the signs, then melting them down for resale as coffin handles. Currently, the equivalent of three jumbo jets' worth of people are dying of HIV/AIDS each week—that's a lot of coffins to build and equip with hardware handles.

Others said the signs were being melted down to make the silver funnels being hawked at busy street corners downtown. Due to the acute shortage of gas and diesel in Zimbabwe, people presumably buy these funnels to pour black-market fuel into their cars at home.

Perhaps, said some, the blacks want to destabilize the white community by causing geographic confusion. Bewildered drivers would not find their destinations; ambulances would circle the neighborhood for precious minutes in an attempt to find a (white) cardiac arrest victim. Conversely, maybe it was the whites taking down the street signs in an effort to unsettle the country in general, just as they were doing on the farms, in the outlying villages. Imperialism at work, as ever.

Someone else said the street signs were being recycled as plaques on the inside windows of long-distance buses. According to this theory, destinations such as "Gweru" or "Bulawayo" were printed by hand on the backs of the stolen signs.

Interestingly, shortly after I noticed the gradual disappearance of street signs, traffic lights also started coming down. The "robots," as they are quaintly called here, are in high demand as lighting decorations in local discotheques, I was told. Some say the thieves also sell the red, green, and yellow contraptions to neighboring countries such as Zambia. A third rumor has it that, after taking down a traffic light, the thieves hang around the intersection, waiting to rob unsuspecting and confused motorists as they tentatively drive up to check cross traffic.

And so here was Dambanemwiya at my door, and at everyone's door, offering to put the suburban world of disoriented wealthy people right again, with unstealable words painted right onto the street. He wrote, "I require a contribution of Z$500 per road marking [between U.S. $1 and $2] in order to ceover [sic] the cost of paint, brushes and transport and to earn something for myself and my family." Each resident was asked to pledge between Z$50 and Z$100, and when the street collectively had paid up, Dambanemwiya would paint the name at the strategic intersections.

Dambanemwiya's benefactor—the one who probably typed his note, photocopied it, and also lent him a bicycle to get around door to door—is a man named O'Shea. I haven't met O'Shea, but on the telephone I learned that he is a banker and simply wanted to help Dambanemwiya, brother of his gardener, when he learned of his (Dambanemwiya's) joblessness. He gave Dambanemwiya a map book, too, so that the names of the streets could be identified and, hopefully, spelled correctly. "He operates out of my garden shed," said O'Shea. "I think he looks to me as a partner."

I accompanied Dambanemwiya one bright sunny morning on a foray across our suburb of Mount Pleasant. The residents of Traill Road had paid up, and Dambanemwiya had a plastic quart jar of white paint and an old brush tucked into a plastic bag behind the seat of his (O'Shea's) bicycle. He went to work painting, signaling cars as they approached to circle around him.

It was his thirtieth street so far, he said, and in the last month he had netted about Z$8,000 [U.S. $25–$35] after paint expenses and his daily two-way bus trip from the townships. O'Shea kicks in a little towards the commute. Dambanemwiya's old job as a sales rep for a furniture company—the one he lost a year ago—earned him just a bit more than what he took home last month (Z$9,000). So this is a good start, he thinks.

What do the residents think of this civic-minded activity? "Some tell me they won't give anything because they think it is the city of Harare's job to do," he said. "Others tell me they don't have the money." However, one enterprising group of neighbors purchased a large boulder for Dambanemwiya's street sign, pointing out that a rock at the roadside is more visible than the white letters flat on the blacktop.

I take a Polaroid of Dambanemwiya with his paintbrush at Traill Road, give it to him, and wish him well. The next day I see that, in return, he has neatly labeled my own street at its northern end. We lost our street signs about three months ago and apparently have paid up our collective dues.

I wish there were more Dambanemwiyas around town, devising projects to fix things and
set them right again. The world would be a better place.

Margaret Clement '75 is employed by the State University of New York's International Development Group as a training and education adviser to the Parliament of Zimbabwe. She has also worked in Tunisia, Morocco, Somalia, Madagascar, and Mozambique, adding up to fifteen years of residency in Africa. The single mother of a nine-year-old daughter, she has published human interest essays and nonfiction pieces based on her experiences in Africa and her home region of New England in the United States.

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