View The Case of the Missing Street Signs
by Margaret Clement
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
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 househalf 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 weekthat'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.
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.
one who probably typed his note, photocopied it, and also lent
him a bicycle to get around door to dooris 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 companythe one he lost a year agoearned
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
set them right again. The world would be a better place.
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.