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Pieter Hugo

Zim Boys

by Morrel Shilenge, images by Pieter Hugo and Morrel Shilenge / 27.10.2010

They jumped borders and dodged Mugabe’s army bullets to get here. Cartoonish Zim Dollars couldn’t sustain them. Parents lost. Family links broken. They now call Polokwane home. You’ll find them on busy street corners or hawking and hustling outside fast food joints and supermarkets. Was Polokwane different before they arrived? Have we been invaded?

We have. But you have to admire their pluck. Zim boys are hardcore. They’re endlessly street wise. The goal is to get off the streets and that takes everything you’ve got in a new country, surrounded by outlooks and languages you don’t get. Faced by attitudes not altogether welcoming. Some do get off the streets and into jobs they’re trained to do. But this is rare given local conditions. Most work the city peddling and begging a buck for food.

I connect with Zim boys. When I was growing up, I stole money from my dad’s wallet, and I was scared to go home, so I decided not to and stayed on the streets for a few days. It was rough. You feel hounded. Comfort falls away. Dirt clings to you. And the sickening pall of failure and alienation are right there when you fall asleep and wake up. Dread is your companion. My senses soon came back and I went home ready to face anything my dad threw at me. It’s really that easy to end up on the streets.

Zimbabwean Boys

Social breakdown, retrenchment, divorce. Push factors are always there. The pavement awaits you on the other side of disaster. Zimbabwe has been unlivable for years now. The whole country is a push factor. Zim boys end up working our streets, far from home, to survive. Because of a fucked up dictator, who messed up the economy. There’s a brilliant installation by Zimbabwean artisist Kudzanai Chiura, about the assassination of Mugabe. It’s starkly simple. A slick of blood on an office desk. The ultimate suppressed national fantasy.

Our streets are tough when you’re an “alien” as they’re called. Prawns. The streets are deadly. Zim boys have been in Polokwane for years, but they’re still not accepted. How long before they belong? How do you create belonging in hostile territory? Can’t you say “this is my hood” when you know every street better than the locals? When you also have to grind a daily living out of them? Hounded by hunger and low cash flow like everyone else. People don’t want anything to do with these boys. The city itself rejects them. There are no greener pasture here. Is this any way to live? It is for the Zim boys.

My neighbours. My brothers. I know where to find them to talk and share a meal. Welcome them. Enjoy their company.

People say go back to Zim. Back to what? Get to know these boys and you’ll see the streets have made them hard. Life and politics happened to them. Mugabe happened to them. Colonialism. Post-colonialism. All that shit. It’s there in their faces. The pained glare of survivors. Show them love and they brighten up. Show them humanity. That’s what African unity is. That’s how you demonstrate solidarity.
“Zey” speak broken English. Sure they often don’t make sense. They are not Pedi, Tsonga, Venda or coconuts! But upwardly mobile never-say-die Zim boys have started learning local languages to beg better. To be the preferred beggar! Upgrading the software. Fitting in. It takes commitment and resilience. It takes energy.

Zim boys on every corner. It’s reality in Polokwane. It’s reality in Musina. All over South Africa. They are “aliens”. But they’re our aliens. A long way from home.

Zimbabwe Refugees

*Opening image credit: Pieter Hugo, 2006, Messina/Musina
Lovemore Kufainyore and Taimon Crukunu, who cross the border from Zimbabwe once a month to beg for money in South Africa.

You can see more of Pieter Hugo’s work at the Michael Stevenson.

** All other images © Morrel Shilenge.

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