Does the image above tell a story? I am sure it probably would tell a hundred different stories to different people.
It seems to be a picture of a young boy carrying a bundle of firewood. Yes, that’s essentially what’s in the photo. But the location is the great surprise. If you look carefully you will see he is in an internet café in the city centre, a most unusual place to find such a scene!
It was Tuesday 30 October 2012, and it was as silent as a grave as people in the café concentrated on their computers. The silence was abruptly broken by the shrill cry of a young voice…
“Ndiri kutengesa huni!”, Shona for “I am selling firewood.” Surprised, people lifted their heads, looked at the young boy, and at each other in bewilderment at the most unusual sight before them.
I put my keyboard away, pulled out my camera from the pouch, hesitated twice and then took a quick shot. The boy was startled by the camera flash, and so were some of café clients, but I quickly put the camera away and went back to working on the keyboard, before the boy could turn around to see what had happened. Suspecting that he was conducting his business in the wrong place, the boy quickly retraced his footsteps back to the door and promptly left the café.
After the boy had left, there were mixed reactions by the people in the café. Some just shook their heads, others sighed heavily, but my mind started racing, and while I went back to work on my computer and managed to achieve a modest level of concentration, I kept asking myself questions.
Was this boy in school? Where are his parents? Who looks after him? Has he ever been in an internet café before? While I could not get answers to my questions, the satchel on the boy’s back would suggest he is at school.
He was probably carrying his school books and uniform in that backpack. I thought he could have gone to school in the morning with a pair of shorts and a t-shirt in the backpack, and after dismissing from school he had removed his uniform, packed it away in the backpack and headed for the bush on the periphery of the city. It’s all speculation. I will never get to know the truth.
But a few things are certain. There is poverty in Zimbabwe, and instead of concentrating on school work, minors are driven by deprivation to participate in the informal economy in order to contribute to the upkeep of their families. The dismal failure by the government to invest in power generation has resulted in acute power shortages in the country. Even young school children are alive to the problem of power shortages and the business opportunities presented by the demand for alternative energy sources, such as firewood.
While the boy understands that there is money to be made in selling firewood, he definitely lacks an understanding of the market. The internet café is definitely not the best place to conduct the business of selling firewood!