They say experience is a great teacher and every time I see a queue in Zimbabwe, I cringe as it reminds me of the days when we used to queue for literally everything.
The long queues at banks last month as workers were collecting their salaries and paying school fees, reminded of a conversation I had with a friend some three years ago.
My colleague said Zimbabweans had the highest IQ and I thought this was the most preposterous idea and immediately questioned him as to where he got that from.
See Zimbabweans tend to flaunt their literacy levels to anyone who cares to hear and I thought my friend was on one of those self-praising trips, but he looked at me and smiled patronisingly, as if I had just fallen from another planet and did not know what he meant.
He pulled me aside, as if he not to embarrass me in front of others and explained:
“I queue for money, I queue for food, I queue for water, I queue for basic commodities and I queue for basically everything,” he said, explaining where he got the idea of Zimbabweans having the highest IQ.
In 2008 Zimbabwe faced its worst economic crisis, with people having to stand in line for hours to get the most basic commodities, which were usually not available or overpriced.
I was satisfied with that explanation and immediately went around telling everyone I knew that Zimbabweans had the highest IQ. Another friend jokingly told me that, despite government protestations, I should believe reports that put the unemployment rate at above 85 percent. He quipped that with the number of people who spent the whole day in queues, it was hard to imagine how many were left at work.
Just a background into how you had to be savvy to survive in Zimbabwe. If you lived near the city centre, you had to be at the bank queue as early as 4am, then you would be one of the first to be served. If you arrived later than that, you would probably only withdraw your money after lunch and that would be too late for you to carry out any meaningful business. If you resided out of the central business district, then you had no choice but take your bedding with you and sleep in the queue.
After that you had to quickly dash to the bread queue at the nearest bakery and had to wait patiently for your turn. From there you rushed back home, prepared breakfast and rushed to the water queue before the tanks were emptied. From there, you had to rush to work and then prepare for the next day of queuing.
One trick of dealing with queues and basic commodity shortages was that you should always go carrying money on you, never mind pickpockets. Upon seeing a queue, join, but do not ask what it is for, otherwise you ran the risk of looking like a rank amateur. After five minutes of waiting one would heave a huge impatient sigh and ask a question like: “And when did they (shop owners) say the sugar is coming?”
The point of the question was that some people in the queue would probably answer and inform you that this is not sugar queue, but rather a maize meal queue, from there, you would decide whether you wanted to remain in that queue. But again the probability was that you needed the maize meal, either for your consumption or for resale at a highly inflated price.
However, there were drawbacks of just joining queues. I was once told of a man who joined a queue hoping to find scarce basic commodities.
To his horror, when he got to the front of the queue, he realised that he was now part of a funeral procession and it was his turn to view deceased’s body. I never had a chance to verify the truth of that story.
But the enterprising amongst us were quick to exploit the situation for their benefit. A new “profession” was born; known as “professional queuers”, their job was to stand in queues and then sell the places to desperate people and those who think they are too smart to stand in line.
In most cases the new breed of professionals were street urchins, who had nowhere to go, so at night they slept in queues and traded their places for cash when morning came.
So lucrative was this trade that for a while they ceased begging and would spend the day blowing money, which the true professionals could not afford.
But the flip side was that these professional queuers soon became a law unto themselves, often harassing people in queues. In cases where they did not make enough money, they took it upon themselves to direct disorderly queues, usurping the security guard’s job and for that they had to be paid. Arguing with them would usually provoke violent confrontations and befriending them meant you were given passage to the front of the line and nobody would dare argue.
But the time in spent in queues was usually very memorable and sometimes dramatic. You had the opportunity to make friends, enemies, share gossip and even exchange numbers with people you hardly knew.
But one memorable and dramatic day is when one irate customer approached a bank manager in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city and asked to be served. Ever so civil, the manager told him to join the queue and wait for his turn like everyone else.
Calmly, the man left the manager’s office, returned to the banking hall, where he removed his pants and urinated in the hall. As women were screaming and men laughing, everyone rushed out of the bank and he proceeded to the teller, where he asked to be served. He was arrested before he could withdraw a single cent.
In retrospect, it sounds funny but I would not wish that experience on anyone, ever.