Silent business — vending without words

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Innovation has always been known to have big pay-offs.
This has come true for a number of people with hearing and speaking impairments in Harare who have refused to allow the circumstances of their lives to imprison them in a web of poverty.
Begging could have been an easier path for them, but after a long time in the fringes of mainstream society due to their challenge, these people have stepped out of the shadows and chosen to eat off their sweat.
A stroll around Harare’s central business district reveals that at several street corners, the deaf and dumb have joined the fray with other vendors, hustling for a dollar.
Most of them sell an assortment of merchandise such as mobile phone recharge cards, sweets, wallets, Bibles and cigarettes. In order to have effective business transactions, one is called upon to learn sign language, for this is the only way through which a sale can be transacted.
Although sign language is an unfamiliar terrain to those gifted with the ability to speak, many often get away with the basics to enable them to do business.
This writer was called upon to rely on the skills of vendors conversant with sign language to communicate with the deaf and dumb, most of whom ‘said’ doing their own business gave them a sense of satisfaction. Doing business has been significantly rewarding for most of them, too.
Speaking through a sign language interpreter, Samson Hunda, who sells mobile phone recharge cards, cigarettes and sweets said although most of his clients were not fluent in sign language, the little, basic understanding they had enabled effective communication.
“We just use the basic signs that anyone can understand,” he said, “but it was a bit scary at first.” He added that to make life easier, customers could just point at the item they want. Another vendor, 24-year-old Laiza, said after spending years sitting at home and looking up to her family for support, she decided to go into the trenches when she saw other deaf and dumb people earning a living through vending.
“I saw other people in a similar condition and asked my family for financial support,” she said, adding that her proposal was at first met with resistance.
She said her family’s hesitation, however, slowly melted away when they found out other people with speaking and hearing impediments were also demonstrating entrepreneurial flair and making money. Laiza said at first she was not sure whether or not she would be able to make it, but that soon a changed.
On a good day, Laiza – who sells fruits and sweets – pockets $50. Director of the National Association of the Care of the Handicapped (Nascoh), Farai Mukuta, said: “Most of the people do not understand sign language, and might not be patient enough to negotiate with these vendors, so they might choose not to buy from them.
He also highlighted that some of them – due to the hearing impairments – would not be able to hear when other vendors call out that the municipal police were coming.
Harare’s spokesperson, Leslie Gwindi, however, said although there was no specific statutory instrument offering preferential treatment to deaf and dumb beggars, sometimes it was important to make moral considerations when dealing with them.
“I think this is a good case that we as council should consider because on the other hand we have to look at the fact that they are rules to be followed and we can’t be seen to be making exceptions. But it will be prudent to look into those issues,” he said.
A number of deaf and dumb vendors operate in places such as the Charge Office bus terminus, Copa Cabana and along Jason Moyo Avenue near Harare’s Main Post Office.
Mukuta said most of the vendors have not gone beyond ‘O’Level because of the disabilities, so most of them resort to vending, particularly after the dollarisation of the economy.
“In the past it was easier to beg because when people bought their groceries, they would give out their change to the disabled, but this is no longer the case,” he said.
He said while it would have been ideal for vendors to secure stands in places such as Mupedzanhamo Market to sell their wares, they had major challenges because of their peculiar problem.
The Emerald School for the Deaf has played a pivotal role in preparing its students for the future as some of them go on to become business people, teachers and even participate in body-building competitions.