FRANCISTOWN — Vendors on the ever-busy Haskins Street here are decrying the trickle of Zimbabwean shoppers who normally swarm the place at this time of the year.
The mood was the same among Chinese shopkeepers on the same street who came calling this week. Through monosyllabic conversations with the Chinese, it was clear the absence of shoppers, especially Zimbos — who had been coming in droves over the years — was the cause of the depressed moods.
“The extent of my vocabulary being limited to sheshe and nihao (written phonetically), that was all I could say when I entered Best Choice, A W Lesego and Rainbow Exporters and Importers.
At More4Less, a fierce-looking Chinese young man holding a hand exerciser simply waved me away when I tried to explain myself in English.
I had finished making the formal greetings and he had, with a fleeting smile, nodded assent. But I had to switch to English which, unbeknown to me, would spell the end of our friendship.
However, a lad who said his name was Philip came to my rescue, saying they were not as busy as last year. “Around this time last year, there were so many Zimbabweans we could not sit down from morning till 6pm when we knocked off,” said Philip.
“But this time around, we have time to relax, as you can see”, (pointing to a Chinese young man sitting cross-legged on the counter).
At an electronics shop we entered at noon, an assistant said she could count shoppers who had come in since morning. “Ga go tshwane le last year (It’s not the same as last year),” said the young woman who would not give her name.
“They trickle in. I do not know why that is the case.” Vendors outside these Chinese shops traditionally make brisk business at this time of the year.
Thirty-two year old Nancy Khuwa said she had sold only two pairs of P5 socks since morning. It was 10 minutes before noon when we spoke with her.
“Go thata tota (It’s really tough)”, she confirmed what was obvious.
“Ever since the beginning of this month, I have not sold much. I am even thinking of closing my spaza shop. It’s only that I do not know what I will give my children if I close down because what I sell here has helped put food on the table for me and my family.”
Even truck drivers who used to transport goods back to Zimbabwe on hire are feeling the pinch of no Zimbo in sight. Charles Dusai is one of them: “Things are looking much better back home in Zimbabwe,” he said.
“People have money and shops are starting to fill up with goods and prices are not as bad as they used to be. In the long run, there won’t be many Zimbabweans coming to Botswana to do shopping. Perhaps they will come as tourists?”
It is a bit of déjà vu for shopkeepers and vendors who suffered the same fate in 2009 when Zimbos did not descend on the city in large numbers.
According to reports carried by Mmegi and the international media, there was relative silence then as the bustle of previous years was no more.
Botswana supermarket chain Choppies was monitoring the situation keenly as it unfolded in Francistown.
Said its director of public relations, Ben Stegling, then: “We are paying attention to what is happening.”Choppies has since opened a new shop at Somerset East Extension where they are reportedly doing brisk business.
In 2009, it was double tragedy for Francistown which, besides a shortage of Zimbabwean shoppers, had to contend with mines that were winding down around the city, affecting the customer base of most retailers.
Another manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity at the time, had this to say: “Yes, we have not been making much business lately. It is unlike late last year when there were hundreds of shoppers for days on end, mainly Zimbabweans.”
She said there was a time when it did not matter whether it was month-end or mid-month as they were kept at the till until they knocked off.
To be sure, when I settled in Francistown in 2007, you could not land a foot down anywhere on the street without tripping over a Zimbabwean. The streets of city’s main business district were chock-a-block with Shonas and Ndebeles Botswana’s neighbour to the north.
Meriting Spar, below the three-storey Ngilichi House at the corner of Haskins and Blue Jacket streets, seemed to have been rendezvous of Zimbabwean shoppers who converged there to take stock of their goods, count their change or just to wait for their companions.
The Chinese shops have certainly been making hay while it shone, their cheap electronic appliances and clothes becoming a hit with Zimbabwean shoppers who could be seen heaving television sets, DVD players, music centres, satellite dishes, radio sets and microwave ovens on to waiting trucks every day.
Although there is still uncertainty about what will happen next year when Zimbabweans go to the polls, at present there is every indication things are looking up for Zimbabwe whose economy is certainly beginning to stabilise.