Zimbabwean Christmas shoppers invade Botswana

FRANCISTOWN, 24 December 2008 (IRIN) – The streets of Botswana's Francistown, about 110km from Zimbabwe's western border, are teeming with Zimbabwean shoppers ahead of Christmas.

But it is Christmas shopping with a difference. Most basic goods are not available in Zimbabwe, so the cross-border hop is a shop for everything – starting with the basics – and in the mix are job opportunities for other migrants.

"I started off carrying shoppers’ bags and luggage to the bus or railway station for five pula (US$0.50) when I first ventured here," Priscilla Gombacheche, told IRIN, who has since found work as a domestic helper in one of Francistown’s upmarket suburbs.

"When I got a job as a housemaid, I graduated from the nightmares of sleeping at the railway station. Every night I dreaded police raids. I now have a job and a roof over my head," the 18 year-old college drop-out, who arrived in Francistown five months ago from the dormitory town of Chitungwiza, about 60km from the Zimbabwean capital of Harare, told IRIN.

She left Chitungwiza ahead of the cholera outbreak which is ravaging large swathes of Zimbabwe.

"I can only hope my family remains safe, from stories we hear about the outbreak of cholera," Gombacheche said.

She disputes widely-held notions that Batswana are cold-shouldering their neighbours during their time of need.

''My employers took me on quite aware that I had no papers. They appreciate the predicament of Zimbabweans''

"My employers took me on quite aware that I had no papers. They appreciate the predicament of Zimbabweans from reading about events back home," Gombacheche said.

In the parking area of a popular supermarket, Zimbabwean registered vehicles are easily distinguished and appear to outnumber the local cars.

Apart from their vehicle registration plates, they are generally loaded with an array of goods, from basic foods to furniture, and all but buckle under the weight of the freight.

Despite regulations introduced by Zimbabwe’s central bank to permit the sales of goods in foreign currency – a bid to attract basic commodities back onto shop shelves – the concession has failed to stem the tide of cross-border shoppers that arrive by car, bus or train.

Zimbabweans are pouring thousands of US dollars daily into Botswana’s economy, using money remitted by relatives who have found work in neighbouring countries, or further a field in Britain, Australia and the US.

Hard nights

It is 9pm and Faustina Mlotshwa, 30, is reluctantly packing-up her open air stall and is dreading another night on the hard floor of the railway station, which has been her home for the past three weeks.

"It is a tough life. But I am inspired to soldier on knowing it guarantees food and clothes for my family back home," Mlotshwa told IRIN.

''Another week and I will be done. I think I will have raised enough money to buy my children Christmas presents by then, if I survive the police raids''

"Another week and I will be done," she said. "I think I  will have raised enough money to buy my children Christmas presents by then, if I survive the police raids."

She says she was "roughing it out" in a foreign land for the sake of her children and an ailing mother back home in Zimbabwe.

"Some young girls and women of my age have turned to prostitution to survive out of desperation. I see them frequenting the liquor outlet across the road and leaving with different men every day," Mlotshwa said.

"They give female cross-border traders very bad reputations among locals, who assume every foreigner is of loose morals."

Locals do, however, blame a rising crime rate on the influx of Zimbabweans, fleeing the country’s political and economic meltdown.

Deportations of illegal immigrants, or those who have expired two week visas, have become so routine that immigration officials have adopted a nonchalant attitude towards them.

At the border’s exit, police officers casually announce: "Those without travel documents should go straight to the immigrations offices."

Sebastian Dengarashe, 27, told IRIN he fled his home near the eastern Zimbabwe city of Mutare because of political violence in June.

Working odd jobs from farm worker, gardener and lately as a general hand at a construction site, he was looking forward to going home for Christmas with the modest savings he had accrued.

"I took on jobs, most of them back-breaking, that the local Batswana turn down. After Christmas I will definitely come back and try my luck again for the benefit of my brothers and sisters," Dengarashe said.

His main concern, however, is being refused entry on his return to Botswana.

"It is painful to be turned back when you are so near to your source of salvation," he said. "There are no jobs [in Zimbabwe] and therefore no future for young people like us if the situation remains like it is."

Rm/go/