BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Jul 14, 2010 (IPS) - "People used to mock me, saying that I am competing with dogs for bones, but these taunts do not deter me," says Sibongile Mararike with no sign of rancour.
The 36-year-old sole breadwinner and mother of four children scavenges for bones across the sprawling Bulawayo, trudging down the streets of densely populated working class townships with a dirty bag over her shoulder.
The itinerant Mararike rummages through places as diverse as rubbish dumps and people’s houses, picking up bones that she resells at bone processing plants in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city with its two million residents.
Bones from people’s dinner tables have over years found their way to recycling factories and a variety of informal industries in Zimbabwe. The socio-economic woes of the past decade have taught bone collectors such as Mararike a kind of resourcefulness that has seen them appreciate the value of the same bones that are absent from their meals.
Times of plenty mean that plenty of bones fall from the table, so to speak, thereby providing Mararike with an income. However, so much has changed in the past two decades as meat – along with a litany of basic commodities - has disappeared from dinner tables. Meat has become a luxury many cannot afford.
For Mararike, who belongs to one of the many poor households that now have meat only on special occasions, bones have taken a different significance.
She has learnt how cruel life can be in Zimbabwe, despite the euphoria that greeted the formation of the unity government in 2009. Hopes of job creation have turned to nought. Humanitarian agencies have warned that the number of Zimbabweans seeking food assistance will rise in 2010 to up to half of the population.
"I do not want my children to know the poverty they are living through but there is nothing I can do. I do not want to collect bones like this but every cent I can get hold of makes a difference," Mararike explains.
She sends her school-going children on bone-collecting errands after classes. "They are now used to it as they know this is where the money comes from," she declares, oblivious to the possibility of courting the censure of activists opposed to child labour.
Mararike has established a rapport with some families who can still afford a visit to the butchery. These families stock bones left over from their meals that she collects once a fortnight or once a month, depending on the weight. She has a target weight that she has to meet at the bone recycling factory.
Only a few such companies remain in Bulawayo. There has been a decline in people selling bones because of the drop in meat consumption. "We no longer get many people coming here to sell bones as they used to in the late 1990s," according to Topson Mwale, an old hand who works at a factory that buys bones.
A kilogramme sells for about 0.3 U.S. dollars.
The animal bones go through a process where they are ground and then made into ersatz porcelain cups, plates, teapots and dinner plates, among other things, Mwale explained. Cow hooves (known as "amangqina" in the vernacular Ndebele) are enjoyed by many here as a gastronomic delight. They also provide livelihoods to informal traders such as 29-year-old Gift Ncube, who seemingly recycles almost everything that he gets hold of and reincarnates it into attractive cultural artefacts.
"I collect cow hooves from people’s homes, pubs and mobile kitchens and turn them into curios where I give them new lives as salt shakers, snuff holders and key rings, among other things," the self-taught Ncube explains.
"These artefacts have proven to be popular with tourists," he tells IPS from his stall outside Bulawayo’s imposing city hall, built in the colonial era, where he and other young men have become a permanent feature of the city’s cultural industries.
Wearing dreadlocks, Ncube has found a source of income trading handmade wares. He inscribes pictures based on African rock paintings on the cow hooves, making it impossible to tell that these were indeed once part of a living, breathing cow.
Ncube’s colleague Japhet Tshuma – who has a tertiary diploma but has found this more lucrative than formal employment – says hooves have over the years provided him with a most unlikely, if not curious, source of income. "People do not believe these things are made from cow hooves," Tshuma laughs.
"We are making a living selling the bones of the dead," he says with a knowing chuckle, adding that he sometimes makes the long trip to the country’s resort town and tourism hub of Victoria Falls to sell his wares.
The Bulawayo City Hall has become a tourist and curios hunter’s Mecca. Backpackers can be seen scouring the wares. "Of course we explain to them what these artefacts are made from and this makes them even more interested in buying," Tshuma says.
Amid economic hardship, the few families that can still afford meat provide a livelihood to Mararike, Tshuma and others – albeit unwittingly.
"Zimbabweans have taught themselves that there is nothing that you cannot sell. Selling bones is just one of the things that highlight people’s desperation," Peter Sifelani of the Bulawayo Informal Traders Association points out