Time check. 0800 hours in the town of Gaborone, and the Bus rank is already a hive of activity. Forget that it is a summer morning. No one seems to have been held up by the heat. Food vendors brave the bite, darting back and forth across the shades.
Clutching plastic cups of tea and snack plates covered with polythene bags, they serve breakfast to their regulars. Meanwhile, stand owners are opening up for the day. But there is a group of twelve youthful men that takes shelter against the wall that houses the main rank shade.
They are heavily bejeweled (in the flashy, cheap jewellery commonly known as Dibaga), with several chains around their necks and others hanging off their trouser pockets and waists. They are clad in the trendy baggy jeans and tight casual shirts. Several punch keys on flashy Mobile phones while others hold a heated argument.
On this hot morning, I watch the group perched at the seat nearest to the entrance at a food canopy shade, while I am the first customer. As I take my breakfast, one of the young men leaves the group and struts across the street. He walks by the shade only to go by again, holding a cell phone.
He passes by a third time, this time without the cell phone. When he eventually enters the food shade, the fairly tall, dreadlocked, dark complexioned guy with a heavy set-face and bulging chest wears one of the heaviest scents of perfume I’ve ever been subjected to. He is the second customer in the food shade and he takes the farthest seat opposite mine. Placing his order with a lot of impatience, he continues to punch keys on his handset, and taking brief breaks to throw me very quick glances.
The sight of the young men is not a rare one around here.
“We recognize most of them. We serve them tea sometimes. One day they go to those food shades and take the most expensive breakfast on the menu, and then the next day, that same person comes to me and orders dry tea and Magwinya. I think when they land a deal, they spend all the money in one day”, says Nomsa, a food vendor.
According to Nomsa, these men are always here. But unlike other people who are either hawkers or shade owners, these men don’t have any business you can put a finger on.
“Sometimes they are the first to arrive here in the morning. They don’t operate shades and neither do they sell anything tangible. Some of them came here as young boys, but are now grown men. New members keep joining while others just disappear,” she adds.
The Bus rank is one that owes its fame to this class of people. Generally referred to as maferefere (downtown slang for conmen), the sight of these young men is a nightmare to those who have had a close shave with them. To the passerby, these guys are styled up, well-off youth, making their best attempt at looking busy. But to the neighbouring business owners, they are a crowd that they would not be associated with.
S’khumbuzo Nxumalo, a newspaper vendor, narrates an ordeal that recently befell one of his colleagues at the hands of these “refined” rogues.
“Two of them came to my colleague and told him that someone in the parking needed the newspapers.
“They guided him to the parking. When they reached a certain corridor, they held him to the wall and told him to choose between his life and all the money he had made, plus his mobile phone. They threatened to stab him in the chest if he didn’t give the money up. Of course, he chose his life. Now he goes without food because he is trying to recover all that he lost.”
When the heat let up, the remainder of the group, which looks to have hatched a plan from their argument, takes off in different directions. Peter Mokoena, the pay phone attendant on the veranda next to where the group was convening, reveals that this is normally their place of rendezvous.
“They have been meeting here from the time the food shades started operating. Sometimes they could spend most of their time in the park behind the Gaborone Hotel, but they are scared of police patrols. Now this place is a venue of dagga smokers, so they can easily go in. They just stand here or sit on the pavement and argue about girlfriends. Sometimes they talk about latest cars,” she says.
The maferefere have given the bus rank such a reputation that it is one of those areas where you can easily be conned of all your belongings in broad daylight. Since they don’t look any bit like thieves and instead look like “loaded” young men, people say you can never be suspicious of them at all. There is also a great paranoia that nothing genuine can ever be purchased from this side of town.
This perception, however, in Nwonkwo Odeyemi* (a phone dealer’s) opinion, is simply not true. Odeyemi, who has been working from here since 2000, says that the maferefere don’t hang here anymore. He adds that Botswana Police raids dismissed them though the bus rank’s reputation had already been tarnished.
“Those guys you saw there are genuine. They may look idle, but they work. Most of them are in the drug business. One buys the stuff and they sell it around while they are looking for the white collar jobs. When they are finally sold off, they buy another one. They earn their living,” he says.
But when you’ve listened to an experience such as the one that came upon the newspaper vendor, you are hesitant to share Odeyemi’s opinion. In the eyes of many bus rank operators, the maferefere have become a menace they would like to be rid of.
Taking a quick look along the bus rank, all looks well, with business picking up as the day progresses. But before business owners and their customers can even imagine that all is indeed well, the street would have to be physically cleared of these lounging groups of youth.