Monday, January 18, 2021

Yes ÔÇô I- can- Benju rules the bus rank

Watch as Benju goes to work on a customer. In the style of a young, pneumatic-drill-action Mike Tyson at the height of his lawful wounding career, Benju packs a lot of action into every millisecond of a sales experience. The point: don’t blink.

Scene One: But for a languid, self-deforming stem of thick locomotive-engine smoke staining the cloudless summer afternoon, the heavenward view from the open-air enclosure of Gaborone Hotel public bar is divinely perfect. A riot of early-bird customers mill about, bathing the place in warmth and cheer as they make contributions to the Alcohol Levy Fund, some on behalf of others.

Casually surveying the gathering, Benju, locks his eyes on a man wearing a pair of pre-faded jeans and a white button-down cotton shirt coming from the bar. In his hand he clutches a Hansa beer he just bought from the bar. Swivelling his head, Benju tracks the man to a party of friends sitting at one of the low, built-in marble-stone-topped concrete tables ranged along the prow of the forecourt. The man collapses in a heap of sweat and exhaustion on the only available bench space. He proceeds to crack open the beer, then grabs a handful of the front of his shirt to wipe a shimmer of sweat off his face.

Peeling himself away from a small circle of friends, Benju, bag in hand, pads across to the man’s table. He carefully sets the bag down on the ground at his feet, leaning it against one leg and offers greetings. The man tilts his head back to look up and, face scalded with annoyance, regards Benju with broadly arched eyebrows. He cursorily greets back, the twinge of irritation in his voice confirming what his demeanour suggests. When Benju sticks out a hand towards him, the man conveniently uses his right to lift the beer to his lips and takes a really large swig. The beer can produces a metallic clack as he sets it back down on the table with some force.
“Uncle”, Benju gushes as he dips a hand in his bag, fixing his fictive uncle with a smile. “I have quality leather wallets for a gentleman like you.” Momentarily, the man’s mouth curls up into a lazy smile, good opportunity for Benju to pull out a sand-coloured billfold wallet. The customer’s open hand reaches up to take it. He inspects it, turning it over in his hand, snapping open the metal clip and opening the bill compartments wide to check their size.

Bending at the waist, Benju leans in, towering over his customer but careful not to intrude into his private air space. “I tell you Uncle,” he presses on, his voice almost sinking to a whisper, “when you have a wallet like that and you take it out even when it has absolutely nothing inside.” The nothingness (‘sepe sepe’) is dramatised by corresponding hand gesture of a series of horizontal slashing motions in the air. “A parade of girls you don’t even know will come over and ask you: ‘Do I know you from somewhere?’” Benju says, coquettishly affecting a high-pitched little girl’s voice. At this point the man is giggling up a storm and just about everyone at the table is on a mirthful trip on a scale ranging from wide-mouthed grin to hearty laughter to at least one cry of awed delight. Just an arm’s length away, amid the bubble of little tag ends of idle chatter floating around, a male voice is heard to yell joyfully: “Benju!”

Before a Halfrican-American called Barack Obama started hustling the ‘yes-you-can’ line, a Molepolole man called Benjamin ‘Benju’ Ditlhare had long cleared his mind of ‘can’t’ and thanks to such fortitude, not once has he ever allowed hardship to write his life script.
Thoroughly steeped in almost three decades’ worth of doing small business in this neck of Gaborone, Ditlhare understands how his sort of commerce works in the bus-terminal business district. It is a fairly crowded scene but he is far and away among the best practitioners around here. His base, which he staked out a long time ago, is a shoe-box spot on the south-eastern-most end of the district. This spot lies smack along a busy worker migratory path that, via an overhead bridge, connects the bus terminal with the government district and main mall on the other side of the railway line.

Throughout the day, Ditlhare packs up his basic-black duffel bag with an odd jumble of the mostly rinky-dink merchandise he hawks. He has integrated into his daily routine, the chore of making short northbound business trips within a 50-metre radius and at a conservative estimate, would have logged more than half a million kilometres of this sort of business travel. Where he is now – the regular-guy bar at Gaborone Hotel which serves as the social epicentre of the district – is where he makes business-and-pleasure pit stops.
For each item Ditlhare sells, there seems to be varied, interesting if extraordinary sales pitches and having worked as long as he has as a hawker, he has cultivated the stems and blooms of a good pitch. He has auditioned various story lines and knows which one would make a bold claim on a customer’s attention right off the bat. Earlier he had fished out a fibreglass-handle claw hammer from his bag and in a part-stern, part-friendly voice, counselled a male customer as he looked him deep in the eye and soul: “Under no circumstances should a respectable and responsible man like you not have one of these in his house.” Sold.

In as far as rich turns of phrases go, Ditlhare is part of a group of street entrepreneurs with a unique grammar of aesthetics, as indeed the right mindset and skill set. These guys recognise the value of straight-up good stories. And so, they spend a large chunk of their normal working day co-opting the power of their eloquence to evoke in customers, that warm and fuzzy feeling that would get them to drop their guard and open their wallets.

All too often western education overrates itself by scientificating what people already know from life experience, intuition and common sense. What some people went to university to study for years, Ditlhare & Co. learnt and perfected doing hardcore, boots-on-the-ground salesmanship. In the world of commerce, as that of politics, maintaining fidelity to facts is very costly, which explains why all advertisers use small-to-medium exaggerations about the superiority of products and services they sell. In keeping with this tradition, these hawkers have a handy list of mangled facts they routinely weave into their photo-shopped sales pitches. Away from Ditlhare, take two pie-sellers.

A majority of people prefer home-cooked because it is prepared with quality ingredients and generally has a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, fat as well as all the essential vitamins and minerals that the body needs. This has been inspiration for one pie seller to tell customers that “my wife has just prepared these pies; they are fresh from the oven.” At least at a sales-pitch level, another pie-seller would offer money back to dissatisfied customers. His promise is that if you bite thrice into his pies and your teeth still don’t come into contact with the meat, then you can return the pie and get a refund: “Ha o ngata lanta o sa tshware nama;, o ngata labobedi o ntse o sa e tshware, laboraro o bo o e busa.” The successive waves of the sharp explosions of the dental articulation of the ‘ta’ sound – a standard phonetic feature of his native Setswapong – amuses some. At a Game City shop, this would be referred to as ‘money-back guarantee.’ For the record: the said dental articulation would occur in the last syllable with the same articulatory intensity.

Ditlhare competes for customers with big-box stores but on a lucky day he can run rings round them. And how. Ditlhare’s M.O is to charm up a sales experience by combining visual, aural and verbal elements to construct richly imagined (and almost always customised) pitches that terminate into a pleasurable emotional experience for the customer. As sole producer, director and actor of his travelling theatre, he personally brings the production alive on stage. His natural facility with language and comedic genius means that he can use dramatically vivid prose embellished with nuggets of comic gold to paint concrete, resonant images that would cause customers to develop a comfort level about a product.

The use of erotic imagery is a common feature in advertising. While practitioners in this field get a lot of flak for this, the fact that this psycho-visual ploy is highly effective is a reflection on society itself. Unlike a chain store with truckloads of money, Ditlhare cannot afford to pay for the services of high-priced professional actors and production crew. What he does instead is hold up an ordinary faux leather wallet, crank it through his narrative machine and (as he is currently doing) try to convince a male customer that he would instantly gain the ravenous affections of heavy-breathing girls if he owns one.

Ditlhare’s story is fascinating on a ton of levels. In their nature, crony-capitalist establishments the world over shoplift not just the nation’s treasure but the hopes and dreams of the majority as well, by privatising distribution of real economic opportunity among a coterie of a moneyed, mostly urban elite. However, that should never stop anyone from hoping and dreaming that somewhere lies a pot of gold marked with their name in bold letters. When his academic journey could not gain enough traction to even reach Primary School Leaving Examinations, Ditlhare still retained conscious hope of making it to the other side. His general memory of his immediate post-school life is that times were very rough. Still, he strived for a genuinely human existence. His break came when got into the business of hawking, first as an employee, later flying solo and when he landed, it was with both feet. The rest is triumphal history that Ditlhare lacks the modesty to not eulogise about when opportunity arises. It really is true what some wit said: the highs don’t seem so remarkable if you have not experienced the lows.

Ditlhare has eschewed the success ethic espoused by career government-largesse entrepreneurs – a fast-growing demographic of mostly young people whose lips are permanently locked around the teat of the state. Having developed no addiction to taxpayers’ money, he pours out his life force at what is perhaps Botswana’s busiest low-income commercial vineyard, doing literally backbreaking work from the crack of dawn to the fall of dusk.

Great at banter and imbued with a folksy down-home attitude, Ditlhare loves to have a giggle with friends, who, in the process, come in for a fair bit of good-natured ribbing. Around here he enjoys reputation as a stand-up/sit-down/lean-against-the-wall/call-out-across-the-distance comedian. He intercepts and gets in step with a young woman sporting Afro pops who is passing by. He takes her hand in his, they interlaces fingers and engage in a warm conversation, chatting briefly in giggly whispers until her face crinkles up with merry laughter in response to something he said. In turn, she slaps him soft on the arm and gives him a playful shove before moving on. Seeing a fellow traveller with whom he drag races for customers, Ditlhare is moved to remark: “Go home, it’s getting late. I’ll see you tomorrow.” A much younger man running an errand for him comes over to report back and when a friend cuts in the middle of their conversation, Ditlhare remonstrates with him in exaggerated indignation: “Heela monna! I don’t want to be disturbed when I’m speaking to my labourer.” Before the other man can shoot any barbs back, Ditlhare is already calling out to a prospective customer.

You would expect Monday to be a slow day but nay, says Ditlhare. By his account, he gets good business from men on their way back to their out-of-town work stations. Deploying brave, precise words, he offers the perfectly delightful explanation that those men would have been sweet-talked into spending Sunday night in town by their spouses. All humour value of that observation aside, the three-day weekend (as the less than eight hours workday) has long been a central feature of Botswana’s work week.

Scene Two: The boisterous gaiety at Benju’s table is ruined by a barroom dust-up spilling outside as two Zimbabwean young men engage in a bitter cuss-off. One is wagging a threatening finger at the other, who is bleeding from what appears to be a cosmetic wound. Apparently the combatants know each other because the bleeder keeps yelling the opponent’s name – the name sandwiched between multiple layers of blustering American (and possibly Shona) profanities. Sure most of the customers here are pedestrians but the goings-on of this place are anything but pedestrian. Not only can a Harare street fight overspill on to here but a commercially-friendly former Botswana Defence Force member on his way to join the French Foreign Legion stops by and uses his incredible story to bum beer, cigarettes and cellphone airtime credit off friends and strangers alike. In the process, he actually produces copies of correspondence with his prospective employers to prove the authenticity of his story. Naturally, the broke ex-soldier seems a little too thrilled at the prospect of amassing euros in his future French bank account. Of less concern to him though, are the diplomatic protocols most favoured by welcoming parties of luxuriantly-bearded Taliban sharpshooters perched atop mountains surrounding Afghanistan hamlets, eagerly awaiting his and other NATO troops’ arrival.

The doorstep confrontation attracts a ringside two/three-deep flash mob. His curiosity aflame, Ditlhare’s customer cranes his neck out at the scene but finding his sightline obscured, bounds to his feet to get a better view.

With a dismissive wave of the hand in the direction of the scene, Benju clucks wearily and urges the customer to “ignore those useless boys.” The man stays put and only grudgingly obliges when a third Zimbabwean man who, outraged at the spectacle, steps between the gladiators and brokers peace in Shonglish. Back down on his seat, the customer accepts a half-finished cigarette offered by a friend sitting across the table. Benju restarts the conversation by merely pointing with his forefinger at the wallet that the man is still holding in his hand. For the umpteenth time, the customer looks at the wallet in curious absorption, draws long and hard on his cigarette, wants to say something, stumbles for words and just as soon trails off into incoherence. The silence that follows is broken by a heavy sigh from the man that forces out a ribbon of cigarette smoke from his mouth. By turns, he kneads the side of his temple with his free hand, scratches the crest of his belly and flicks the cigarette ashes into the mouth of an empty beer can on the table.

For a seller, indecision on the part of a prospective buyer is the most wonderful problem to have because it makes the latter more susceptible to persuasion. Benju tells the man that the wallet is imported, highly durable and that “there is a special discount, just for you Uncle.” The man feels the price is too steep, tries to bargain it down by P10 but Benju would only offer half of that.

They haggle some more but the customer is not successful in bringing the price down. With the last swallow of his beer, the customer stubs the cigarette on the side of the table and makes to leave. He whines about vendors selling fong kong goods at ‘crazy’ prices, but is already scooping and counting out loose change from the breast pocket of his shirt. Happy exhaustion spread all across his face, Benju bends down to pick his bag up off the ground.

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