With rising youth unemployment, muggings and other street crime are on the rise, women are particularly at risk. Nyasha Chizororo's story is about womanly courage and fighting back - in high heels.
My girl friend and I were walking along the newly reopened footbridge that crosses Julius Nyerere. At one point the footbridge had become congested with street vendors until the city council removed them. My friend remarked how the elevated path took away all the hassle of crossing the busy road. I suggested that the city fathers consider putting up a few neat vending stalls and bins along the thoroughfare. It was around 11 in the morning and there were very few people on the pathway.
Woman under attack
A short scream in front of us alerted us to a crime taking place in broad daylight. A group of youths had snatched items from a young woman walking on the pathway. They were now nonchalantly walking towards my friend and I while the young woman stood in obvious fear and shock with one hand over her mouth. There was no one else nearby except for a couple of other young women who had been walking behind the victim who immediately took to their heels and backed off the pathway. My friend and I quickened our pace to cover the few steps that would bring us to cross paths with the brigands.
Homeless criminals on the loose
We could see that the group of five youths were typical of the homeless variety that loiters around certain streets and make a career out of snatching things from women. They go for jewellery items like gold neck chains, wrist watches, mobile phone handsets, wallets and even fast food. You can pick them out from their highly intoxicated state, crude language and unkempt appearance. This group ticked all the boxes as they staggered towards us. I could see their bloodshot eyes scanning us for potential items to snatch. They obviously did not rate my friend and I as a threat, their mistake. They held their loot of sunglasses and mobile phone in their hands.
Vigilantes to the rescue
As we came to them my friend and I quickly grabbed the actual looters by the throats and demanded that they hand the stolen items over. The rest just stood there, not seeming to comprehend that two women who looked like potential victims could turn out to be vigilantes on the loose. We snatched the phone and sunglasses from the unresisting pair and shoved them away before calmly walking towards the victim to hand over the items. The youths shouted all manner of obscenities after us but did not even attempt to try a physical counter attack. Like most bullies, they had collapsed at the first sign of a challenge.
Women fighting back
The grateful young woman could not stop thanking us as we escorted her off the footpath. She asked how we had the guts to stand up to these scary looking youths.
I told her that for most women it is better to let your belongings go rather than risk injury and even death, but in the case of my friend and I, we can fight back. We have been attending self-defence classes for years and this was not our first time to retrieve stuff from such criminals which is why we had kept our cool.
The first time I faced off a one such youths it was actually an instinctive reaction. He snatched my watch off my wrist and I just turned and hit him with my bag whereupon he surrendered the watch and moved away. I realised then that most of these people are physically weakened by the drugs they abuse and rely on their psychological threat rather than any physical force. But I always assume that they may have hidden weapons and watch out for any sudden movements when I must confront them.
So for most women the streets of Harare's CBD continue to be unsafe places where they may lose their belongings and suffer harassment at any time of day. The young woman swore that she would not be setting a foot on the pathway again. Unfortunately that will not keep her safe as I have been in similar incidents or have heard of them occurring on Jason Moyo, Leopold Takawira, Rezende, Chinhoyi and other streets. As long as these homeless youths are allowed free reign, the streets of Harare remain unsafe for women who can only pray that some caring citizen is willing to play vigilante when it happens to them.