Not enough

NOT ENOUGH: A police officer watches over people waiting in line for sugar in Harare. Shortages have made long lines the way of life. Many in queues are hungry, tired, desperate to get food for their family, and spend all their days waiting (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / For The Times)

We have been waiting for bread for nearly two hours in a rubbish-strewn lane behind a supermarket. It is midmorning, the sun already blazing down on the 50 or so people in line, when three policemen stroll to the front.

A low rumble of discontent rolls along the line, like thunder.

Then a stranger named David Kaodza materializes behind me, out of nowhere. "I was right behind you, remember? You saw me before." He has a ready smile and the ingratiating patter of someone jumping the queue.

In Zimbabwe, where hyperinflation has reached 7,900% and people have used up their entire savings just buying food, life has been reduced to this: the queue. Go to any Zimbabwean town these days and you'll find lines everywhere, like an invasion of giant pythons slithering into every supermarket door.

Kaodza, a hustler in a country where the flour has all but run out and bread has become a luxury, gives a quick tutorial on how to get ahead in a queue. You don't just line up and wait to buy. There is an unspoken etiquette, with subtle rules. Only those in a police or army uniform get to ignore the queue entirely.

For people such as Kaodza, queuing is no mere dull necessity; it's become a business. They are master queue tacticians, managing to be in line in three or four places. They reserve themselves a place at the top of the queue, scamper to the end and reserve themselves a place there by making a deal with the last person to let them back into line later. They wait for the queue to build up a little more and scurry to grab another place at the end.

According to local etiquette, you can leave the line, but never for long. To rejoin, you need the recognition of the person you made an agreement with. But if you neglect to pay the guard in charge of the queue, you still won't be able to creep back to your place, Kaodza says.

"It's every man for himself. Sometimes you say you were in the queue and you just came back and someone says, 'I didn't see you.' And you're just canceled from the queue."

Kaodza always carries a few old newspapers to read. His mantra: Trust no one. And develop a thick skin. He is used to insults.

"There are people in the queue who hate me because I manage to get four twists [loaves] and they can't even manage to get one twist. It's do or die. One has to win. The other has to lose."

Misleading newcomers about the length of the wait, and even what the queue is for, is a common ploy to minimize the competition, Kaodza says.

Not everyone in line is as lucky or pushy as he is. Many are hungry, tired, desperate to get food for their family, and spend all their days waiting.

"That woman behind you, she came a long way," says Kaodza, who knows everyone in the line. "She was dirty, that woman, because where she comes from there is no electricity and water's a problem.

"She wakes up very early, and by the time she's walked to town she is all dusty."

He says some people collapse in the queue but others are afraid to help, for fear of losing their place.

"It's better not to be a witness for anyone who's sick in line, because if they die, the police will take you away to the next of kin and you will have to explain what happened," Kaodza says in a matter-of-fact tone.

As we wait, several women wearing the uniforms of city street cleaners saunter by, loudly proclaiming that they should join the front of the line because they have to work all day. At first people guffaw at their clumsy attempts to queue-hop. But when the smell of freshly baked bread begins to waft out the doorway, there are shouts of indignation. The women manage to squeeze inside the door just as the first loaves are handed over.

The first batch runs out. The doors close. The line grows restless.

"People are prepared to fight in the queue," Kaodza says.