From the IPS, writer Ignatius Banda follows a couple of the bone collectors on their search.
"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 homes, 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.
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.