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A Loaf of Bread

Some kids recently came to me requesting help on a school assignment that asked them to describe the time in which we had hyperinflation in our country. Anyway, that period is still fresh in my memory, and it got me reflecting…there are a few days/incidences that stick out, and this is just one of them….

*****

My cousin Douglas (we called him ‘Dougie’) and I woke up just after 2 am on one Friday night. We quickly put on warmer clothes and dabbed our eyes with damp towels before stepping outside. It was the first time I found myself walking outside at that hour, and I was very afraid. My only comfort was that I was with Dougie, who was four years older.

We were greeted by a stinging breeze of cold air, and we walked briskly to try to escape it. I expected to see a few people on the way, but the dusty path felt lonely. We must be too early, I thought. As we walked, all my attempts at maintaining a conversation with Dougie were fruitless,  and perhaps understandably so. We were both annoyed at being up so early. But I still talked to him because I was afraid.

When we turned the last corner toward Spar, the local supermarket, we were greeted by a collective murmur of grumbling voices and the characteristic commotion of a bread queue. My heart sank as I studied the queue and realised how long it was. There were well over a hundred people huddled close to each other, one behind the other, all expecting that priceless reward in the morning – a loaf of bread. Dougie and I made our way to the back of the queue. Out in the open space, we were at the mercy of the unrelenting chill.

In a bread queue, some authorized person – usually a security guard – handed out numbered ‘tickets’ to the people in the queue in order from the one at the front to the one at the back. Usually, the highest number corresponded to the quantity of whatever we would be queuing for that was available. For example, if the last number was ‘150,’ it meant that there were a hundred and fifty loaves of bread available. But sometimes this was not the case.

On this night, the security guard decided to hand out the tickets well before shop opening time, presumably to allow people to return to their homes to get some sleep before returning to use their prized tickets once the store opened. As soon as people realized tickets were being handed out, there was a sudden uproar.  There was a sudden frenzy in the queue as people tried to hold down their positions.

My feet barely touched the ground as people behind and in front of me pushed and jostled. The queue now resembled a giant snaked caught in a trap. The body of the snake – children, adults, women, men, young and old – convulsed wildly under the dim security lights. What has happened to us? I thought. People were screaming obscenities. Men and women were grabbing at each other in unimaginable ways. But here there was no time to consider morals. I just had to hold on to anyone – or anything – just to stay in the line. I had to get a loaf of bread.

The chaos was not abating, and two more guards soon arrived – with them a guard dog. As soon as it arrived, the crowd-control monster began lunging at people, its masters ensuring it did not sink its teeth into anyone. But the poor dog had underestimated the magnitude of the task. A few moments after arriving, it had already sought refuge in a large trash can that the crowd had overturned. The snake had reared its ugly head.

Although I do not remember how, calm did finally prevail. I did receive my ticket – a small piece of clumsily cut-out cardboard inscribed with the number ‘247.’ It was not promising. Even as I walked back home to steal some sleep before returning, I had little hope. Dougie, however, had a better number – he had been more adventurous than me, taking advantage of the chaos to move up the queue. Our hopes were with him.

Dawn brought its fears, and they were duly realised. We returned to the supermarket with my mother, and we found that they were using different tickets from the ones they had handed out several hours earlier. They must have handed them out while we had gone to sleep. It was unfair, but not at all surprising. This was our new society.

While we stood by wondering what could have been, I caught sight of a local vendor. She already had several loaves of bread stacked beside her, and it seemed like she was waiting for more. She was our only chance of getting bread that morning, but her double-price was prohibitive. We left with drooping heads, afraid to think of what lay ahead.

And what lay ahead in the coming years was far worse than we had ever experienced, or imagined.

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