Zimbabwe’s informal vendors battle toe-trafficking hoax

·2 min read

Claims of illegal trade in human toes run by informal traders in Zimbabwe have circulated online along with videos and images purporting to show donors who made quick cash. There is no evidence to support the claims; both the Zimbabwean government and traders operating outside a mall in the capital Harare dismissed the rumours as a hoax.

The gossip appears to have been fuelled after a social media post on May 30, 2022, claimed toes could be sold for $20,000 to $40,000 depending on their size, blaming a government "incapable of creating jobs" for triggering the purported trade.

A screenshot of the tweet that spread the rumours, taken on June 3, 2022

The tweet included photos purporting to show evidence of the trade: a foot missing a big toe; someone preparing to cut off their baby toe; and another image of a bandaged foot.

Several similar claims were shared thousands of times on Facebook, including here and here in Kenya.

As a result, people started whispering that vendors near the Ximex Mall in Harare were wearing closed shoes to disguise the fact that they were part of the trade.

All week "we have been coming here with open shoes to prove the point that we don't do witchcraft here," Tafadzwa Murengwa, speaking on behalf of fellow traders, told AFP in the car park outside the mall on June 4, 2022.

"It's a hoax. People were just fooling around on social media," the 29-year-old said. "If there was such (a thing), the way people are suffering, wouldn't we all be doing it?"

Unverified videos have been circulating since the start of the week, feeding the rumours.

In one, a man who looks like he is having his toe cut off can be heard asking for the keys to the four-wheel-drive vehicle he was promised as payment.

In another, a man hobbles into a pickup truck with a bandage on his left foot, mumbling about not needing his toes now that he has a car.

Screenshots of the viral videos being shared on social media

The hoax stems from an old belief that a traditional healer can help someone find wealth if they sacrifice a toe, sparking jokes that people driving fancy cars possibly got rich through the "cryptoe" trade.

Zimbabwe's The Herald newspaper reported it had found a salesman who said he was part of the trade. But the individual retracted his statement the next day, saying he had been drunk and did not know he was being recorded.

According to The Herald and other local media, this episode led to the vendor facing charges of "criminal nuisance".

Zimbabwe's Deputy Minister of Information, Kindness Paradza, also dismissed the claims after visiting the mall on June 2, 2022.

"There is no such thing happening here," he told national broadcaster ZBC.

Additional reporting by Nyasha Chingono

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