Haggard, unkempt, barefooted or wearing either sandals or tattered shoes; probably starving, they push their bicycles along both dirty and tarred roads. They bear the hot sun along the Chileka Road all the way from Traditional Authority Kunthembwe in Blantyre Rural with only support of their families on their minds.
These are charcoal dealers on a chain of bicycles which dominate the Chileka Road on daily basis, night and day. They are seen pushing load heavier than their body masses. Slowly, they move to various destinations to sell their merchandise come rain or shine.
On the other side, consumers determined to haggle over the price await the commodity. To them, victory is bragging about how little they have paid for a bag against the price that was asked for with little regard to the hurdles dealers go through.
Motorists are constantly avoiding hitting these resilient men who from a distance make their job seem too easy. The going, however, gets tougher as the risks are more than just to do with their health. These men are victims of hit and run particularly in the night and many more are subjected to deaths as they ply their trade.
One police officer at Chileka Police Unit, who spoke on condition of anonymity, pegs bicycle accidents involving charcoal dealers at five every month, two of which are fatal.
Said the officer: â€œWe find bodies by the roadside during morning patrols. Our suspicions are that they would have been hit by trucks between 7 and 9 pm as these are the times the dealers transport their merchandise mainly to avoid forest and police checks that sometimes confiscate their bags.
â€œMost of these are hit and run and it becomes difficult to bring culprits to book. The accidents can be attributed to the dealers themselves who wearily cling to the tarred roads for easy movement as we do not have pavements for cyclists. Sometimes it is the motorists who are to blame but we can never tell when the other party is absent to ascertain the cause.â€
The officer said police usually liaise with chiefs from areas they assume the victim to have come from, which is dependent on where the body is found. He explained that for those found along Chileka Road, they would be coming from Mpatamanga, Kunthembwe and Neno areas. Those found along the Lunzu/Lirangwe Road would come from Mdeka, Lundu and Zomba.
One of the traders, KapataKamwendo, parked by the roadside, not necessarily for a rest, raises his head up in the hope of having found a potential customer at the sight of a vehicle pulling over. He is busy working on his bicycle which he says has suffered a minor tyre setback after falling into a ditch to avoid a speeding vehicle.
Armed with a spanner, he moves closer to the vehicle and willingly grants Nation on Sunday an interview on his charcoal trade. Aged 38, Kamwendo, who lives in Chirimba, a township after Chileka, says he plies his trade between Chirimba, Ndirande and Machinjiri all the way from their buying points that are kilometres away.
Said Kamwendo: â€œThis is a type of business that does not need a lot of capital, that is why we have many people going for it. It is not an easy enterprise, yes but how many of us have choices? The biggest bag of charcoal will cost about K1 500 (about $5) and sold between K3 000 (about $10) and K4 500 (about $15). A medium size bag goes for between K800 (about $2.60) and K1 000 (about $3.30) and fetches a profit of between K500 (about $166) and K700 (about $2.33).
â€œI have heard of deaths from road accidents and injuries as well but life has to go on. We have lost friends and acquaintances but I do not have figuresâ€.
He said traders buy the charcoal from Kaliati, Kabuluzi and Chavalo areas at distances of about 30 km, 25 km and 20 km respectively from the Chileka Roundabout. The kilometres increase depending on final destinations.
No forest is spared
Kamwendo said the charcoal is burnt from natural forests such as mwanya, samba and mpakasa. He claims the charcoal is plentiful and no queuing is required. One simply walks in, buys and goes. It is along the highways and paths that cyclists meet and form bicycle convoys. They differ also on departure times as they are perpetually seen from as early as 4 am up to 3 pm.
He said some of the road accident victims are hit as they return from selling the charcoal late in the night.
There is also an exciting part of this seemingly dangerous trade as Kamwendo explained. These men enjoy a hearty cup of tea with milk taken with either chimtuwitsa or a bun along the way. For the tea, they part with K100 with an extra K70 for chimtuwitsa or K25 for a bun.
A father of two, Kamwendo is married and sends his nine and six year olds to school. He travels to either of the buying points twice or thrice a week where he buys the charcoal at 9 or 10 am only to return early the following morning.
The odd hours means he stays away from his family quite often and admits that it worries him a bit since he cannot be sure if his wife remains faithful, thoughts he immediately parries away in the belief that the benefits of his travel outweigh any lingering doubts.