Tobacco is the backbone of the country’s economy. Statistics show the ‘green gold’ contributes up to 60 percent of exports and totals almost 13 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Forget the anti-tobacco lobbyists appalled by health hazards associated with smoking.
It is no secret that many people are being exposed to HIV infections as the prized leaf transitions from the seedbed to the auction floors.
“Tobacco is good for the economy, but the pandemic among various players in the trade has hit us hard,” decries AHL Group’s HIV and Aids coordinator Leonard Chakwawa.
He cites poverty and ignorance as one of the drivers of risky behavior among the workers, including farmers, graders, transporters and buyers.
Andrew Edward Manyera, a driver who owns a number of trucks, is one of the tobacco transporters close to the web of new infections.
The man personifies thousands of mobile workers who are at a higher risk of being infected than any other Malawian on the street. Usually, they work far from home and spend many days away from their permanent partners.
He explains why hauling tobacco from rural farms to AHL auction floors has left 14 in 100 tobacco transporters HIV positive-a prevalence rate much higher than the national average.
“When the tobacco marketing season starts, sex sells like hot cakes,” he says.
When sex workers flood trading centres near the tobacco markets, they mainly target the farmers and transporters.
He recalls his first time at Limbe Auction Floors. Dusk was deepening when he packed his truck by the roadside to rest on an adjustable seat that became his bed for days. As he dosed off, somebody knocked on the window.
“I opened my eyes and saw two women half-naked,” he says. “I opened the door. Before I greeted them, they were auctioning their bodies, naming their prices for short-time sex and all night. Many were taken up, but I resisted the temptation.”
The knocks persisted, several others came and prices varied, he says.
Manyera may have resisted transactional sex, but many drivers, both married and single, fall for it even without condoms. Six transporters confessed being overpowered by their own sexual yearnings and what one of them considers “readily available sexual relief”.
The risky sexual deals tobacco transporters and sex workers face day and night came to light at a daylong awareness meeting organised by AHL in Blantyre.
The transporters personify a large population of mobile workers distinguished as “highly at risk” by the National Aids Policy.
The policy calls for “renewed action” particularly targeting the vulnerable groups, including sex workers and cross-border traders.
The truck drivers form a team that continues to spread the virus across the globe, the International Transport Workers Federation on the Global HIV and Aids Epidemic.
According to UNAids, the workers in the transport sector are twice as likely to acquire HIV as workers in ‘low-risk’ occupations.
Sometimes, they transport new infections to their stable partners.
“A health workforce results in high productivity. Sadly, the tobacco industry is losing drivers and transporters,” Chakwawa says.
Almost 200 truck drivers, assistants, vehicle owners and transporter association representatives have been trained since AHL introduced HIV and Aids awareness programmes in 2010 to reverse the tide.
The firm has also introduced a book-in system to trim the duration the drivers spend waiting for their trucks to check in and offload the bales.
A 2013 study by Pakachere Institute for Health and Development Communications discourages universal interventions on HIV and Aids since different groups have unique needs that require special redress.
Programme manager Grace Kumwenda says: “It is time we targetted specific groups with specific messages and strategies.
“Many people are not aware of the risks because most interventions are generalised.”
Presently, the institute is championing circles sex workers’ clinic where the transporters’ high-risk clients find safe space because they share life-changing insights with fellow sex workers.
Likewise, AHL has special sessions for farmers who camp at the auction floors to sell their produce, but often risk their lives and money to sex workers targeting the sex-starved mobile workers. n