Phalombe is no major tobacco growing district, but it is not immune to the risks associated with ‘Malawi gold’.
In the far-flung crop fields of Nyezelera in the south, Janet Masauli, who has been producing the leaf for a decade, has a word.
“Tobacco makes some people rich,” she says, “but puts others at the risk of dying poor and HIV infections.”
The woman has experienced agonies that most women prefer keeping privately.
She recalls being abandoned by her husband after producing 15 bales in 2013.
Explained Masauli: “I struggled to raise the children singlehandedly. We were starving, morning and noon, eating in the evening only while he was blowing millions on a mistress.
“He went away with K2.3 million from the tobacco produced with my own hands, sweat and children. He entertained the side chick, built a brick house with corrugated iron for her and sent her to school. However, he returned to me, the reject, when the young women walked out on him and married a well-off businessperson.”
Gone with the money was the Masaulis’ shared dream to paint their three-bedroom house and buy a car.
Risky and ruinous
Masauli personifies the predicament of many women who have no say on proceeds of agriculture despite their central role in crop production.
The husband has returned and atoned, but she is convinced such sexual relationships could be the reason some tobacco growers are stuck in abject poverty and living with HIV.
“When some people get money, they forget their lives and families. They sleep around like chickens regardless of HIV,” she says.
Multiple concurrent partnerships endanger producers of the country’s major cash crop.
The crop accounts for almost 60 percent of the country’s foreign exchange.
Its growers are among key populations at risk of catching and spreading HIV.
A decade ago, AHL Group, which runs tobacco auction floors and other subsidiary companies, started sensitising all players in the tobacco industry to reduce HIV infections.
“No one is immune to the virus,” says group HIV and Aids coordinator Leonard Chakwawa. “We are all affected, be it the farmers or the tobacco buyers, the drivers who transport bales from rural localities to the auction floors or cross-border drivers who haul the leaf from the markets to coastal ports where it is loaded in ships.
He reckons all people who handle tobacco from the nursery bed to the export market are prone to the virus not only because of poverty, ignorance and lure of money.
Sex on the move
Rather, most of them spend lengthy periods far from their stable partners.
In fact, some farmers spend weeks at the auction floors to witness the selling of their bales.
Their sexual yearnings escalate daily.
The influx usually trigger an increase in the number of sex workers in nearby locations.
The populous Kachere and Makhetha townships, almost three kilometres from Limbe Floors in Blantyre, is full of farmers and sex workers from the Southern Region. Numerous pubs and lodges are active day and night.
Kate, a sex worker who arrived from the tourist town of Mangochi in April, calls it “nthawi yokolola”.
“When farmers harvest tobacco, our season to reap from those desperate for sex begins,” she says.
She admittedly hooks four men a day, billing K3 000 for quickies and K6 000 for night-long sex.
“Some men pay more, especially for unprotected sex,” Kate narrates. “After a good time, others pay some more. They even let you to get a share from their wads of banknotes.”
Unprotected sex and ineffective condom use make these transactions minefields of new infections.
Some farmers lose all their fortune when sex workers and thieves steal.
Recently, the police in Blantyre deployed a team to Limbe Floors to warn the farmers against flashing their money anyhow, saying reports of theft largely involving sex deals gone sour, reckless clubbing and sheer carelessness are increasing.
Similar scenes characterise the environs of Mzuzu Floors in Luwinga, Chinkhoma in Kasungu and Kanengo in Lilongwe.
Rest houses at Chinkhoma are inundated. Last month, Judith migrated from Mwanza to the Central Region district “where money is”.
“Kasungu is the home of tobacco. When the marketing season begins, almost every sex worker wishes she was here,” she explains.
The hotspot is buzzing with truck drivers, farmers, AHL Group’s temporary and permanent workers, employees of tobacco buying companies, vendors and security agents. The demand for sex is high.
But the sex workers prefer farmers, saying they pay handsomely and without kuwinyawinya (complaining).
These men call the one-night stands kusasa fumbi (rubbing off dust), kusamba mmanja (washing hands), mpumulo wa bata (a peaceful rest) and kuzipepesa (repentance).
Mum and starved
Some find the sex queens cleaner and more adventurous in bed than their stable partners.
A married man got almost graphic, saying the sex workers thrill with “shaved everything”, frequent baths, fragrant perfumes, assorted sex positions and endless smiles.
He reckons wives feel too comfortable, conventional and stiff in bed.
But Chakwawa advises the men and women on the move to always be faithful to their stable partners.
Studies show having sex with two or more partners is the major cause of HIV in southern Africa.
Almost nine in every 100 people in the country are positive.
Getting to zero
Trainings aside, AHL Group runs clinics in Mzuzu, Kanengo and Limbe where farmers and other players in the tobacco production chain drop in for various health services, including access to condoms, HIV testing and counselling and antiretroviral therapy (ART).
Putting all services under one roof is the centrepiece of a new policy requiring people diagnosed with HIV to instantly start ART.
The test-and-treat approach is part of the national efforts to achieve 90-90-90 goal.
The global agenda aims at ensuring 90 percent of the population get tested, 90 percent of those positive start taking life-prolonging drugs and that 90 percent of them should achieve suppressed viral load.
According to Chakwawa, most infections result from risky sex webs thriving on lack of sexual satisfaction and openness.
The counsellor urges sexual partners to openly discuss their sexual expectations to ensure that no one seeks satisfaction elsewhere.
“Some risky tendencies could be avoided if spouses freely talked about sex and what they want,” Chakwawa says.
Masauli says trainings offered by AHL Group are “saving lives, marriages and money” as people learn to open up and find happiness in their partners instead of “breaking the kraal.”
She says it took “the humility to sit down and discuss matters face-to-face” to save her wrecked marriage.
Amos Mofolo, from Chitekesa in Phalombe North, has been growing tobacco since 1999.
She agrees that most farmers are dying because they neither get contented nor share information about safe sex with their partners.
“There is no worse tragedy than being killed by the money you sweated for come rain or sunshine. Faithfulness and frank talk about sex kills no one,” says the 37-year-old father of six. n