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HIV rages as borders trip

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TEDIOUS —Traders have to go through a lot of processes to clear their goods

Cross-border truck drivers are no strangers to long rests at convenient roadsides or vibrant trading centres. But at borders such as Mchinji, they are tempted beyond their ability to remain steadfast, as ALICK PONJE writes.

Fully packed and empty long trucks are a common sight at Mchinji Border, Malawi’s busiest and most strategic gateway into and out of Zambia.

You can pass through the border today and return four or five days later to find the trucks still chained to nothing; their bodies covered in dust, tires slowly losing air and their drivers yawning behind the wheels—with no clear picture of when they will cross to the other side.

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“That is dangerous and we all know it,” a truck driver, Haswel Bauti admits.

The biggest threat to his ilk is not vicious thugs who can tear down the tent covering groundnuts on their way out of Malawi and bolt with the farm produce.

No! Security at the border is guaranteed. Armed officers patrol the place every time, securing truckloads of all manner of goods.

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It is not even glitches they might encounter with the immigration officers for expired permits.

“Spending two days at the border would be fine but four or five days is dangerous. Away from your wife, nights can be particularly cold and lonely here,” Bauti narrates, a sheepish smile flitting across his face.

Normally, he should be sad.

But he finds no reason to be because, after all, there is little that he can do, he says.

“We are humans and sometimes we fail to contain our feelings,” he admits, sorely this time.

“When we want to clear our goods with the customs office, we are often told there is no network. Then we have the problem of electricity.”

At the end, truckers such as Bauti seek out warmth and gratification in the services of sex workers who find borders very tactical business spots.

Both groups—termed key populations in this situation—then get caught up in the wild web of the ravaging disease, resulting in border districts being so prone to HIV and Aids.

“Generally, many things happen at borders. HIV and Aids is also spread here,” Bauti sums up his argument, claiming that the situation is worse for hauliers like him who often find themselves at the receiving end of drawn-out customs processes.

As he steps down from his truck to have a stroll around the place, waiting for the following day when he has been promised his goods would be cleared, another driver a few yards away is engaged in some seemingly ‘expensive’ talk with a lady producing Bemba-laced Chichewa sentences.

He chuckles and cranes his neck to see what, perhaps, does not matter at all.

The lady might be from Lilongwe, even Dedza. They often flock here after regular crop harvests, when more farm produce exits the country through this border.

“So, you see, it is not always night time alone that brings us temptations,” he tells me before I rush back to the border post to understand why it appears there are more trade barriers there than necessary.

Dent in disease fight

Statistics indicate that between 2000 and 2017, new annual infections among adults in Malawi fell by over 50 percent from 65,000 to 30,000. That is cumulative, however.

“Through the test-and-treat policy, Malawi’s progress to the 90-90-90 targets has rapidly advanced with 91 percent of people living with HIV knowing their status,” Principal Secretary (PS) for Health Dr Dan Namarika said recently.

Such progress, with the year 2020 as the target, seems quite attractive.

That 77 percent of those that are aware of their HIV-positive status are on treatment while 86 percent of those on treatment are being virally suppressed also seems to herald the canny realisation of the target.

But cross-border truckers such as Bauti see their extended stops at border posts as something that should be immediately cracked.

Even the United Nations Programme on HIV and Aids (UNAids) notes that despite Malawi recording the significant reduction in new HIV and Aids infections, adolescent girls, young women and other key populations continue bearing the highest burden of the pandemic.

As such, it would seem clear that there are several areas where attention must be sufficiently paid for the country to sustain the gains it has made in fighting the scourge.

Border posts cannot be ignored.

The Ministry of Health is reinforcing hope by stating that government has reaffirmed its commitment in solidarity with the 2017 Global HIV Prevention Coalition.

Its spokesperson Joshua Malango states they have a cross-border initiative targeting Mwanza, Songwe and Mchinji where they have constructed clinics offering sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV services which include the provision of condoms.

“The services target surrounding communities as well as truck drivers and their clients,” Malango reveals.

This, however, does not enchant truck drivers who would still want to spend just a few hours at border posts.

That, they say, would deliver them from unnecessary temptations.

Crossing with ease

Mchinji Customs Deputy Station Manager Lucy Chikhawo concedes that there are several processes that traders, mostly long-haul truckers, go through to cross to either side.

“For instance, if someone is carrying goods from the Malawi side, they will have to do all export processes at this border and do import processes at Mwami Border on the Zambia side,” she states.

Clearance with the Immigration departments and the revenue authorities of both sides is not the only act that slows the crossing of trucks into either country.

“There are other agencies such as the Malawi Bureau of Standards, the border police, Agriculture and sometimes Fisheries departments that are also interested in the goods being imported or exported,” Chikhawo discloses.

The customs official, on the other hand, expresses optimism that the hurdles that cross-border traders face at border posts will soon be over.

One-stop border posts are expected to be constructed at both Mchinji and Mwami.

“This will make customs processes more efficient,” she says expectantly.

All exit and entry processes will be conducted in one building, according to Chikhawo.

Those exiting Malawi will do all the formalities on the Zambia side where officials from both countries will be. The same will be the case with those exiting its western neighbour.

However, this is not something that will be realised so soon.

Construction works are expected to start next June or July and between today and when such works will be completed, truck drivers such as Bauti may continue to be exposed to what they call needless temptations.

“Borders need special attention,” says one such driver. “Malawi’s border districts need special attention otherwise, they will continue to be prone to HIV and Aids.”

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