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Hauling Humans: a tricky business for trans-border truckers

Veteran long-distance driver, Aden, has been witness and participant in the business of smuggling people around Southern Africa. He lets Sean Christie in on some of the basics.


“The EN1 runs from Maputo to Malawi; the EN6, the Beira corridor, goes west through Chimoio to Harare, Zimbabwe. If you’re looking to smuggle yourself into South Africa the EN1 south has going for it the fact that there’s only one border to cross.”

“That’s funny man,” says Aden, still shaking his head about it. “I thought you were Migration Services.”

That isn’t the funny thing, or all of it. Aden asks why I’ve come looking for him at the J&J transport depot on the outskirts of Beira. I explain I have an interest in crossborder smuggling, sparked by a little-noted furore over illicit movements of red meat between Namibia and South Africa. What tickles him is that this has led me to him, and to me spending my own money to get there.

“But you smuggle people from Mozambique to Zimbabwe in trucks,” I say, to bring some proportion to the joke. “Nnnnnnnn,” Aden groans, as a waitress passes near enough to hear. He is a long, narrow man, with very black eyes, a hint of a paunch under his blue summer shirt. We are seated at a nearly-on-the-beach table at Biques, a bar on the northern end of the Beira promenade. The backpacker owners of several tents crowded in a sandy lot next door are slinging perspiring glasses of Laurentina black around us, watching Man U drill Everton. Several tanned Italian men are among them, plumbing contractors, according to Aden, sent by the EU to reopen Beira’s sewers after an hiatus of 30 years.

“You know Tete?” asks Aden, holding his left fist aloft. “It’s up here, much coal has been discovered in Tete. Beira is here.”

This boxer’s pose, left fist above right, commodity base above nearest port, is his way of explaining this boozy diorama of Beira’s apparent economic resurgence.

It is this resurgence, partly, that has pulled him south from Dar es Salaam.

“Mozambique people do not use the opportunity because they were communists, they have no habit of trying.” Try accusing Aden of that. Since the late 1980s he’s lived the life of a trucker, first as a turnboy in Somalia, fagging for older truckers on the increasingly fraught Mog-Addis and Mog-Nairobi routes, and then as a licensed driver of super rigs in Kenya. He worked out of Mombasa first and then Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, moving goods inland to Kigali, Lusaka, Lilongwe, even as far west as Kinshasa, along the delta of roads known collectively as the Trans- African highway.

In 2003 he began hearing of serious opportunity to the south. “Everyone knew that you can sell anything in Zimbabwe at this time, clothes, food, even soap − you can sell it, because in the shops there is nothing. Many Zimbabwe people live in Beira now, and you can take money to their families, and they pay you.” There is also, of course, the diamond game − the opportunity to mule Zimbabwe’s Marange diamonds over the Machipanda border, taking them on to Chimoio, which has an airport, and not, as is popularly believed and written, to Vila de Manica near the border, which is where the small-time muleteers make (their often too lavatorially literal) drops.

But this, Aden soon learned, was not a game for non-chiShona- speaking truckers. Plus, the ops managers at J&J were wise to this racket (primarily concerned, I’m assured, that their drivers might retire young) before Aden arrived, and restricted their drivers’ involvement by continually altering their routes.

Aden was thus left without a sideline gig, though this changed when Cyclone Favio made landfall in 2007. The storm soaked Sofala and Manica for days, effectively marooning the J&J fleet. One of the last drivers to arrive back in the depot had taken pity on some desperate hitchhikers he’d encountered on the road from Nacala port.

“These three were Somali, from Bosasa.”

They had reportedly left home by (Tanzanian-owned) boat and had finally beached somewhere near Nacala, whereupon they lost no time catching lifts inland. The three men stayed with Aden for two days, after which two of them left for the Machipanda border, Aden can’t recall how. The third, Aiiman, became Aden’s business partner. Aiiman had arrived in Mozambique by boat too, in 2002, before the construction of the new refugee camp at Marratane, outside Nampula. He was one of only a few Somalis in the original camp.

haul2According to Aden, Aiiman has the gift of tongues, and soon became a teacher in the camp, passing on computer skills to Great Lakes refugees and to an increasing number of arrivals from Somalia. But what the majority of refugees really wanted to know about was South Africa, and how to get there.

“That is what they talk about everyday. EN1 North, EN1 South, or EN6,”said Aden.

The EN1 runs from Maputo to Malawi; the EN6, the Beira corridor, goes west through Chimoio to Harare, Zimbabwe. If you’re looking to smuggle yourself into South Africa the EN1 south has going for it the fact that there’s only one border to cross. However, as Aden explained, “there are not too many trucks going that way”, because freight moves from east to west in Mozambique. Catch a lift in a car (as opposed to concealed under a tarpaulin), and the EN1 south is almost certainly the end of the line. “There are police roadblocks for every town on that road.” The Beira Corridor is a better bet. The collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy induced unprecedented levels of informal cross border trade, and with that came unprecedented laxity at border crossings, which freight companies capitalised on by working through agents who were well-plugged into the evolving system.

It turns out the Samaritan story about the marooned Somalis as told by Aden’s fellow driver wasn’t the entire truth. He was in fact one of Aiiman’s drivers and Aiiman had only come into Beira with the other two illegals to do some shopping.

“Do you feel like maybe you were being set up to join the business?”

“Might be,” concedes Aden.

Was Aiiman part of a syndicate? Did he answer to somebody somewhere else? Aden doubts it.

“It is not so big, you know, not like Kenya.”

Aden took on his first human cargo soon afterwards. The natural rendezvous would have been Inchope, the intersection of the North-South and East-West corridors, but the cellphone reception at Inchope is unreliable for a racket subject to so many variables.

For example, it is important that Aden arrives in Chimoio not too long after the prospective passengers, because migration services has an office there and have apparently sensitised local police to the illegal flow of people. There’s no waiting if the passengers haven’t arrived either, because Aden’s truck is tracked by satellite and his handler back in the depot has an itchy radio finger. The load has to be dry bulk, too, because it is subject to fewer regulations. And it can’t be just any dry bulk.

“Boxes can move, they can,” he warns.

Everything shifts around on the badly potholed EN6, but cylindrical cargo, like packaging rolls, are better, because they don’t fit neatly on trailers and make Bedouin tents out of tarpaulins. Critically, Aden needs to be comfortably underweight.

“Thirty tons is the limit for three axles” in both Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The extra human weight is unlikely to tip the scales at the weighbridge, but the company sometimes takes chances at the depot.

The passengers embark, which is to say they clamber under the maroon J&J tarpaulin, in a yard. No money changes hands.

“Western Union,” Aden explains, “5,000 meticais (more than R1,000) for each person.”

Aiiman has contacts at the border, on both sides, but Aden has never had to use them. He does not, he says, do this much, especially because the police are starting to wise up. The thought of breaking down on the A3 to Harare fills him with dread.

“The Zimbabwe police take you like this,” he says, hooking his forefingers into the sides of his mouth, “and they pull like this,” a look it is not necessary to describe.

“Try it.” We now have the attention of the Italian plumbers.

When he first started moving people, it was to a location in Harare, chosen by Aiiman, that Aden knows only as “Granite”. The orders from Aiiman, reflecting the wishes of his clients, are mainly to make pickups in Chimoio when the truck is bound for Lusaka. It means an extra border post and an extra day, sometimes two and double the unpleasantness for truck and trailer, though Aden’s rig has never been physically inspected.

He assures me, when it is clear that our conversation is nearly over, that I will not be speaking to Aiiman or to any of his passengers. Aden is only speaking to me, he says, because he is leaving Beira soon, returning to Tanzania. He gives me a lead, though, before saying goodnight and goodbye. “Some Somali people come to this place through Malawi, all the way from Kenya. There is a place where you can find them I’m sure, the sugar place − not Lilongwe, more this way.”

By which he can only mean Dwangwa, Illovo’s sugar milling hub on the shores of Lake Malawi. I make for the Tete corridor the next day, with dreams of mapping the overland interchanges of Somali migrants all the way back to, I presume, the great Kenyan refugee area of Dadaan.

At Dwangwa I will learn that, in fact, I know nothing at all.




Sean Christies’s feature on the business of migration first appeared in the Trade Routes section of Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available here).

Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.

Buy the Chronic
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