Roselyne Sachiti Features Editor
It is a fact that selling second hand clothes illegally imported from neighbouring Mozambique is sustaining lives of thousands of Zimbabweans. Stall owners in markets like Mupedzanhamo in Mbare, Copacabana and Charge office flea markets in the CBD, many shopping centres around the country and Sakubva Market in Mutare now employ hundreds of Zimbabweans by providing jobs like “fireman” (those who speak and sing at the top of their voices, dance and advertise clothes).
With traditional industry on its knees, many others have found employment in carrying clothes from the markets to warehouses while others sell plastic bags and courier bags, food, refreshments among others.
It is also a sad reality that Government is losing millions in potential revenue through smuggling of these clothes.
Under the guise of crossborder traders, The Herald last week travelled to Mozambique to find out how the bales (mabhero) that end up at these markets are smuggled into the country.
Who are the kingpins and how do they do it?
The investigations lead us to Beira and Chimoio where we infiltrate one of the smuggling rings.
How to smuggle bales of clothes from Mozambique to Zimbabwe is an open secret. People on the kombis we board from Forbes Border Post to Chimoio then Chimoio to Beira freely discuss how they have done it in the past.
Some daring ones like Mai Anna say they can smuggle anything. The only thing she has not smuggled down to earth is the sun, she jokes.
On this day she is going for yet another bigger job. She intends to smuggle six bales of second hand clothing through an agent.
She has been doing this for a while and has succeeded on all occasions.
This is her form of employment for as long as she remembers.
She explains: “I will show you the agents who help me smuggle my bales. I usually use an agent called Mandebvu. He is reliable, I always get my bales intact.”
Another woman Mai Mabhiza interjects and recommends an agent, Mai Pee. She says she is honest and the best in the business and has sought her services on many occasions.
The discussions make the journey short. We arrive in Chimoio around 6 pm and quickly board a kombi to Beira.
It is the last one for the day and fills up quickly. It’s a long drive on the potholed road to Beira.
Almost all passengers we had travelled with from Forbes Border Post are on the kombi. I realise smuggling is on a much bigger scale.
I tell them I am new in the business and just testing the waters.
More tips on what to do and how to behave when I get to Beira flow.
“You should board chopelas (emergency taxis) when in Beira. They will take you from point A to B. Don’t pay anything above 50 Mil Meticas. Negotiate prices with the shop owners who sell bales. Do the same in Muhomba if you want to buy shoes,” says Mai Mabhiza.
It is around 10.30pm when we arrive in Beira. The kombi drops photographer Innocent Makawa and me at Pensao Lodge.
At the reception are eight bales of clothing stashed in a corner.
“They belong to Zimbabwean customers who have put up here for the night. Are you here for the same business?” the male receptionist inquires in broken Shona.
The following day we patiently stand outside Mafuyah, one of the shops that Mai Mabhiza recommended.
She had promised to meet us there but is late. We wait.
Eight more Zimbabweans join us.
It is almost 8.30 am and the shop still has not opened.
We get impatient and go to the opposite shop, Aimin, which has just opened its doors. The other eight follow us one by one.
There we meet the owner’s son, Mansor Arit. He and his three workers assist us.
Moments later, the shop fills up with more Zimbabweans, some buying as many as 10 bales of men’s jeans per person.
I go back to Mafuyah to look for Mai Mabhiza. We need her; she is our link to Mai Pee.
The shop has opened and she still has not arrived. Inside I meet a woman who has also been referred to Mai Pee by a colleague in Harare.
She has just learnt that Mai Pee travelled to Zimbabwe the previous day and is worried. She cannot trust strangers.
There are two men in the shop.
I pick up one is Baba Anna and the other Mupositori. They are trying to negotiate something with her.
They tell her they work with Mai Pee, but she is not convinced. The woman makes a call to Harare and her friend confirms that the men indeed work with my Pee.
Baba Anna runs the show when she is not around, I learn. Satisfied, I tell Baba Anna that I also want them to transport my two bales of clothing to Harare.
“We charge $50 for each bale we transport. There is an extra charge of 100 Meticais for local transportation. You will also need to buy sacks to put your bales in so that they do not get damaged. We also sew them for you and that is an extra cost,” he explains as we walk towards the shop I had left Makawa.
Many other customers seek their services and their list seems to grow by the second.
They tell us that Mai Pee is a good woman. She offers food and accommodation to her clients.
“If you want you could come and sleep there tonight. We will take care of you,” says Baba Anna.
Baba Anna and Mupositori patiently wait for us as we buy our bales.
It is not easy to guess which bales have the best quality. Buying them is a gamble. People take their time, even an hour, to try and figure out the contents.
The bales are turned, again and again, over and over until one is satisfied they have struck gold.
After paying for our bales, Baba Anna and Mupositori put them in sacks, sew them and write my name on all four sides.
He asks me to write my contact details on the back of the receipt which I leave with him.
“We will use the receipt when we come to collect the bales later on. Our truck will move from one shop to the other picking them up. We will compile the information and know how many we will carry. Do not worry, yours will arrive in Harare by tomorrow since we have a truckload leaving tonight,” he assures me.
Baba Anna asks Mupositori to escort us to Mai Pee’s home so that we have lunch, rest a bit and leave our bags.
Mupositori is humble. He carries our backpacks as we walk down the dusty streets towards Mai Pee’s home.
On the way we meet more Zimbabweans entering and leaving shops that sell bales.
Mupositori says we should first call next time we decide to come.
“On Wednesday, 15 clients called to say they were on their way. By the time they arrived, dinner was ready so were blankets,” he says.
The rented home, number 326 in the Pionero or Masamba area, has three large rooms and a bathroom.
The room which houses female customers is also used as a kitchen.
Inside is a deep freezer, push tray, a fan and heap of blankets. A white sack rests in a corner of the room.
The next room is used by Mai Pee. It is locked since she is in Zimbabwe.
The third room is the bathroom.
The bathroom is dingy. The tub is heavily stained, there is little or no running water during the time we spend there.
The fourth is the men’s room, where Mai Pee’s male workers and customers sleep. Inside is a bed, heap of blankets, a television set and DVD.
It’s a modest place but what happens behind the scenes is massive. Thousands of dollars are being generated through smuggling.
A truck half filled with bales is parked outside.
Another small car with Zimbabwean number plates and yet another truck with Mozambican plates are parked next to it. We learn the small car belongs to Amai Pee.
The loaded truck leaves in a few minutes after a local policeman has busted them.
Mai Pee’s nephew, Fungi, pays a bribe of $20 and he leaves.
In a few minutes, another Mozambican cop who has gotten wind of the loaded truck, tries his luck.
He is too late, it has left.
“We work with Mozambicans who help translate and speak with local officials if we are caught. This is a risky business and one has to be extremely careful,” reveals Mupositori.
Mupositori has only been working in Beira for a month and a half.
He plied the same trade in Chimoio.
He travelled to Beira on the promise of a paying job by an Indian man. They did not agree on the salary and Mai Pee gave him a job.
“We do not fight over clients, Mai Pee ndivo vakabata Beira ino yose,” he brags.
We pick up Mai Pee has five other employees, both Zimbabwean and Mozambican. They are Bhonga, who cooks for clients and cleans the home, Odivaldo, Matunge, Sando and Baba Anna.
Each morning, they are “planted” in shops that include Mafuyah and Tony among many others looking for new and old customers.
They also travel with the bales to certain exchange points in Mozambique.
Their “base” in the CBD is at Kays, which also sells bales.
He warns us: “Never use those guys who smuggle through the bush, they will disappear with the bales. Maybe I will not sleep home tonight because I should leave with another car carrying your bales and Baba Anna with another for the exchanges.”
As night falls, Mai Pee’s employees, Mupositori included, prepare to leave.
It is a risky business, they have to be careful, should have bribe money in place, translators, etc.
They have a consignment of 95 bales leaving for Zimbabwe that night.
They have to move fast.
It’s a game that is done “nicodemously”, far from the prying eyes of snitches, police and customs officials in both Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Mupositori, Baba Anna and the other workers escort the bales using local transport up to Gondola area, Mozambique.
There, they meet a haulage truck driver who they pay an undisclosed amount of money to smuggle the bales to Zimbabwe.
It is at that point that they load the bales onto the haulage truck and travel back to Beira.
The haulage truck driver is given a list of client’s phone numbers and proceeds to Zimbabwe. He knows what to do upon arrival.
“The haulage trucks can carry up to 100 bales. The driver will pay officials at the border if caught. Sometimes we use haulage trucks in transit to Zambia as they are not searched. Yours will arrive before you get home,” says another of Mai Pee’s workers whose name I did not pick.
Bhonga prepares dinner which consists of rice and scrambled eggs.
It being a Friday, I am the only one in the ladies room, most came during the week.
It’s time to sleep and the door is locked from outside. I am scared. I find consolation in the fact that a beggar is not a chooser.
Moments later, I am awakened by a knock just as I am about to doze off.
It is 10pm and a woman, Muzvare Faith, has just arrived from Harare.
She, too, is scared, she almost got lost.
It is her first time in Beira and panicked when she could not initially locate Mai Pee.
“Luckily, the phone went through and she sent some people to pick me up,” says a relieved Muzvare Faith who is a teacher.
The door is opened and she, too, is given rice and scrambled eggs.
She finds a spot to sleep on the floor and we chat for a while as she inquires where to buy bales with good quality clothing.
Mai Pee arrives.
She is a heavily built woman, bursting with love and joy.
We exchange pleasantries and sleep.
It is now 5am on Saturday May 18.
I am awakened by Mai Pee’s sharp voice as she speaks to someone on the phone in her Manyika accent.
I can hear parts of her conversation from our room.
She is worried, something could be wrong at the border.
I, too, am worried.
What will become of my bales?
Amai Pee receives three more calls and the problem seems solved.
The sun bursts from the clouds and it is time to wake up.
Muzvare Faith sweeps our room while I bath. Bhonga prepares breakfast consisting of bread with butter and coffee.
Mai Pee joins us but takes cereal. She has to do early rounds in town since she has been away.
She offers us a lift to town.
In the short time we are with her, we find out how she became a kingpin.
“I came from Mutare years back and started off selling tomatoes in that vegetable market. Business was low and I started transporting bales of clothing to Zimbabwe. I then recruited Baba Anna, who I used to sell tomatoes with. Now we work together well. We sometimes suffer losses as this is a risky business,” she says as she drops us off a bureau de change and also shows us directions to the kombis to Chimoio.
I wish I had spent more time with her but have to proceed to Chimoio.
In Chimoio there are also several smuggling kingpins.
We learn their modus operandi is similar to that in Beira.
We leave Chimoio on Sunday.
We have three bags of some clothes we plucked out of one of the bales we bought from Beira.
The clothes are also not permitted to leave Mozambique and neither are they allowed to enter Zimbabwe without paying heavy duty.
It’s another headache.
As soon as the kombi from Chiomio stops at Forbes Border post, a group of people (Majoricho) run towards it and mob disembarking passengers.
They consist of money changers, those who claim to have taxis on the Zimbabwean side and some who offer services to travellers without proper documents.
Others ask if there are any hot items in passengers’ luggage.
We have “hot” items and seek the services of an elderly woman who immediately carries my two bags.
I am only left with my handbag.
She is joined by two young men who take our remaining two bags from Makawa.
The other man initially tells us he has a taxi on the Zimbabwean side.
But before we reach the gate he tells us his job is to help us smuggle the bags.
The first payment for the Mozambican officials is US$10, he says.
I give him the money and he tells us to go through immigration procedures while his colleague waits for us.
I watch him place the money in the palm of the Mozambican policeman at the gate.
They proceed and wait for us on the bridge on no man’s land.
We are joined by a third man.
The man who had paid the Mozambicans and the elderly woman tell us their part is done.
They return to the Mozambican side leaving us with their two companions.
We walk towards the Zimbabwean side to the point where haulage trucks park.
Yet another man joins us.
He is introduced as the genuine taxi driver.
We stand shielded by the huge trucks as we continue to negotiate how much to pay.
No officials on the Zimbabwean side should see us together.
If anything there are cameras at the border that can easily pick up illegal activities.
Plain clothes policemen are many at the border. It is risky.
The men tell us they will smuggle our bags through the bush.
The taxi driver will sit in his car and we are to go there as soon as we have gone through immigration and customs procedures.
The men charge an initial US$30 they claim is to pay soldiers and police.
We give them the money though afraid that they will disappear with our bags.
They “vanish” into the thick vegetation next to the security fence on the border.
We go through formalities at immigration and customs and we are in the taxi in less than five minutes.
One of the men we gave our bags to emerges from the bush — empty-handed.
He goes to the gate where he talks to and hands some money to a policeman.
He runs back to the bush.
He and his friend and our bags are out in just a few minutes.
They quickly stash the bags in the boot and ask us to count our clothes and shoes.
They ask for another US$30 for the risk they have taken for us since we were carrying “hot” items.
They constantly look behind their shoulders, there are too many undercover policemen.
I receive an SMS.
Our bales arrived the previous night in Harare and are at an undisclosed location.
The haulage truck driver’s phone is off, I am afraid he has disappeared with them.
He finally contacts me at around 4pm and tells me he will call again later.
We wait for him to tell us where to come.
Finally he reveals the pick-up point in the high density suburb of Mabvuku.
We collect one of the bales from Kamunhu shopping centre. The other is at a house in the same suburb.
The taxi driver we have hired to ferry them is afraid. He says he wants US$50 for the risk.
The young men who give us the bales tell us not to stop if any car we do not know flags us down.
They also tell us to move at night if we see the police.
We are lucky, police are not at the Mabvuku turn off.
The bales are intact and Mai Pee has delivered as she promised.
Government has lost out.
Is this not the time for authorities to change tactics to stop the growing trend of smuggling and the resultant loss of revenue?