HARARE - It is 7 a.m. at the main long-distance bus terminus in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. The roof-rack of a battered 75-seater bus is piled high with goods, from bales of dried tobacco
leaves to reed mats, in preparation for the 24-hour journey southeast to the town of Sango, in Chiredzi district on the Mozambican border.
"We go to the Sango border every Wednesday morning and if we travel without any problems we arrive there early on Thursday morning. It is a long journey of over 500 kilometres," a bus conductor for the Mukumba Brothers transport company, who declined to be named, told IRIN.
"The luggage we are carrying belongs to traders, who are going to sell their goods in Mozambique. On our return trip the bus is equally loaded on top and inside with rice, cooking oil, food and other things such as soap that most traders bring back," the conductor said.
Mukumba Brothers is one of several bus companies plying the Harare-Chiredzi route, which is not as well known as the Harare-Mutare route to the eastern border, but a busy trading route all the same.
The bus, crammed with passengers perched between bags and bundles, leaves Harare two hours late, only to stop for another hour in Willowvale, a light industrial area on the city limits, where drums of scarce diesel is poured into the tank while mechanics carry out last-minute checks on the vehicle.
The bus finally begins its journey in earnest in the midday heat, but Mervis Chiuto, a cross-border trader and mother of three, is not concerned about the delays.
"I have been selling reed mats in Mozambique for many years and I have been using this route for a long time. This road from Harare to the border is long, but once you cross into the Mozambican side it is easy to travel because there is a cheap train that goes to [the Mozambican capital] Maputo. That is the one I have been using all these years," Chiuto told IRIN.
"I sent my children to school through cross-border trade. Now they are married, but I still continue buying and selling things because the cost of life in Zimbabwe is now very expensive and you need to work. My son is a teacher but I also look after him, because his salary can't buy even a bar of soap," she said.
"People used [to use] the Mutare route to Mozambique because there is a better road, but life has worsened in Zimbabwe and in the past two years I have seen the number of people using the Sango border increase. More people have been buying food such as rice and sugar for their families, and for resale back home [in Zimbabwe]."
Zimbabwe's economic meltdown has left few people in the country untouched. Unemployment is above 80 percent, annual inflation is officially estimated at more than 11 million percent, and shortages of basic foods, electricity, fuel and potable water are commonplace.
More than three million people, a third of the population, are believed to have left for neighbouring countries or have gone even further afield to Europe and Australia in search of work, and many remit money to their relatives trying to eke out a living in Zimbabwe.
The widespread shortages, which the UN predicts will see more than five million people requiring food assistance by early 2009, has resulted in a huge increase in cross-border trading.
"I am on my way to Maputo to buy sports shoes and labels for resale back in Zimbabwe. I do this once every month. Some other times I also come back with packets of rice when I can carry them," Tapiwa Chimombe, another trader, told IRIN.
Chimombe graduated from a "good" Harare school in 2000 after passing his A Levels, but turned to cross-border trading when he could not find work in the formal sector. He said many other young men who had worked in banks or as technicians had given up their formal jobs and become traders "because a white-collar job no longer pays in Zimbabwe".
"You find that most of the women who have been using this route know each other, and the same goes for most of us young people as well. After a few months of doing this you start to recognise familiar faces."
The familiarity of the passengers makes conversations come easily, albeit in hushed tones, about the recent elections and the ongoing talks between President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
"Like most of the passengers in here I paid R150 (US$19) for this trip because it is easier to pay for things in Zimbabwe with [South African] rands than with local currency. The bus companies prefer payment in foreign currency rather than in Zimbabwe dollars and this is a sign that things are not good, and we need ZANU-PF and MDC to reach an agreement soon or there will be no future for our children," Chimombe said.
The final 180km to the Mozambican border, which skirts the Gonarezhou National Park, is on dirt roads. "In the next few months, when the rain season begins, this dust road becomes a hazard. Buses fail to navigate the dust road so some of the companies withdraw their buses, and truck drivers charge us exorbitant fees to transport our goods," Chiuto commented.
The bus arrives at Sango in the early hours of the morning. The Zimbabwe-Mozambique border is demarcated by two red-brick buildings that house officials from the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) and the department of immigration.
In the half-light of dawn there is already a queue waiting for the border to open at 6 a.m. People are sleeping on the pavements, using their luggage as pillows; a few of the women comfort young children while others wait to use a single tap to wash.
Thursday is the busiest day of the week for immigration officials on both sides of the border because the train comes from Maputo and the long-distance buses arrive from Harare.
Good news is always a rare commodity, but today there is some. "With effect from today ZIMRA has increased the amount of foods that can be imported from Mozambique without being charged duty," an immigration officer tells the gathering crowd.
"You are now allowed to bring in up two 200 kilograms of rice and no duty will be charged [a fourfold increase on the previous limit of 50 kilograms]; the amount of cooking oil you can bring through the border is now 100 litres [double the previous amount of 50 litres]."
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