COVID-19: Former Tourism Workers Engage In Risky Business For Survival

Desperate women cross the flooded Zambezi river using canoes to fend for their families in Zambia. Image by Safari Club

BY BOKANI MUDIMBA | @The_CBNews | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | MAR 19, 2021

Victoria Falls' reliance in the tourism sector has left many jobless due to COVID-19. Some former workers in the industry now have an alternative--albeit deadly.

VICTORIA FALLS (The Citizen Bulletin) — The COVID-19 pandemic has remodelled livelihoods, with some citizens engaging in risky activities to eke a living and provide for their families.

In tourism communities, Victoria Falls mainly lost their jobs beginning last year when the country effected the first 30-day lockdown.

Shylet Buta says losing her job as a waiter at a local hotel left her with no option but to engage in smuggling goods from neighbouring Zambia.

She says the trade is a matter of life and death.

“I used to work as a casual waiter at a hotel, and that gave me enough to take care of my son as I could buy food, clothes, pay our rent and send him to school. We were among the first group to have our contracts terminated in April (2020), and since then, I have been surviving by the grace of God,” Buta says.

Buta rents a single room with her son, who is supposed to start Form One.

Her son was one of the many in Victoria Falls whose school fees were being paid through a bursary sourced by a local tour operating company from tourists, but the donors have pulled out due to the pandemic.

For Buta, selling second-hand clothes was the only fallback plan.

However, she has to risk contracting COVID-19 or drowning in the Zambezi River.

The government recently relaxed some lockdown restrictions, but borders remain closed, meaning tourism is still grounded.

“A friend introduced me to salahula (second-hand clothes) business. She told me they were crossing using canoes in Chisuma, and for a moment, I was hesitant because I am scared of deep water.”
Shylet Buta, a single mother who lost her job

“I later told myself I had to do it because my son has to go to Form One. The risk of crossing the flooded Zambezi River is better than dying of hunger and my son failing to go to school,” Buta says.

Zambezi River is at its highest as water levels have increased significantly to more than  1,209 cubic metres per second compared to the same period last year (677m3/s), according to the Zambezi River Authority.

The Rafting Association of Zimbabwe (RAZ) says such a water level is dangerous even for guided rafting.

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“Naturally, we would have closed rafting because sailing the river downstream the Victoria Falls is dangerous with this level,” Skinner Ndlovu, RAZ chair.

Hoteliers and tour operators closed following restriction on international travelling. As a result, scores of workers had their contracts terminated while those that remained at work had their salaries cut because of lack of business.

The government has allowed the sector to reopen for domestic tourism, but there are no clients due to economic hardships.

Tourism industry trade unionist Edward Dzapasi says COVID-19 left more than three-quarters of workers jobless.

“Tourism employed about 90 per cent of the Victoria Falls population, and more than three-quarters of these are now jobless, which has affected people’s livelihoods.”
Edward Dzapasi, trade unionist

Many have resorted to smuggling goods from Zambia for sale on the informal market.

However, the Chisuma illegal crossing point in the gorges is manned by police and army who operate from an old camp in the area.

“We give them (police and soldiers) US$10 to be allowed passage using boats that carry people across to the Zambian side where there are taxis to Livingstone. It’s like an official border. On my last trip, we were intercepted by Zambian police as we approached Lusaka, and we paid US$50 spot fines to be allowed to go,” says Fortunate Sibanda, one of those who have embarked into smuggling.

Some have become ‘runners’, a name given to smugglers who specialise in crossing the border to buy goods on behalf of others and charge them for transport and security.

Skin lightening creams are being smuggled into the country from Zambia. Image by The World News

Some of the smuggled goods are bales of second-hand clothes, illegal Bronclear (cough syrup), Zed and Tetankau, and skin lightening creams that have a ready market.

Some also cross to buy groceries as prices are lower in Livingstone compared to Victoria Falls.

Some have turned their house verandahs into informal shops from where they sell their goods.

Acting Chief Mvutu Bishop Sibanda, whose area the illegal crossing point is, has implored security services to enforce laws.

“The camp was set-up to prevent crime, and we expect that to happen. People must also not risk their lives illegally crossing the Zambezi, that’s dangerous,” Chief Mvutu, birth name Bishop Sibanda.

Matabeleland North police spokesperson Inspector Glory Banda says no-one has made a formal report to the police.

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Tourism workers, Goods smuggling, Victoria Falls, COVID-19

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