admin | October 2, 2022
From Busia, Uganda, the Kenyan border is just a five-minute walk along a reddish dirt road. Dirt paths like these are known in Swahili as panya, or routes. They allow 53-year-old Middy Amule, and many other women, to skip the official border checkpoint, with its long lines and mandatory fees that would eat into her already-slim profits. But danger looms along the panya routes. Authorities, the women say, often bully them for kitu kidogo, which means “a little something” in Swahili. Maybe a bribe, maybe a watermelon. Maybe more. A woman has little power to say no. Because she’s considered a smuggler, officials could seize her wares.
From Busia, Uganda, the Kenyan border is tantalizingly close. Just a five-minute walk along a reddish dirt road, past low-slung homes and general stores, mango trees and maize gardens, and women teetering baskets of melons on their heads. Many mornings, just after sunrise, Middy Amule is among the few dozen women who hustle down this path to sell dresses, cereals, tea, coffee, tobacco, salt, and bananas in Kenya and return home to Uganda by dark.
Dirt paths like these are known in Swahili as panya, or routes. They allow 53-year-old Mrs. Amule to skip the official border checkpoint, with its long lines and mandatory fees that would eat into her already-slim profits. But authorities consider using the panya routes as akin to smuggling. It’s a term that, in practice, puts the women at risk of exploitation.
According to traders, officials station themselves along these well-trod paths, demanding bribes, stealing food—or worse. Mrs. Amule says, “A woman once came to me to empty her grief.” The woman told her, “‘I feel filthy. I have been used by the security man at the checkpoint.’” But the woman didn’t report it—word might get back to her husband.
Women in these situations rarely seek help through official channels. Godfrey Ongwabe Oundo is the regional chairperson of cross-border trade for the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. He explains that many of these women didn’t finish school and struggle with English, the language of government bureaucracy. In some cases, the authorities are the harassers, and so women do not feel safe to report the crimes.
Mr. Oundo says, “A border official will request to help her with goods for a payback. The moment this happens, it becomes routine, and she cannot tell her husband.”
A number of government agencies play a role in running these unofficial checkpoints. Irene Kiiza Onyango is a spokesperson for the Ugandan Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives. She says: “We react on matters that are officially reported, but not speculations, and the women have never approached our offices to talk about what they go through.”
A spokesperson for the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces, which helps patrol the checkpoint, says the military has also received no complaints.
Ibrahim Kibuuka Bbossa is a spokesperson for the Uganda Revenue Authority, which oversees customs agents. He says the traders should speak up. He adds, “We deal with abuse of integrity so highly, and we fire people whom we find guilty of disrespecting our code of integrity. So the women should report these cases.”
But reporting is not as easy as it sounds. Filing a complaint often requires evidence, and many women say this alone could ruin their marriage or livelihood.
These woes are typical for small-scale traders—those whose transactions amount to less than $2,000 USD each. This type of commerce fuels a significant and informal economy of buyers, sellers, money-exchangers, and drivers.
Suzan Nagudi is one of many women who rely on this economy for her livelihood. She has sold mangoes and melons in Kenya for more than a decade. She says that her husband once worked as a labourer in Qatar, but since returning during the pandemic, he hasn’t been able to find a job. The couple have three children aged 2, 4, and 13, and Mrs. Nagudi’s income covers food, school fees, medical bills, and rent. To her, the informal routes are the only viable routes.
The 33-year-old says, “I am thinking along the lines of getting to Kenya and selling my goods quickly and returning before sunset. But using the official route would derail my work.”
Danger looms along the panya routes. The women say that authorities often bully them for kitu kidogo, which means “a little something” in Swahili. Maybe a bribe, maybe a watermelon. Maybe more. A woman has little power to say no. Because she’s considered a smuggler, officials could seize her wares.
Sanyu, a trader who slips into Kenya twice a week, says, “They want a sample. They use the eye and the tongue to test the quality of the product.”
The 29-year-old often travels hours to source melons to sell in Kenya. She could make as much as 300,000 Ugandan shillings ($80 USD) a week, she says, but because she pays kitu kidogo so frequently, he feels lucky to bring home half that.
This story is adapted from an article written by Edna Namara and published in Global Press Journal and titled “Women traders face a perilous journey across the border.” To read the full story, go to: https://globalpressjournal.com/africa/uganda/women-traders-perilous-journey-across-border/
Photo: Suzan Nagudi, right, a small-scale trader, attends to a customer at her mango stand in Busia, Uganda. Credit: Edna Namara for GPJ Uganda.