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Abeja Dispatch

A Visit to the Tobacco Auction

Raj, Memory and I stared in wonder at the inside of this huge warehouse full of tobacco and bustling crowds of buyers and sellers. I stepped closer to the first row of tobacco bales to see what all this was about. "Lookout!"Raj screamed and pulled me back, just as two men zipped by wheeling huge bales down the aisle. That's when I noticed the big sign saying, "CAUTION! BARROWS!"I've read about tobacco-related death, but it takes on new meaning here at the BZM tobacco auction in Harare, Zimbabwe!

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Don't visit this place if you're trying to quit!
This time we remembered to look both ways before crossing the aisles, and joined the men who stood examining the rows and rows of open bales of tobacco. Some were lighter yellow, some darker, while some were bundles of full leaves and others were small cuttings. The full leaves are about a foot and a half long, dry and leathery.

The stench of tobacco was overwhelming, but not as bad as it was in the factory Raj and I visited last week in the Bvumba Mountains. There, we saw the tobacco hanging in dark rooms and barns to be dried, then sorted by rows of women, many with babies on their backs. They were sorted by quality and type, they told me, and then compressed into bales of about 100 kilograms each, wrapped in brown burlap. From there, they were sent to auction houses such as these in Mutare and Harare.

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Abeja checking out the tobacco
At the auction, well-dressed men wandered up and down the aisles, checking the quality of the bales and preparing to make their bids. "Are these different types of tobacco?"I asked one of the men. He was holding up two bundles from two different bales and the color difference was drastic.

"No." He said, pausing to explain his business. "All the tobacco here is Virginia tobacco. What we look for is differences in quality."

"I'm from Virginia!" I laughed, marveling at the fact that the number one cash-earning export of Zimbabwe is a crop that originated and is named after my home state on the other side of the world!

He picked up one of the small slips of paper that sat on top of each of the open bundles. "Here, each of these letters means something. This ’A, ’ for example, means it has spots." Then he picked up a leaf and held it up to the light. Sure enough, there were brown spots all over it. The paper had many spaces for other information, like the name of the grower, the weight of the bale, and the name and signature of the buyer and the agreed-upon price. Just then I realized that a crowd of about a dozen men was shuffling towards us, on each side of the row of tobacco. We stepped back and the huddle stopped for less than a minute in front of the bale we were just examining. A man in a blue shirt was mumbling the way people do when they talk in their sleep. Or maybe he was channeling some spirit from beyond? I couldn't understand a word he was saying. "Is that Shona?" I asked Memory, who shook her head, looking as confused as I was. Suddenly, as the man would stop muttering, an identically dressed man right beside him would jot something down on a clipboard and on the slip of paper on the bale, and the crowd shuffled on to the next bale and the mumbling started again.

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Analyzing the tobacco before selling
Clearly, this was the auction happening, but none of us could follow it at all. The words the man said, which I assume were prices in U.S. dollars, were incomprehensible, and I couldn't see whatever the buyer did to signal his bid. A wink perhaps? A wiggle of the nose? I don't know, but somehow or other, business was being conducted right there in front of us. Then the bales were closed up, put on a hand-trolley, and rushed off to some behind the scene place, while being replaced by other bales coming out in the dangerous race of whizzing "barrows."

"For only $173, we could buy a bale!" Raj laughed, pointing to the chalkboard on the wall that told us the tobacco was selling for an average of U.S. $1.73 per kilo.

"Yeah, that'd be a great souvenir from Zimbabwe!" I joked, picturing myself strapping a 100 kilo bale of tobacco onto my backpack. "Except that neither of us smokes."

"How many cigarettes do you suppose you could make out of that?" Raj pondered .

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One of the many people who labor to bring the tobacco to market
I guess each cigarette uses about one gram of tobacco, so that's about 100,000 cigarettes. "Enough to kill us AND all our closest friends," I estimated. I was trying to be funny, but it's really no laughing matter. Tobacco use and therefore tobacco-related deaths are growing in most developing countries. Here in Zimbabwe, tobacco is the mainstay of their economy, so, basically, the country is dependent upon this deadly drug and its addictive properties.

The reality of that was driven home in an ironic encounter we'd had earlier in the day, when we tried to visit the Gleneagles tobacco auction, which is the largest in the world! (Or was.) When we got to that huge warehouse, there were only a few people about. We were helped by a middle-aged man who told us that the auction was closed now because the owner had died.

"You guys don't smoke?" he asked as we turned to leave. When Raj told him that he used to, he became very interested. " How did you quit? I had a heart attack and the doctors told me I have to quit smoking, but the stress has just made me smoke even more!"

Raj gave him a few words of wisdom, and we left for the other auction. As we walked away each of us silently pondered the irony of this man now dying himself because of the addiction he peddles for a livelihood.


Monica - Bon Voyage Shawn!
Shawn - Leaving on a Jet Plane :-(
Kevin - When Intolerance Rises to Intolerable Levels
Kavitha - Old Ways to Make New Changes
Abeja - You Reap What You Sow
Kavitha - From Drought to Surplus, a Tale of Success
Making A Difference - Send A Message!

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