As office workers scurry home in the lingering light just after sunset in Harare, street vendors raise their sales pitches to prospective customers.
Innocent Mutopo displays his wares on the busy Leopold Takawira Street in the central business district of Zimbabwe’s capital. Pickings are rich tonight: his customers are queuing up and Mutopo’s merchandise — plastic packets the size of tea bags — are quickly changing hands.
“I have sex enhancers and STI [sexually transmitted infection] treatments today,” he tells a middle-aged man, waving at a batch of sacks, which he claims will cure STIs, “but I have run out of Congo Dust.”
The out-of-stock herbal sex enhancer is his most popular product, Mutopo says, while he is busy selling the man a container allegedly containing baboon urine. This is also a sexual enhancer, which he gets from the neighbouring province of Mashonaland East, he says.
The baboon urine costs the customer a $1 bond coin (equivalent to one United States dollar, according to the government) but Mutopo charges $2 for Congo Dust.
When his customer is out of sight, the vendor fishes a small bag out of his trouser pocket. He is keeping it for a regular buyer
“AN INCREDIBLE MAN LOADER BAZOOKA SUPER ERECTOR THAT CAN DRIVE YOU UP TO SIX ROUNDS” it boldly proclaims on the piece of white paper stuffed into the small plastic bag of brownish powder. “All will be quiet but when action comes, ooh! You will see”, the packaging promises.
Mix just a pinch or two of the brownish powder with water and apply it generously to the penis between one and three hours before intercourse, Mutopo explains, and an erection will last for up to an hour. One sachet contains enough powder for two or three applications.
“Our sex enhancers give you more sperm power,” he boasts.
He does not know what his top seller really contains, though, saying they are “traditional African herbs”. His suppliers are long-distance truck drivers who bring the mix, and other sex enhancers, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia.
Congo Dust, like all unregistered sex-performance enhancers, is illegal in Zimbabwe. Shingai Gwatidzo, the projects officer of the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe, says there has been a surge in street vending and backpack dealing of unregistered medicines in central Harare.
“We don’t know how safe the majority of the sexual performance enhancers are or the quality and efficacy of the products,” Gwatidzo says, and the active ingredients in Congo Dust have not been analysed in a quality-controlled laboratory.
But “based on anecdotal reports”, they may contain complementary, herbal and ayurvedic ingredients and some are laced with conventional medicines.
The chance that these products may lead to severe allergic reactions or even death is a major concern. So too is the chance that they may fuel sexual behaviours such as multiple partners and unsafe sex that could put users at an increased risk of HIV infection, Gwatidzo says.
One of Mutopo’s regulars, a 35-year-old married man with two young children, who only gives his name as Moses, describes his living arrangements as “complicated”. He lives with his wife but “hosts” his girlfriend at a lodge for one night during the week as well as over weekends.
“That makes me tired at home when it comes to sex. If I use Congo Dust, I manage to balance my duties,” he says.
But an unsuspecting user may find himself with a prolonged penis erection of up to three hours, Evans Masitara, a member of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, cautions. And, as unpleasant and extremely painful as this side effect may be, Masitara’s real worry is the link between having multiple sexual partners and the use of aphrodisiac substances.
“People will look for endurance with multi-partners,” he says.
At the Five Avenues Shopping Centre, near the red light district known as “Avenues”, Tapiwa Mashamba also sells Congo Dust and an array of other sex-enhancement tablets.
“We sell mostly to middle-aged men who drive expensive vehicles but we also get younger guys here and there,” he says. When asked whether men use condoms after swallowing or applying his wares, Mashamba just shrugs. It’s not his concern.
The power of powder? Congo Dust has gained near mythical status in large parts of the trucking community despite its largely unknown and potentially risky ingredients and unproven effectiveness.
For up to three weeks they wind their way from central Africa to the ports of Durban, Walvis Bay and Mombasa: the long-haul drivers manoeuvring hefty 18-wheelers across the region’s borders.
These men — for it is still very much a male-dominated profession — battle road hazards, monotony and fatigue as they push to meet tight delivery deadlines with their valuable cargo of minerals, equipment and stock for stores.
But delays at border crossings can make the truckers wait for hours and even days, and sex and alcohol help to pass the time. And, at truck stops along the route, they are approached by sex workers who often offer not only distraction but also a break from the confined space of the truck.
Too little sleep, bad eating habits and long days leave the truckers feeling drained and not able to perform, they complain.
But not when they use Congo Dust, the traditional herbal mix that has gained near-mythical status among large parts of the trucking community for the sexual stamina it allegedly bestows on the user.
Nearly a third of long-haul truckers in Zimbabwe use sexual enhancement substances, a recent study on the high-risk heterosexual behaviour of long-distance truck drivers found.
Besides Congo Dust, they use a product called Gonazororo, which is extracted from the baobab fruit, and Enzoy, a powder mix for a “vitality drink”, which can be bought in bars and at lodges along the transport corridors between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls, as well as between Harare and Chirundu, on the northern border with Zambia.
The research, released in February, was commissioned by the National Employment Council for the Transport Operating Industry (Nectoi).
Although it was not published in a scientific journal, it was approved by the Medical Research Council of Zimbabwe and will be used to guide the government’s HIV programmes.
The survey, in which 425 long-distance drivers participated, focuses on Zimbabwe but the use of sex enhancers among truckers is believed to be widespread.
During discussions about their clinical history, drivers from across the region have reported using some form of traditional or herbal medicine, says Thandeka Khoza, the chief medical officer of the Durban-based North Star Alliance’s Southern Africa region.
The nongovernmental organisation has a network of 49 clinics, referred to as “Blue Boxes”, in 12 African countries, where healthcare services are provided to truck drivers, sex workers, farm workers and nearby communities.
“In some cases, it is for specific ailments such as arthritis or joint pains or to prevent illness. Others take it to ‘strengthen themselves’ sexually by increasing their stamina, or spiritually to ward off bad omens,” Khoza says.
Most long-distance truck drivers travel in unsafe environments and will not leave their truck for long periods for fear of their cargo being stolen. “This means the drivers sit, sleep and eat in a hot truck for weeks on end. Being away from home in these uncomfortable conditions may lead to them seeking the services of sex workers,” she says.
Truck drivers have long been blamed for their role in spreading HIV and STIs in sub-Saharan Africa because of their many partners and the buying of sex.
“Commercial and casual sex is available at truck stops, border crossing points and major transportation hubs,” the report, titled Analysis of the Causes and Patterns of High-Risk Sexual Behaviours among Long-Distance Drivers in Zimbabwe, states. “Truckers … may acquire HIV infection in these environments, spread it along their route and infect their regular partners in their homes.”
Organisations such as Nectoi have run HIV-awareness programmes for 25 years, and many provide truckers with condoms and run health clinics along routes. The question is why, despite knowing how to protect themselves, long-haul truckers still engage in high-risk sexual behaviour such as not using condoms.
Tofara Mavuwa, the Aids project manager of Nectoi, says the survey confirms earlier research indicating that alcohol consumption, particularly before sex, impairs a person’s judgement and leads to a failure to use condoms consistently.
Truckers are regulars at drinking places frequented by sex workers along the routes and tend to engage in high-risk behaviour. But, Mavuwa says, they were surprised when the use of sexual enhancement substances featured along with the use of alcohol and the buying of sex as risk factors.
“We were aware that drivers use sexual enhancement products but we did not know the extent of it,” he says.
About 31% of the long-distance drivers use the substances, the researchers found.
Khoza says drivers often do not get enough exercise and their diets consist of fast or roadside foods. This leads to obesity and diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.
“We know that one of the complications of these diseases, particularly diabetes, is impotency,” she says. This, in turn, explains the high use of these stimulants.
A big worry is the effect of the sexual enhancers, Mavuwa says. “In some cases they say they don’t need condoms when they use the sexual enhancers.”
The study shows that 7.6% of the men did not use condoms after taking the remedies.
“There are many reasons for that. Some men may believe the concoctions will safeguard them. We have also been told that sex workers will ask men to remove protection because the sex will carry on too long with a condom after using these sex enhancers,” Mavuwa says.
“We are worried that the use of the enhancers will lead to men having even more sexual partners.”
For more than 25 years, organisations along Southern Africa’s trade routes have been working to reduce the risk of HIV infection among truckers and sex workers. (Gianluigi Guercia, AFP)
The Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe has clamped down on the illegal sale of sexual enhancement substances, its project officer, Shingai Gwatidzo, says.
In practice, this means raiding hot spots, confiscating street vendors’ products and prosecuting them.
But their suppliers — the thousands of truckers passing through Zimbabwe — are more difficult to police. Because the stimulants are smuggled into the country and sold illegally, Gwatidzo admits it “presents challenges in controlling the import and sale”.
A dedicated officer has been deployed at the Beitbridge border post to prevent illegal medicines from entering Zimbabwe from South Africa.
Aggressive public awareness campaigns in schools and churches and on social media warn users against the dangers of sex enhancers.
But while the truck drivers crisscrossing the country continue to use sex enhancers, the supply on the streets will remain.
The study into the sexual behaviour of long-distance truck drivers emphasises there should be a change in the factors leading to their risky behaviour. The average time truckers are away from home should be reduced, the report recommends, and ultimately there should be minimum standards for a truck stop to reduce high-risk behaviour.
Khoza says North Star’s experience gained at its network of roadside clinics shows that when peer educators can speak directly — and in small groups — to the truckers, it has the most impact. But it is their working conditions that will have to improve, she warns.
In Harare, Mutopo is not worried that he will see a drop in business.
“After three babies, people are tired. These powders help them enjoy sex inside the house and out,” he claims.
And while modern food weakens men’s appetite for sex, Mutopo says, his sachets will sell.