Friday, August 21, 2009

Truck-Stop Girls


Truck-Stop Girls 


Published: August 18, 2009

In May, I was traveling down a South African highway with a colleague and a driver, headed toward Swaziland. A private foundation had assigned me to assess a health clinic that it set up for truckers and the girls and women who trade sex with them for cash and goods. Truckers are well known to transmit H.I.V. up and down the highways. And Swaziland, a small, landlocked country dependent on its busy trucking corridors, is particularly troublesome. It has the highest H.I.V. rate in the world: one in three people is infected.

Holly Wales

When we reached the Osheok border post, the Swazi official welcomed us, inspecting the vehicle efficiently. Apart from a gas station, a dozen roadside vegetable stands and some dingy bars, there was little activity in the little border town. Adjacent to the customs office, there was a small building fashioned from a shipping container with a hand-painted sign outside: “Truckers Wellness Center.” It’s an innovative way to set up a clinic. While papers are processed at customs, truckers use the clinic to obtain medications for “hot urine” and other sexually transmitted diseases.

We watched truckers filing into the clinic throughout the evening, but there were no girls. So I wandered up and chatted with the border official, who said: “You want girls? Then go to Matsapha. They’ll attack your car!” Matsapha is the main overnight hub for truckers. It was well past 11 p.m., but we decided to go there. As we drove, the “majestic mountains, fertile valleys and lush forests” described in Swaziland guidebooks appeared only as shadows.

Matsapha was still, almost abandoned. A lone gas attendant directed us to the edge of town and an old sign on a hill for the Economy Flats motel. The driver slowed, and as the official predicted, about 10 girls in tiny dresses and little shorts swarmed around our vehicle. But when they saw my female colleague and me, they screamed and went off. I sent the driver out to negotiate. “Tell them we just want to talk,” I said. “I’ll buy them dinner.” The lure of food was enough. Three girls got in the car, and we drove down a narrow, beaten track through the trees to a rundown complex of rough cement-block buildings. This was their home. This was where the truckers slept and the girls earned their meals.

We sat on stones outside the barren rooms and talked with the young women. Dozens of girls, between the ages of 14 and 24, were hanging around the compound. Men smoking cigarettes and drinking liquor walked up and down the path and in and out of the cement-block buildings. The girls were alert to one another’s needs, listening for sounds of violence in the rooms or the shouts of the younger girls closer to the road.

I met eyes with a 16-year-old named Mbali. She was thin, with close-cropped hair and a beautiful smile. I offered her a packet of crackers, which she ripped open with her teeth. After wolfing them down, she looked at me and said, “I hate having sex.” Her parents were dead; she was unable to pay her school fees, had been abused by an overburdened aunt — and now, like many of the girls, she was a runaway. Nearly one in four Swazi girls is H.I.V. positive, and Mbali is one of them. Her treatment options are limited. “I have nowhere to sleep unless I find a man,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t have money and food for two days. A man without a condom will pay more, so obviously I say O.K. because I need money.”

She continued: “I am so tired. These men are so rough.”

I’ve been working with women and girls for over two decades now — in Haiti, in Zimbabwe, in Tanzania and in Kenya — and I have heard this story often. But this one, deep in the forest of Swaziland, seemed so desperate. I was as surprised as she was when I suddenly burst into tears.

Mbali held my face and said, “Don’t cry!” She hugged me. How absurd can life be? A 16-year-old, H.I.V.-positive orphan was comforting me while I wept. It was a strange way to carry on an interview, but that’s what we did. I asked her what she needed most. “Someplace safe,” she said. “Someplace to be a girl. Someplace where I won’t have to have sex with men anymore.”

The driver of our car appeared, carrying takeout food from a nearby bar. I could hear trucks speeding along the highway through the forest. I kept thinking about what Mbali asked for: a safe place to be a girl. How strange. How simple.

M. Catherine Maternowska is an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and a consultant to the Nike Foundation and the North Star Foundation.



Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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