Daybreak at Chilomoni Market in Blantyre promises nothing much.
Just a 40-something man pushing wastes towards the skip on an empty street.
The market’s gates open at 6am and closes at 7pm every day, workers say.
But the sight of plastic and glass bottles of liquor and condoms in the waste tell a story of drug and alcohol abuse as well as risky sexual transactions in the populous town.
Constructed over two decades ago, the brick-fenced market comprises various businesses. A tarmac splits the marketplace in halves—hardware and vegetables sections. There is no bar in the enclosure.
No one, not even vendors, explain in detail the source of alcohol bottles. But as the sun rises and falls, the unseen pubs come to life.
Men and women ply drug and alcohol businesses in the middle of the market, a section skimpily concealed from first-timers by hardware shops.
“These beer sellers make the market filthy,” says a charcoal seller waiting for the gates to fly open.
Unlike many pubs, the group drinks in silence. No music. No arguments. All stories are told in low tones.
On sale are various spirits in bottles of different sizes. They include the traditional distil, kachasu. With K350, you get a cupful of liquor.
Trapped in this business are youthful faces, including school dropouts, unemployed youths and minors.
On a Friday afternoon, two minors, aged between 13 and 17, were seen drinking in the secret place dominated by the youth aged 18 to 35.
During a visit, a 16-year-old, we will identity as Paul, rushed towards us, saying: “Bwana, mukufuna Mbanje? Ilipotu mwalamwala, ya Kasungu, K500 yokha. [Boss, do you want Indian hemp? I have some real deal from Kasungu. Just K500.”
Nearby were five young men smoking hemp while watching pool. In the group was a teen minor. One by one, they would walk to the beer seller to buy spirits in bottle tops while waiting for their turn to smoke the drug.
According to Paul, the “secret business” stocks cocaine, mandrax and other illegal drugs.
The dealers want it done quickly and forgotten, he said.
Minors from the neighbourhood try everything.
Just outside the Chilomoni Market are bottlestores and cheap sex corners.
“This is a warm-up area. After here, many of us go to the pubs in the evening. With one or two bottles of Carlsberg, you’ll be high enough to enjoy till dawn while selling our stuff,” explains Paul.
He brags that he has been in the trade since 2014.
But Chilomoni is just one of many drug markets that hide in plain sight.
Spot checks show that there are similar markets at Mbayani and Chirimba in Blantyre.
The business is big and growing despite a government ban on selling spirits, Indian hemp and other dangerous drugs.
At Chirimba, the drug deals disguised as liquor sales unfold next to Easy by Night, a popular club in the township.
Individuals, who supposedly sell cooking oil and paraffin during the day, vend cocaine and Indian hemp at night.
Even the youth, who hide behind selling condoms, are involved.
There is more of the same in Chemusa Township along Blantyre-Chirimba Road.
There are two makeshift shebeens where drugs and sex can be bought. On average, sex goes at K1000.
“I had cocaine, but it is finished. Leave your number, will contact you when in stock,” said one spirits seller.
The secret business is growing, thanks to school drop-outs and jobless young Malawians desperate to forget their hardships.
To them, it is easy to lay their hands on alcohol and drugs.
But the drug dealers hardly stay away from their products.
“The night is long and I can’t sleep sober?” said a minor, who calls himself Jo. “I mix the spirits to be high and then gulp a bottle of Chill beer for the night.”
A recent study by Women Coalition against Cancer (Wocaca), Centre for Human Right Education Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) and Youth Watch Society (Yowso)—confirm increasing drug and alcohol abuse among minors in Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu.
The inquiry was funded by Aids & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (Arasa) in an ongoing lobby for drug and alcohol policy reform
Wocaca executive director Maud Mwakasungula singles out Indian hemp as the commonly abused drug.
However, she lamented that abuse of pharmaceutical inhalants, including cough syrup, methylated spirit and midoli, which have high alcoholic content, is becoming widespread.
“Some use cocaine although it is more expensive to source. Indian hemp is cheaper and accessible,” she says.
The debate over growing drug and alcohol abuse in the country remains a sticky issue despite several efforts to safeguard the youth from the health hazard.
Among others, government has banned liquor packaged in sachets and plastic bottles.
However, the clandestine deals in Chilomoni, Mbayani and Chirimba townships show the fight against drug and alcohol abuse among the youth is far from over.
Section 74 and 75 of the Liquor Act only outlaws minors below 18 from buying and drinking alcoholic drinks in licensed bars.
But sales of cheap spirits, cocaine, mandrax, Indian hemp and pharmaceutical inhalants thrive on the black markets.
The anti-drugs fight demand concerted efforts and comprehensive studies to reduce the impact of alcohol and drug abuse in neglected areas. n