The Sunday Mail
A NEW wave of smuggling involving artwork is fast hitting the resort town of Kariba, The Sunday Mail Society has established.
Antiquities trafficking is one of the most profitable illegal trades in the world, estimated to be worth several billion dollars a year, coming after illegal arms and drug trades.
And this illegal trafficking is happening right in our backyard — Kariba.
It appears as prices soar into millions of dollars for top pieces in this murky world, an increasing number of runners are sneaking into the country and siphoning out various pieces of art.
The piece that is being illegally trafficked at an alarming rate is the world famous Nyaminyami walking stick. Other Nyaminyami wooden carvings are also being sought after.
Nyaminyami walking sticks and wooden carvings prices range between US$5 and US$100, depending on the size.
The products are, however, said to cost thrice as much when they get to overseas markets.
However, others are extending the smuggled artwork range to small metal sculptures, twine woven handbags and reed rugs.
This publication has established that the artefacts are transported into Zambia mainly through canoes or small boats while others use haulage trucks before the products eventually find their way to the final markets.
Relevant authorities like the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) and law enforcement agents in the resort town are currently seized with curbing smuggling cases involving products like animal skin, ivory, skin lightening creams, foodstuffs and beverages.
This seems to have diverted the attention of organised illegal traders to the “less guarded” artefacts.
Also, local producers of the artwork argue that their products are not flying off the shelves as expected, hence their decision to turn to alternative markets.
“The rate at which I’m producing these Nyaminyami walking sticks supersedes demand but my Zimbabwean friends based in Zambia have come to my aid by helping me push volumes,” said Karoi based Remember Mugede, adding, “I supply them in bulk and don’t know what they do afterwards with the pieces.”
A lady only identified as Alice, who was manning her father’s stall which mostly sells the Nyaminyami walking sticks and pocket sized artwork in Kariba, confirmed that most operators are now trying foreign markets.
“I’m the one managing this selling site at present. We need to sell plenty of these sticks for my family to earn a decent living but the sales here are just too low. My father has since decided to cross into Zambia with some of the products, guided by associates that have created informal links that side,” she revealed.
Fellow artefacts vendor Rebecca Muzvita concurred with Alice.
“We are hoping the ongoing revival of the tourism industry will help boost fortunes for us. As it stands we wake up and spend the whole day doing nothing because very few people are buying our products,” she said.
“The only time that we enjoy brisk business is when we receive bulk buyers from Harare and Bulawayo. This happens at spaced intervals.
‘‘These guys claim to have markets across the border (Zambia). I have never tried selling in Zambia because the guys are not willing to share market information thus we just have to be content selling to them at discounted prices.”
A gentleman who appeared to be in his late 30s keenly followed this writer’s interviews. The matter under discussion was clearly of interest to him.
He, however, refused to divulge any information when engaged.
Only a series of questions came from the guy.
“Asi muri dicaz mdara? (Are you a police officer?). Chaputika here? (Has it finally burst?)”
He said before swiftly disappearing.
One canoe operator who spoke on condition of anonymity said kapenta business is a bit low at the moment due to number of factors, hence they were now opening up for “other businesses”.
“This canoe is my only source of livelihood. I cannot go home and sleep because there is no fish to transport and/or sell. I look for the next lucrative deal. I don’t mind what is being transported since I’m already involved in illegal trading,” he said.
The Kariba Dam water level is reported to have risen from as low as 20 percent last year to 83 percent at present.
This means canoes and small boats now have more docking points either on the Zimbabwe or Zambian side.
However, a senior Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) official based at Kariba Police station, Superintendent Augustine Zimbili, said everything is under control.
The ZRP official said they would continue fighting smuggling through border patrols, site visits, road blocks, physical stop and searches, whistle blower initiatives and cargo monitoring.
“It is true that we have cases of people smuggling goods in and outside of the country but it’s not something out of hand. We are currently conducting random stop and search operations in both public and private transport. I, however, want to point out that most of the smuggling cases that we are dealing with involve Zimbabweans, and not Zambians,” said Superintendent Zimbili.
“We have been monitoring smuggling cases closely and at least two have been reported and taken to court this year. Skin lightening creams are among the top smuggled goods. I’m not ruling out that artefacts are being smuggled but we are still to receive official reports. The public should help us detect some of these crimes by reporting as it happens.”
Zimra officials at the authority’s headquarters appear clueless on the artefacts smuggling debacle.
The Sunday Mail Society sent questions to Zimra a fortnight ago but they had not responded to them by the time of going to print, despite claiming that some Kariba officials had been tasked to do so.