SWAZILAND: Taxi drivers get tested
Manzini, 23 March 2010 (IRIN) - Minibus-taxi drivers are regarded as a necessary evil in Swaziland. Although they provide a much needed service, their dangerous driving, rude and often violent behaviour has given them a bad reputation and made it difficult to reach them with HIV/AIDS services.
Their long working hours are another obstacle. "I can't get tested because I don't have time. This is my taxi, and when I'm not driving I'm not making money. My last trips are at night - the clinics are all closed," said Wesley Dlamini, a taxi owner-driver.
Drivers and conductors working for taxi owners have similar complaints about lack of time. "My boss has a quota we have to fill every day or we get fired - it can be hard because there's so much competition for customers. We eat on the bus; we grab food out the window from the vendors," said conductor Amos Simelane.
Now, a new programme targeting taxi drivers and conductors, run as part of a nationwide initiative by Population Services International (PSI), a reproductive health NGO, is bringing voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) services to their workplaces in the congested and often chaotic open-air bus ranks in urban and rural communities.
"We are reaching out to these guys. There are no women taxi drivers or bus conductors – it's a very rough business – so we thought this would be a good addition to our 'Every Man Knows' campaign to get every Swazi man VCT services," Bongiwe Zwane, Public Relations Coordinator for PSI Swaziland told IRIN/PlusNews.
Low levels of HIV/AIDS knowledge and long hours on the road have made taxi drivers a group long recognised as particularly vulnerable to HIV. "We are targeting the taxi men - these guys work from Monday to Monday, with no days off. They never get to a VCT centre," Zwane said.
PSI received a grant from the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to get men involved in the HIV/AIDS response. Studies have shown that men use voluntary testing and counselling services much less than women, and also tend to start antiretroviral (ARV) treatment later. An estimated 26 percent of Swaziland's population is HIV-positive, but taxi drivers have not had many opportunities to discover their status.
|I am happy the health people are here for us ... because you know most people have a bad opinion about public transport workers
After securing the blessing of the owners, PSI set up their tent at the dusty rank in Nhlangano, a large town in southern Swaziland, and drew attention with a youth dance troupe gyrating to Afro-rock rhythms blaring from a loudspeaker.
The tent is partitioned into cubicles, each manned by a counsellor. As part of the project, all taxi and bus terminals in the country will be visited regularly. Taxi drivers will also be sought out where they park their vehicles outside shopping malls in towns.
Impressed by the programme's ability to motivate conductors and drivers, who are usually apathetic about anything not work related, the local taxi owners' association in Nhlangano has endorsed the initiative and called for a permanent testing centre for transport employees to be set up at key ranks.
"I am happy the health people are here for us ... because you know most people have a bad opinion about public transport workers," said Johnson Msibi, a taxi driver.
The public transport workers - often criticised for their rude behaviour, unkempt appearance and personal hygiene - have been meek as lambs. "We haven't had any problems with the taxi men. This is something that's long overdue - they appreciate the attention. The response to testing has been great, just great," said Zwane.
Other Swazi men have visited the "Every Man Knows" testing tents set up at soccer matches and in rural communities, and even at the dip tanks where farmers take their livestock to be immersed in chemical baths.
Zwane told IRIN/PlusNews: "This is really the way to curb the epidemic, by going out and finding the men who have been overlooked, or are just beyond the reach of the testing facilities."