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On the road with East African truck drivers

Khamis Makaranga did not intend to cause a diplomatic incident. He just wanted to deliver the tomatoes in the back of his truck.

Makaranga plies the highway between Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. Those tomatoes, from Tanzania’s central Iringa region, were destined for a market in Kenya’s capital city. They never arrived.

When he got to the Namanga border post, Makaranga saw hundreds of trucks waiting to cross into Kenya. Thanks to new Covid-19 restrictions, the backlog was even bigger than usual. Every truck driver entering the country is being tested by Kenyan authorities, adding days to their journeys.

Makaranga was tested for the coronavirus with a cotton swab pushed to the back of his throat. Last week, his result came back: he was positive. “I didn’t agree with the medical result from the Kenyans,” he tells the Mail & Guardian, as he didn’t show any symptoms. In total, 19 Tanzanian truck drivers tested positive, and Kenya would not allow them in.

Makaranga and other drivers complained to the Arusha regional commissioner, Mrisho Gambo, who gave an explosive press conference on May 20. Gambo said a Tanzanian laboratory had tested the drivers, and all came back negative. He accused Kenya of deliberately falsifying the results in order to sabotage Tanzania’s tourism industry.

Within hours, a furious Kenya had shut its land border, with Tanzania threatening to follow suit. It took personal interventions from President Uhuru Kenyatta and President John Magufuli to defuse the tensions — but not before Makaranga’s tomatoes had turned rotten in the back of his Truck.

Trucks wait in a line on the road to enter Uganda in Malaba, a city bordering with Uganda, western Kenya, on April 29, 2020. – All truck drivers ferrying goods crossing the border from Kenya must take a test for the Covid-19 (the novel cornovairus) by Ugandan health officials and wait 24 hours to get the result. After entering Uganda, the driver must stay inside the truck, only allowed to get off to unload at the destination. (Brian ONGORO / AFP)

The road is long and full of terrors

Most countries have shut down their borders in an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus. But trucks and truck drivers are a special case: they need to move between countries to deliver essential goods like food, petrol and cleaning products. Without them, supermarket shelves would be empty and market stalls would have little to sell.

This is especially true for landlocked countries in East Africa. Goods arrive at the ports of Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, and from there an army of trucks moves them along more than 5,000km of sprawling highways. These roads connect Tanzania and Kenya with Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia.

Even in more normal times, truck drivers do not have it easy. The hours are long and the challenges many, Anthony Wasilwa tells the M&G from a truck compound in Kampala. As a truck driver from Kenya, he spends most of the month away from his wife and five children.

His usual route takes him from Mombasa to Kampala, passing through Nairobi, Nakuru, Eldoret, Busitema, Musowa, Bugiri Iganga, Jinja and Mukono along the way. Traffic jams are a constant headache, as are the thieves who steal cargo or fuel if he does not pay attention.

Whenever possible, he parks his truck in government-run parking yards overnight instead of roadside truck stops, where prostitution and drug use is rife. “A lot of the old-time drivers, even some of the new guys, are a little disgusting and the truck stops can smell like urine and drugs.”

Covid-19 has made things much harder. It now takes three to four days to cross into Uganda at the Malaba border post instead of three to four hours, thanks to screening measures. The journey from Mombasa to Kampala now takes 12 days instead of seven.

Wasilwa worries that, as truck drivers wait, they may spread the disease into the community — and to other truckers. So he has taken his own protective measures. He installed a 5kg gas cylinder and a hot plate in the cab of his truck, so he can cook all his own food, and he has a supply of groceries with him. There is a jerrycan of sanitiser by his side, and he wears gloves and a face mask when interacting with others.

Going up against the pandemic as well as hostile attacks, truck drivers are risking their lives to keep economies going.

“I am a sole bread earner for the family, so I have to avoid interacting with my fellow truckers,” Wasilwa says. This makes his journey lonely and boring – when it isn’t dangerous. “You cannot stop anywhere,” he says. “People point fingers and threaten to stone your truck for fear of spreading Covid-19 to them.”

‘Stopping cargo is suicidal’

There is no doubt the virus can travel along the same transnational networks used to distribute goods. It’s happened before: trucking corridors have long been identified as a major vector for HIV/Aids.

Last month, Uganda said up to half of new Covid-19 cases in the country came from infected truck drivers. But in a public address, President Yoweri Museveni stressed that these same drivers were vital to the country’s economy, and should not be harassed.

“I appeal to Ugandans to swallow your anger and employ amagezi [wisdom],” he said. “Stopping cargo is … suicidal because if we stop cargo, how will our coffee and cotton, tea, milk, cement from the factories, and food move?”

Nonetheless, truckers have reported a sharp rise in tensions in the towns they pass through. Many, like Wasilwa, refuse to leave their cabs.

“We can’t socialise or interact with members of the local communities because people fear us,” says Isaac Lumago, a driver on the Mombasa-Juba route. “It makes us fear for our lives, too.”

Lumago and other drivers interviewed by the M&G in Juba in South Sudan are scared of contracting the virus — and if they were to contract it, they are not sure they would receive proper medical attention. South Sudan does not provide support to drivers who test positive and need to Self-isolate.

Driving itself has become more dangerous. “Turn-boys” — backup drivers who travel along on long trips — are being denied entry at South Sudan’s border with Uganda. With just a single exhausted driver at the wheel, the risk of accidents soars.

There are other dangers on the road. From the Ugandan border to Juba, a distance of just 200km, at least 10 illegal checkpoints have been set up. These are usually manned by soldiers — or thieves in soldiers’ uniforms — who demand hefty bribes.

“They will either beat you or take all the money your boss gave you for the whole trip … you can lose your job, too, if your bosses think you stole the money,” says Simon Jamus.

Jamus and his fellow drivers don’t see things improving any time soon. “It should not be truck drivers who are blamed for carrying the disease,” said Amule Mustafa, another Juba-based driver. “Even us, we contract the virus by mistake like anyone. And we are afraid.” — Additional reporting and editing by Simon Allison.

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