On the highway with East African truck drivers

Khamis Makaranga didn’t intend to trigger a diplomatic incident. He simply needed to ship the tomatoes behind his truck.

Makaranga plies the freeway between Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. These tomatoes, from Tanzania’s central Iringa area, had been destined for a market in Kenya’s capital metropolis. They by no means arrived.

When he received to the Namanga border publish, Makaranga noticed tons of of vehicles ready to cross into Kenya. Because of new Covid-19 restrictions, the backlog was even larger than typical. Each truck driver getting into the nation is being examined by Kenyan authorities, including days to their journeys.

Makaranga was examined for the coronavirus with a cotton swab pushed to the again of his throat. Final week, his consequence got here again: he was optimistic. “I didn’t agree with the medical consequence from the Kenyans,” he tells the Mail & Guardian, as he didn’t present any signs. In whole, 19 Tanzanian truck drivers examined optimistic, and Kenya wouldn’t enable them in.

Makaranga and different drivers complained to the Arusha regional commissioner, Mrisho Gambo, who gave an explosive press convention on Could 20. Gambo stated a Tanzanian laboratory had examined the drivers, and all got here again damaging. He accused Kenya of intentionally falsifying the outcomes with a purpose to sabotage Tanzania’s tourism trade.

Inside hours, a livid Kenya had shut its land border, with Tanzania threatening to comply with go well with. It took private interventions from President Uhuru Kenyatta and President John Magufuli to defuse the tensions — however not earlier than Makaranga’s tomatoes had turned rotten behind his Truck.

Vehicles wait in a line on the highway to enter Uganda in Malaba, a metropolis bordering with Uganda, western Kenya, on April 29, 2020. – All truck drivers ferrying items crossing the border from Kenya should take a take a look at for the Covid-19 (the novel cornovairus) by Ugandan well being officers and wait 24 hours to get the consequence. After getting into Uganda, the driving force should keep contained in the truck, solely allowed to get off to unload on the vacation spot. (Brian ONGORO / AFP)

The highway is lengthy and stuffed with terrors

Most international locations have shut down their borders in an try and include the unfold of the coronavirus. However vehicles and truck drivers are a particular case: they should transfer between international locations to ship important items like meals, petrol and cleansing merchandise. With out them, grocery store cabinets could be empty and market stalls would have little to promote.

That is very true for landlocked international locations in East Africa. Items arrive on the ports of Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, and from there a military of vehicles strikes them alongside greater than 5,000km of sprawling highways. These roads join Tanzania and Kenya with Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia.

Even in additional regular instances, truck drivers would not have it straightforward. The hours are lengthy and the challenges many, Anthony Wasilwa tells the M&G from a truck compound in Kampala. As a truck driver from Kenya, he spends a lot of the month away from his spouse and 5 youngsters.

His typical route takes him from Mombasa to Kampala, passing by Nairobi, Nakuru, Eldoret, Busitema, Musowa, Bugiri Iganga, Jinja and Mukono alongside the way in which. Site visitors jams are a continuing headache, as are the thieves who steal cargo or gas if he doesn’t concentrate.

At any time when doable, he parks his truck in government-run parking yards in a single day as an alternative of roadside truck stops, the place prostitution and drug use is rife. “Loads of the old-time drivers, even a number of the new guys, are a little bit disgusting and the truck stops can odor like urine and medicines.”

Covid-19 has made issues a lot tougher. It now takes three to 4 days to cross into Uganda on the Malaba border publish as an alternative of three to 4 hours, because of screening measures. The journey from Mombasa to Kampala now takes 12 days as an alternative of seven.

Wasilwa worries that, as truck drivers wait, they might unfold the illness into the neighborhood — and to different truckers. So he has taken his personal protecting measures. He put in a 5kg gasoline cylinder and a scorching plate within the cab of his truck, so he can cook dinner all his personal meals, and he has a provide of groceries with him. There’s a jerrycan of sanitiser by his aspect, and he wears gloves and a face masks when interacting with others.

Going up in opposition to the pandemic in addition to hostile assaults, truck drivers are risking their lives to maintain economies going.

“I’m a sole bread earner for the household, so I’ve to keep away from interacting with my fellow truckers,” Wasilwa says. This makes his journey lonely and boring – when it isn’t harmful. “You can not cease wherever,” he says. “Individuals level fingers and threaten to stone your truck for worry of spreading Covid-19 to them.”

‘Stopping cargo is suicidal’

There is no such thing as a doubt the virus can journey alongside the identical transnational networks used to distribute items. It’s occurred earlier than: trucking corridors have lengthy been recognized as a significant vector for HIV/Aids.

Final month, Uganda stated as much as half of recent Covid-19 instances within the nation got here from contaminated truck drivers. However in a public deal with, President Yoweri Museveni careworn that these identical drivers had been important to the nation’s financial system, and shouldn’t be harassed.

“I enchantment to Ugandans to swallow your anger and make use of amagezi [wisdom],” he stated. “Stopping cargo is … suicidal as a result of if we cease cargo, how will our espresso and cotton, tea, milk, cement from the factories, and meals transfer?”

Nonetheless, truckers have reported a pointy rise in tensions within the cities they go by. Many, like Wasilwa, refuse to go away their cabs.

“We are able to’t socialise or work together with members of the native communities as a result of folks worry us,” says Isaac Lumago, a driver on the Mombasa-Juba route. “It makes us worry for our lives, too.”

Lumago and different drivers interviewed by the M&G in Juba in South Sudan are terrified of contracting the virus — and in the event that they had been to contract it, they aren’t positive they might obtain correct medical consideration. South Sudan doesn’t present assist to drivers who take a look at optimistic and must Self-isolate.

Driving itself has turn into extra harmful. “Flip-boys” — backup drivers who journey alongside on lengthy journeys — are being denied entry at South Sudan’s border with Uganda. With only a single exhausted driver on the wheel, the chance of accidents soars.

There are different risks on the highway. From the Ugandan border to Juba, a distance of simply 200km, no less than 10 unlawful checkpoints have been arrange. These are normally manned by troopers — or thieves in troopers’ uniforms — who demand hefty bribes.

“They may both beat you or take all the cash your boss gave you for the entire journey … you possibly can lose your job, too, in case your bosses suppose you stole the cash,” says Simon Jamus.

Jamus and his fellow drivers don’t see issues bettering any time quickly. “It shouldn’t be truck drivers who’re blamed for carrying the illness,” stated Amule Mustafa, one other Juba-based driver. “Even us, we contract the

virus by mistake like anybody. And we’re afraid.”m— Further reporting and enhancing by Simon Allison.